Joe Cunningham Lecture * QuiltFest Palm Springs • Sept 2016

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Kiev Protesters Quilt, by Joe Cunningham

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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.

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Bicameral Lovers Knot, by Joe Cunningham

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

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New York Beauty, by Joe Cunningham

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Back of New York Beauty, showing the quilting

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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

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Crazy City–San Francisco, by Joe Cunningham

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Back of Crazy City–San Francisco

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Crazy City–the Creek, by Joe Cunningham

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Back

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Tar Patch Quilt, by Joe Cunningham

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Detail and Signature

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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.

Workshop with Joe Cunningham • Sept. 2016

Early this month, I got up at very early in the morning and drove an hour to the Palm Springs Convention Center (well, really, the hotel next door) as I was scheduled to take a class with Joe Cunningham during the recent Quiltfest Oasis Palm Springs, with its emphasis on Modern Quilts.  Libs Elliot was also teaching, but I was interested in Joe because of a video I’d watched about him and his quilting long ago.  He was on Craft in America, a series on PBS, and as he was the only quilter in the series at that time, I was amazed that he was teaching within an hour from my house.  I think I registered for QuiltFest on the first day, I was so excited.  To explain the video above: it was a lovely quirky thing, but he brought his guitar and sang and played for us.  Now I wish every conference class had live music like this: classic tunes, played on the guitar.  He even took my request and played  Blackbird (by the Beatles).  It was lovely.

To get our class started, he talked about how he approached quilts: “I think of something I want to “do” and then see how it looks.  The reason I’m making it is to find out what it looks like.”  He has a strict process, including the idea that since we are making chaos in our cutting and sewing, and it would be good to limit our fabrics to control the chaos.

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So what was the class?  Basically it was the stripped down version of that joke we quilters all make: we cut fabric apart and sewed it back together.  However, first we had to choose our fabrics.  He’d told us to bring four 1 yard pieces of fabric; I brought six or seven, but really it was a relief not to haul my stash to a class (the usual).  He went around the room, and by what he said as helped us choose, I noticed the following ideas:

avoid things that look like they go together (like using fabrics from one line or designer)
neutral ground is good
high contrast between the three fabrics is good
look for a variation in scale and visual texture

He then gave us a handout with a specific way of cutting and sewing the pieces back together.  I got to work.

We all sewed all morning, and before I left to get my lunch, I had the stack of blocks (above) all finished.
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Lunch was at Sherman’s Deli, which was just around the corner from where we were working.  Three of us went over and got salads, then sat out on the pool deck at the hotel, enjoying the beautiful day.  Then it was back to work.cunninghamclass_3

Basically it was to put all the blocks up on the wall, and make them work together.  Well, at first I felt like the story about the classes at QuiltCon 2015 with the Gee’s Bend Quilters.  All of the quilters sat there, expecting the Gee’s Bend Quilters to tell them how to sew.  But after their opening of a hymn and a prayer, they turned to the women in the class and said, “Well, get to sewing!”  (Told to me by someone who was in the class)

I fully expected to just make blocks according to Joe’s directions and have it stop there.  But amazingly, the language of design he was schooling us in started to make sense.  That first picture was just blocks slapped up there.  But then I could see the possibilities in mine, that he’d showed in someone else’s.  And I began to arrange them to some remarkable inner vibe and weirdness. Here are some of the other arrangements happening around the room:

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More music, more switching things around.  He was always available for help, but I wanted to try this strange magic all by myself.  After cutting, arranging, sewing, it just wasn’t happening.  Then I took a photo, flipped it 180 degrees and it was like the tumblers in a lock falling into place.

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I look pretty tired

This is where I was at the end of the class, at 4 p.m.  I’m sure you are saying “what???” and I actually sort of agree.  I’m not really an improv person, because frankly I just never got that religion, but this technique of his was actually quite fun, and I didn’t waste the gallons of fabric I usually do when trying to do improv.

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Our class.  cunninghamclass_9a

Everyone cleared out, but the organizers let me stay and work, since I was signed up for the lecture that night and really had no where to go.  I had a lunch with me so I wasn’t worried about dinner, and just wanted to keep going on the borders.  I had a great piece of greyed circles fabric with me, and I thought I would try to see if it could meld on what I was working on.  So I started by extending blocks of color out from the quilt, and filling in with the circles.  I got to the above right photo and it was five o’clock and I wanted a break before the lecture (plus ice my sore shoulder).

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The nice guys at the pool deck bar let me have some ice, and I sat outside watching the gauzy curtains on these poolside bed/canopies float in the slight breeze, while eating my dinner and icing my shoulder.  It was a great break.  This conference was also on the same weekend as Desert Trip, that music festival with all the oldsters playing, and it had decimated the attendance at QuiltFest.  There were only six people in our class (amazing) and it turned out there were only four at the lecture that night (see next post).

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So this is where it all ended.  It’s not a huge quilt–maybe 33″ square–but it was a good experience in trying a new method.  I thoroughly enjoyed myself!