Joe Cunningham is a quilt artist and author from San Francisco. His exhibition, Quilts From Life, is at The Festival of Quilts for its 20th Anniversary at the NEC Birmingham from 3-6 August 2023. Joe will also be hosting a two day Creative Design Masterclass on Tuesday 1 and Wednesday 2 August and a talk and show on his Life in Quilts on Thursday 3 August.
Image: Joe Cunningham headshot © Henrik Kam 2017. Image above: Joe Cunningham, Mariupol 1 outlined © Joe Cunningham.
Joe, thank you for joining us today. You've chosen a wonderful year for your first major exhibition in the UK - The Festival of Quilts' 20th anniversary! We're so looking forward to seeing your Quilts From Life. You've been making quilts for more than 40 years; can you tell us a little about the quilts you've selected for your gallery and why you've chosen them?
Thanks to the Festival’s organisers for inviting me! It’s an honour to be able to show quilts here in the country where much of my inspiration comes from. My quilts often begin as a response to something in the world about which I have strong feelings. Sometimes, however, I make quilts from a more playful starting point, just to amuse myself. For this exhibition I wanted to show some of each. The Mariupol quilts, for example, resulted from my outrage at the Russian war on Ukraine. I conceived of them as a triptych with a sort of narrative through line. The Molecular Structure of Job’s Tears, however, began when I happened to read the book of Job in the Bible and realized that I thought the traditional pattern called “Job’s Tears” was not up to the task of conveying the horror show to which Job was subjected. So it was more of a simple reimagining of what the traditional title implied. “Lone Star,” similarly, was my way of making a more realistic looking star than the eight-pointed star in the traditional pattern. For this gallery I wanted to show the several ways I find a path to creativity.
Image: Joe Cunningham, NY Beauty © Joe Cunningham.
Quilt artists from the U.S. have a special place in our hearts here at The Festival of Quilts. Over the last 20 years, we've been honoured to welcome Michael A. Cummings, Sheila Frampton-Cooper, Michael James, Bonnie J, Smith, Nancy Crow, Susan Shie and of course our friends at the International Quilt Museum Nebraska, whose historic collections our visitors really enjoy. What role do you think the American quilting tradition has played, and continues to play, in influencing quilters and quilting in other parts of the world, including here in the UK and in Europe?
The way I see it, Americans took the idea of the quilted bed covering from English and European sources, primarily, and kept only the techniques, eventually to develop an entirely new approach to the idea of a quilt. Whereas quilted items had a long history of being commercially made by tailors and quilters in England, in the colonies it became solely about bed coverings made by women as gifts. Consequently, there resulted a Big Bang of creativity that spread across the culture, almost universally practiced by American women in the early 19th century. Their new techniques, patterns and construction strategies have waxed and waned in popularity in the last 200 years, but during the last 50 years they have enjoyed a renaissance with a world-wide influence. As other countries and regions have adopted the practice of quilt making, they have inevitably developed new styles and techniques, completing the circle of influence.
When creating a new quilt, you have said that you take inspiration from an idea that evokes strong feelings, selecting fabrics that help you convey those feelings, but working without plans or knowledge of what the end piece will look like. Can you tell us a little more about the abstract style of your work and the importance to you of creative freedom?
To me the most important aspect of the 19th century American quilt style was the idea that women, confined by law and custom in most areas of life, were free in this one area: they could sew anything together any way they wanted. So, while most women made quilts the way their neighbours and relatives did, some women chose to make wholly original compositions, completely free of convention and without precedent. This was an artistic idea that would not be exploited in the “fine” arts until the 20th century. It is the idea that has excited me the most. Since what I am seeking the most in this world is a way to be free, quilt making has become my path to freedom.
Image: Joe Cunningham, Ghost Outlined © Joe Cunningham.
In 2009, you received a grant to study with the Gees Bend quilters in Alabama, some of whose quilts we've been lucky enough to see here at The Festival of Quilts. What were the highlights of that experience, and what did those remarkable quilters teach you?
The highlight of that trip, for me, was to be able to sit and quilt with women who were using the frames made by grandfathers and great grandfathers so many years ago. It was the closest I will ever come to a 19th century way of quilting. Then there was the hospitality of the quilters who treated me like a peer, fostering that sense of artistic freedom I had long sought. It is beyond rare to quilt with women who learned from their mothers, who learned from their mothers in a long, unbroken line. Most of us learned from classes and books and videos, not as part of a long family history. The simple, organic idea of these women coming together to quilt on each other’s quilts as a regular part of their week, made it a pure joy to be a small, temporary participant.
Image: Joe Cunningham, Under the Ice Outlined © Joe Cunningham.
You're a musician too, playing your guitar and performing as Joe the Quilter. Tell us more about that and what your love of music brings to your quilting and vice versa?
Music, like any art, contains certain elements, shades of light and dark, contrast, development of themes and so on. If you study any particular art form in enough detail, you can see it's analog in others. So my quilts are heavily influenced by my sense of drama, thematic development and composition. Also, it seems like I was born to make art of one kind or another, and I enjoy the both the journeyman’s feeling of doing something I have done for a long time, as well as the state of flow I can achieve in either mode. As we celebrate 20 years of the quilting community coming together at The Festival of Quilts, what does it mean to you to be part of this worldwide quilting family?
I am from a small town outside of Flint, Michigan, and I never thought of myself as someone who would travel around the world to visit friends and peers. So to have been able to write books, to travel and meet people all over the world, to have my quilts shown in museums and galleries, has been an ongoing thrill and wonder. To live in San Francisco with my wife, Carol LeMaitre, and to have my adult sons living nearby, to be able to communicate daily with quilters from all over the world, to be able to see what quilting has become and what it means to so many—and to have the privilege of going to my studio every day to work—is all beyond anything I ever expected to happen in my life. Being a part of this worldwide quilting family makes me feel like the luckiest guy on earth.
Image: Joe Cunningham, Iphigenia outlined © Joe Cunningham.
Find out more about Joe Cunningham's work:
The The Festival of Quilts will run 3-6 August. Find out more on the event website here: www.thefestivalofquilts.co.uk