Sunday, November 16, 2014

JoeTheQuilter Cunningham shows his unique voice

San Francisco quilt artist Joe Cunningham at the Nov. 8 CQA meeting

"Jules is a slut!"

This wasn't the opening line of Joe Cunningham's presentation to CQA members and guests at the group's November 8 meeting, but it was just one among many laugh-provoking comments that marked the San Francisco artist's highly entertaining program. (The pertinence of this line will be disclosed in due course...)

Joe took up quilting in 1979 after a 10-year career as a musician (guitar player), in his native Michigan. Formal art study or training was never among his activities, but art and music were always his interests. "The Detroit Museum of Art was my favorite school-skip location," he laughed. "Art is intimidating, but quilting is endearing," he added, as a way of explaining how he came to create his own art through quilting.

Joe points out the combination of traditional, modern, and "maker's choice" elements in the free-form design of this antique quilt from his collection. He is inspired by antique quilts where the makers did anything they wanted!
He took as his quilting mentor Hungarian-born Mary Schafer, a strict traditionalist who taught that you engineer the border of a quilt around the center, and "If it's not tradition, you can't do it!" Joe threw himself into the study of the quilting traditions, and from that viewpoint, gave the CQA audience a capsule history: Quilting began with the elaborate European bedspreads, but by the time quilting migrated to this country, American women began to throw out this idea in favor of creating quilts as useful objects--as gifts, or as blankets to keep the family warm.

And, as this was a "woman's pursuit," there was no money in it--at first. There were very few actual quilt patterns in the period 1810-20 or so, but by the 1840-50  period, thousands of patterns existed. The first quilt kits appeared in the 1940s, and thereafter there were more quilts being styled by designers than by ordinary quilters. Through the '60s, '70s and '80s, the traditional quilt was a box, with limits clearly defined. This "standard" was spread by show categories, reinforced by what quilts won, what quilts got published.
This is Joe's "anti-medallion" quilt, where he followed his desired path of "starting by putting any two pieces of fabric together," and of course ignoring the traditional center-medallion design.

In attending numerous quilt shows, Joe soon found that he was noticing quilts in vendor booths that were 100-150 years old, yet were not considered traditional...they were often odd designs that quilters had just made up. It was these quilts that most attracted him, and that he began to collect and use as inspirations. His mantra is "Start by putting any two pieces of fabric together, any way you want!" He says he's still "making a blanket," adding that a philosopher friend riffed on this idea when calling a quilt "the perfect existential object." Joe redefined this as "wrapping up against the coldness of the universe!" He said he's on a one-man crusade to make quilts/blankets "art to go on a wall."
"Island in two parts" is Joe's "anti-Amish" quilt. The larger area is a single piece of green-and-white striped fabric cut into chunks and turned in various directions to add interest and dimension.

Joe likes to buy fabrics by price, and "the cheaper, the better!" He's the guy who scours the sale tables, saying "I have a flair for the unattractive. If the fabrics actually go together, I toss 'em!" He adds, "Beautiful fabric doesn't make a beautiful's the quilter who does that." He has no interest in color theory; he prefers to do things never seen before.
Joe's version of "New York Beauty." Again, he prefers to start with fabrics that don't go together: "I have a flair for the unattractive!" These came from 3 different sale tables. The pinkish fabric is a stripe that Joe cut into pieces of varying sizes and re-sewn at varying angles for texture and interest.

Using a design wall, Joe will construct a piece in chunks, often using the same fabric across seams so the seams are not so obvious. At the same time, he will often cut a striped fabric into numerous pieces, sewing them back together at different angles, so that the seam contributes to the resulting textured appearance.
This "crazy quilt" was inspired by an aerial view of protesters in Kiev's main square, inside the barricades. This is his first time to use fabrics that do indeed go together, but they are at least from all over the world.
Joe programmed the quilting design to show the barricades, sleeping protesters, etc.

Joe likes black-and-white he's unfolding one that's just black thread all over white fabric.
The front and back (oddly enough!) are the same. Joe drew a low-res image of the quilting design and blew it up to 6x7 feet in size. Then he computerized 130 individual drawings as 7" blocks in rows of 10, to be able to quilt the overall design.
Close-up of the tree at the center of the design.
Close-up of window, bricks, on the black-and-white quilt.
Several years ago Joe embarked on his "bias tape" period, creating design lines of a number of his pieces with commercial bias tape. It all started when he spotted a huge spool of bias tape at Britex, the San Francisco mecca for fabric lovers, at a really cheap price. He bought 100 yards of the tape and stitched some of it on a blank section of an in-progress quilt. He liked the result so much that he posted a note, "Seeking bias tape!" on his website...and had to take it down after a month to attempt to stem the deluge of incoming tape! "I still have a huge bundle," he laughed, then added, "and I'm still buying the stuff on eBay when I spot a bargain. I'm the guy who pays $3.98 for a spool of it--plus over $12 shipping!"
The "Cunningham Ancestral Line," done with black bias tape.
"Winter Twister," again done with black commercial bias tape.
Close-up of part of "Winter Twister"
"Defunct Civilization" is a great example of fabrics most quilters wouldn't put together! The design lines--a Roman aqueduct and fallen columns at top, an old car at bottom, are done with bias tape.
Back side of "Defunct Civilization." Quilting design is a repeating pattern Joe drew, representing the layout of a V-6 automobile engine.

One of Joe's more recent projects is a series of portraits, self- and otherwise, several of which make use of his favorite bias tape as a defining line.  One of his wife was done somewhat in the pop art style of Roy Lichtenstein, complete with the iconic "thought balloon." Asked how his wife liked the result, Joe said "Oh, she likes the quilt, but she says it isn't her!"
More "unusual" color combos in this portrait of Joe's wife, but it's the bias tape lines and "thought balloon" that capture the eye first.
The "thought balloon" words were printed on Joe's computer printer.

Another "bias-taped" portrait was one of fellow fiber-artist Luke Haynes.  With the portrait nearly completed, Joe felt it lacked something to finish off the bottom. His son, Jules, offered the use of some of his old jeans. It needs to be explained that Jules had been the only male student, along with 24 teen-age girls, in some sort of alternative arts program...and the girls had written various comments on Jules' jeans. Not until Joe began hand-quilting this denim section of the quilt did he discover that some of these writings were legible...including the comment about Jules that opens this article. "Once Luke heard about this," Joe laughed, "he said he had to have this quilt!"

Portrait of fellow artist Luke Haynes includes bias tape, rick-rack and buttons...and the inked comment about Joe's son Jules in the bottom section comprising used denim jeans.
A quilt Joe completed just before his appearance at the CQA meeting is a self-portrait utilizing silk-shirting scraps in tan and black, remnants from a manufacturing operation.

Joe's self portrait. The black and tan fabrics are silk-shirting remnants.
Close-up of quilting pattern Joe designed.

[Above and below] More close-ups of quilting pattern on Joe's self portrait. Note the raw edges of the tan and black silk areas.

With all the desired pieces of the design stitched in place, Joe programmed his longarm quilting machine with his chosen quilting pattern and went off into another room to eat, read, etc. All was going fine until he realized the machine had begun to make strange noises and, finally, shut itself off in mid-stream. Returning to the room to check out the situation, Joe found to his horror that the machine had jammed on some of the loose edges of the silk-shirting patches and "stitched/ripped" two holes in the quilt, then managed to break some expensive internal part of itself! This explains, he said, why there is a flower on the self-portrait quilt...and why it's in just that spot.
Joe points out the flower that "rescued" the self-portrait quilt when his longarm quilting machine "ate" two holes in the quilt. "At least the eyes of the figure are looking in this direction,"he laughed.
Close-up of the flower that covers up the offending holes.

Joe has taught and lectured all across the country; his quilts are part of both private and public/museum collections. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books on quilting both traditional and modern, including six with traditional/"liberated" quiltmaker Gwen Marston, as well as 2010's pioneering "Men and the Art of Quilt Making." Read more about Joe and his quilts at his blog, and on his website,