Classes · Quilts

Joe Cunningham Lecture * QuiltFest Palm Springs • Sept 2016

Self Portrait, by Joe Cunningham

The evening of my class with Joe Cunningham, he had a lecture in the hotel, and since there were only four of us, he told the organizers he could hold up his own quilts and talk at the same time.  So we began with a song of his (guitar and all) and then he pulled out his quilts. In between we got “four lectures in one,” as he talked about how he came to quilting.  He’d started collaborating with Gwen Marston in 1975, and then she taught him to quilt.  They were both inspired by the collection of an older quilter with her handmade quilts, a woman who kept the quilting tradition alive during the middle years of the past century.  In 1990, he ended his collaboration with Gwen Marston, moved to New York, then to San Francisco to work with the Esprit Collection of quilts.  He never left.

Lake Street House, by Joe Cunningham

He developed this quilting process working in conjunction with the people at Handi Quilter, where he could enter in a complex pattern into a computer and “tile” it back onto his quilt in the quilting.  Each tile takes about 45 minutes to quilt, but creates all sorts of interesting patterns in the quilting.  I asked him about the trend to matchstick quilting, and he had only one thing to say: “lost a chance to be creative.”

And this is how he labels/signs his quilts: his name and the year stitched into the top.

I’m on a Quilt, by Joe Cunningham

Both Joe and Luke Haynes, another art-centered quilter who is male, seem to be quite adventurous in the use of large blocks of particularly unattractive (ugly?) fabric and making that fabric hew to their vision of the quilt, an approach worth learning.  So much of what I see is that we quilters are the ones commanded BY the fabric to the end result, rather than the opposite tack.

Something else I noted in his approach — that I also see in Luke Haynes —  is figuring out the space where quilting and the art world collide and how to use that tension and friction.


(Of course, I’m fascinated by the mundane: how he folds his quilts so there are no creases.)

Kiev Protesters Quilt, by Joe Cunningham
Detail, Kiev Protesters Quilt

He talked about how a quilt is allowed to say several things: I love you.  I’m thinking about you. Memorial quilts.  But he was fascinated one day by the blockades in Kiev, and how those who were protesting just fell to sleep anywhere.

For me this quilt reminded me of what he said in class: that he makes a quilt to see what it will look like.

Bicameral Lovers Knot, by Joe Cunningham

Log cabin blocks are in the background.  Look up what bicameral is, if you don’t know.

New York Beauty, by Joe Cunningham
Back of New York Beauty, showing the quilting
Mountain/Mountaineer, by Joe Cunningham

Luke gave him some of the leftover Log Cabin blocks from his recent exhibit, and Joe made them into this quilt, minus the mountaineer.  His wife walked in where it was hanging and said that he needed a figure there, so Joe gave it back to Luke, who added the climber

Crazy City–San Francisco, by Joe Cunningham
Back of Crazy City–San Francisco
Crazy City–the Creek, by Joe Cunningham
Tar Patch Quilt, by Joe Cunningham
Detail and Signature


He covered so many topics that I can’t write them all here, but they were fascinating and I thought about them all the way home, such as (I’m paraphrasing):

  • If a piece of art looks like art, then it’s somebody else’s art.  [Can’t we apply this to our quilts?]
  • The brilliance of quilts in the colonies [our early American colonies] was in the egalitarian nature of it.  It wasn’t just for the rich, which it had been earlier when quilting was done in imitation of European quilts, but it was for the masses.
  • These women changed the definition of a quilt from a commercial item to a gift.  The quilting, done around a frame, cost no money.  Because of this, it remained in the realm of women and was invisible to the men, especially the merchant class.
  • Quilts from Europe in the earliest days were of four types: whole cloth, honeycomb (think EPP), strippy or medallion.  From there, we invented blocks.  From four types, we know have over 400,000 different patterns, an independent realm created by women.
  • And finally: “We make quilts like everyone else…unless you don’t want to.”  A trap door exists for us to escape the sameness and make our own vision.

I love classes where I have as much for the brain as I do for the creative, visual, tactile side of the equation, and this lecture certainly gave me everything.  I’m so glad I was able to go, and so glad QuiltFest brought out this great speaker.

13 thoughts on “Joe Cunningham Lecture * QuiltFest Palm Springs • Sept 2016

  1. This guy is so inspiring and he’s dead on when he said “we make quilts like everyone else — unless you don’t want to” – isn’t that an ongoing struggle?! The Bicameral Lovers Knot so reminds me of our political frame these days – a great interpretation. Thanks for sharing your insight on this great workshop.

  2. Absolutely fascinating! He seems like one of the few quilters who pushes the envelope on piecing AND quilting. Very inspiring!

  3. How very interesting and thought provoking that class must have been. I’m so glad you were able to attend and to enjoy him in such a small group setting. I can’t wait to see the difference it makes in your work.

  4. That mountaineer quilt is spectacular. Having a son who climbs like this, I really appreciate the unusual subject matter!

  5. Fascinating! Vicarious lecture appreciated! It looks to me like all the effects were piecing, applique or thread, a direction I am headed in. I can’t help wondering if programming the quilt design then scaling it is as tedious as doing it free hand.

  6. I’m in awe of Joe Cunningham’s quilts. For me, his “Crazy City–the Creek” is phenomenal. It’s difficult to articulate why this impresses me so, but it’s his combinations of colors, shapes, and top quilting that seem to unite and separate the elements at the same time. Sounds paradoxical, I know….but WOW! Thanks for sharing this extraordinary quilter’s work.

  7. WOW! Thanks for sharing your Joe Cunningham experience and your after thoughts. His quilts are amazing. There is one hanging in the new quilt shop Bay Quilts in Richmond, CA, so I had a chance yesterday to see one up close. Inspiring work.

  8. I, too, like these kinds of classes. I like to make quilts that are my own. They may not be as abstract, but I “own” them. Just have to mention that Connie Sue Haidle showed us at our guild meeting how to fold quilts on the bias so permanent creases don’t appear–and she’s been quilting for 50 years!

  9. Thanks for the look into his work. There are a couple of things I note. First, his quilt Kiev reminds me of Picasso’s Guernica. Coincidentally, last week I saw Faith Ringgold present at the university. One of her quilts she showed (in slide) was Die, which also immediately struck me as reminiscent of Guernica.

    The other thing I note is the comment about quilting being for the masses on this continent. That’s not really true, at least until the 1830s. Production of fabric, though it was up and running here in the 20s, still was incredibly expensive. Quilters primarily were working with NEW fabric, though some was “scraps” from garment making, and new fabric of high quality just didn’t exist for the masses until the textile mills were running at full steam.

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