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0:00 - Interview introduction

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Partial Transcript: Good afternoon, this is Janneken Smucker, I'm here with Joe Cunningham, who has graciously agreed to be interviewed


Hyperlink: "Joe Cunningham, Quiltmaker," joethequilter.com

0:40 - Touchstone quilt

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Partial Transcript: Do you have one that you would like to talk about in particular?

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham describes the blue and white "Tree Everlasting" quilt in his studio, which he made in 2001 as part of his musical exploring the life of Joe Hedley from England, who lived in the early 19th century. He tried making this quilt without templates, but his eye was too precise and it did not look as wild as he wanted. He hand quilted elaborate designs that can no longer be seen on the finished quilt.

Keywords: Design process; Hand quilting; Joe Hedley; Joe the Quilter; Quilt Purpose - bedcovering; Quilt Purpose - utilitarian; quilting designs; quiltmaking process; Tree Everlasting -- quilt pattern


Hyperlink: Joe Cunningham, "Joe Hedley's First Quilt," 2001.

5:28 - On the role of hand and machine quilting

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Partial Transcript: Pennsylvania German quilt – Merry Silber, the great quilt collector. It was a crib quilt, Pennsylvania German. The bars were about three-and-a-half or four inches wide.

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham shares his passion for hand quilting, describing the process as well as how contemporary quiltmakers view it as a chore. He likes that quilting stitches are hidden. He also describes the process of sitting at a quilt frame rolling up the sides as one goes, ultimately unclamping the quilt to see the finished product.

Keywords: Design process; flow; Hand quilting; Machine quilting; Pennsylvania German quilt; quilt frame; quilting designs; quilting in the ditch; quiltmaking process

12:04 - On the preciousness of quilting and quilters' efforts at perfection

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Partial Transcript: Because quilting, the other aspect of it to me, is that quilting is so precious. It’s so – I mean, if you’re going to do hand quilting, if you go to the show where there’s 300 quilts hung up in the big auditorium or convention center,

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham reflects on the pressure quiltmakers face when entering contests. He observes that competitive quiltmaking fosters unrealistic expectations. Judges critique corners that don't line up and inconsistent quilting stitch sizes. His Joe Hedley quilt attempts to critique this culture of precision.

Keywords: Hand quilting; judge; Quilt competitions; Quilt shows/exhibitions; quilting police

15:45 - Concept behind touchstone quilt and reflection on 19th-century quiltmaking

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Partial Transcript: ...that’s why I want to talk about this blue-and-white quilt, is I like the idea – see, this was a conceptual thing. I wondered, ‘What would it look like to make a traditional pattern,’ because I like to make a lot of traditional patterns freehand.

Segment Synopsis: He elaborates on the concept behind his blue and white Joe Hedley quilt. He contrasts nineteenth-century quiltmaking with quiltmaking today, noting how quiltmakers solved design issues in quite different ways.

Keywords: chicken quilt; Design process; quilt history; Quilt Purpose - Art or personal expression; quilt software; two-color quilt


Hyperlink: Lucy Verity, Basket Quilt, 1852, Quilt Index. This quilt exemplifies Cunningham's description of a 19th-century approach to basket handles.

21:10 - On losing control in his quiltmaking process

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Partial Transcript: So I’m always trying to do things that are – that I don’t control. I’m trying to lose control. I’m trying to shed control.

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham discusses his desire to lose control in his quiltmaking process. He strives for spontaneity, to be in the now, rather than feel that quiltmaking is work as he sometimes does with well-planned commissioned pieces.

Keywords: design process; flow; meditation; Quilt Purpose - Personal income; quiltmaking process

23:33 - Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

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Partial Transcript: So how did you begin quilting, quiltmaking?

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham describes his introduction to quilts, which he assumed were just "blankets." His partner, Gwen Marston, whom he met when he had returned to his hometown of Flint, Michigan, introduced him to the quilt collector Mary Schafer. Cunningham fell in love with the quilts in Schafer's collection in 1979. He wanted to write, and found opportunities writing about quilts. Marston thought he should learn how to quilt in order to write persuasively about quilts.

Keywords: Barbara Brackman; Carter Houck; Dr. William Rush Dunton; Drunkard's Path -- Quilt Pattern; Flint, Michigan; Florence Peto; guitar; Gwen Marston; Knowledge transfer; Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts Magazine; Learning quiltmaking; Marie Webster; Mary Schafer; Mennonite quilters; Michigan quilts; musician; quilt history; quilt publications; Quilt shows/exhibitions; Quilters Newsletter Magazine; Ruth Finley

Subjects: Brackman, Barbara; Peto, Florence


GPS: Flint, Michigan, Cunningham's hometown
Map Coordinates: 43.013272, -83.689647

Hyperlink: Mary Worrall, "Mary Schafer: Quilter, Quilt Collector, and Quilt Historian," The Quilt Index.

28:38 - Becoming a professional quiltmaker

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Partial Transcript: ...it seemed to me that – I was so arrogant, but it seemed to me that people’s take on quilts was fundamentally unserious. There was something – see, they’re too serious and now I want them to be less serious. I’m serious. This is my life.

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham describes his early impressions of what it meant to be a professional, "serious" quiltmaker. He notes what "traditional" quiltmaking meant to him in the late 1970s when he first took quiltmaking seriously. He then goes on to describe how he and partner Gwen Marston became professional quiltmakers: making quilts on commission, lecturing on quilt history, writing books, and hosting a quilt retreat.

Keywords: American Quilter's Society (AQS); Beaver Island Quilt Retreat; Dover Publications; Gwen Marston; Joe Hedley; Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts; Male quiltmakers; professional quiltmaker; Quilt history; Quilt Purpose - Personal income


Hyperlink: "Gwen Marston's Liberated Quilting Page"

33:08 - Move to San Francisco

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Partial Transcript: And then we finally split up and I moved to New York City in ninety – at the end of ’91, early 1992.

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham describes leaving Michigan in the early 1990s after he and partner Gwen Marston split up, eventually moving to San Francisco for a writing gig related to the Esprit Quilt Collection. He has lived in San Francisco ever since.

Keywords: Amish Quilts 1880-1940 from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown; Esprit Quilt Collection; Faith and Stephen Brown; Julie Silber; New York City, New York; San Francisco, California; The Quilt Complex; Vermont


GPS: San Francisco, California
Map Coordinates: 37.765822, -122.442751

34:54 - On first seeing Amish quilts

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Partial Transcript: And to see Amish quilts – I went to see this show, it was the Holstein Collection and the van der Hoof Collection at the Detroit Institute of Art.

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham recalls seeing an exhibit of Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof's Amish quilt collection in 1979 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He became obsessed with Amish quilts and tried to copy these designs. He was embarrassed once he worked with the Esprit quilt collection and realized his quilts were such pale imitations compared to real Amish quilts.

Keywords: A Gallery of Amish Quilts: Design Diversity from a Plain People; Amish quiltmakers; Amish quilts; Center Diamond -- quilt pattern; Center Square -- quilt pattern; Detroit Institute of Art; Doug Tompkins; Elizabeth Safanda; Esprit Quilt Collection; Gail van der Hoof; Gwen Marston; Jonathan Holstein; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Log cabin quilts; Mary Schafer; Phyllis Haders; reproduction quilts; Robert Bishop; Sunshine and Shadow: The Amish and their Quilts

Subjects: Amish quilts; Detroit Institute of Arts


GPS: Detroit Institute of Arts, where Cunningham first saw Amish quilts in person.
Map Coordinates: 42.359672, -83.064444

Hyperlink: Quilts from the Esprit Collection hanging at the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum. Photograph by Janneken Smucker.

39:57 - What Cunningham likes about Amish quilts

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Partial Transcript: What did you like about Amish quilts?

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham articulates his evolution of feelings toward Amish quilts. He first loved the very "serious" quilts made in the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Amish settlement, because they were minimalist and intellectual. He later became familiar with midwestern Amish quilts, and particularly became enamored with quilts from the Arthur, Illinois, settlement, which were much more free and uninhibited than those from Lancaster.

Keywords: Amish quilts; Arthur, Illinois; David Pottinger; Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; minimalism; Sunbonnet Sue - Quilt Pattern

Subjects: Amish quilts


GPS: Lancaster County Amish settlement
Map Coordinates: 40.036933, -76.105748

Hyperlink: Illinois Amish quilts from the Quilt Index, www.quiltindex.org

44:17 - Transition from "serious" quilting to his current style

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Partial Transcript: So how has – how did you make that transition from the very serious quilting?

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham recounts puzzling over what what was traditional about quilts and whether he was obligated to stick to these traditional aspects. Mary Schafer, his early quilt mentor, was precise and created quilts as if she was first making a kit. Eventually, his aesthetic preferences became more free as he encountered wildly designed antique quilts.

Keywords: Antique quilts; Charlotte Jane Whitehall; Design process; John Cage; Kansas; Kit quilts; Mary Schafer; Merry Silber; pattern designer; Quilt history; Rose Kretsinger


Hyperlink: Mary Schafer, "October Foliage," The Quilt Index. This quilt, inspired by a nineteenth-century pattern, exemplifies Schafer's precise, engineered approach to quiltmaking.

48:28 - On the relationship between quilts and art

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Partial Transcript: So that’s what happened, was at first I thought quilts were valuable insofar as they resembled art. I thought my job was to make art – was to make the quilts – was to make quilts legitimate by making them artistic.

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham comments on the belief that quilts are only artistically legitimate if they resemble paintings. He has grown frustrated with this perspective, and thinks 19th-century women quiltmakers should get credit for creating large abstract works of art fifty years before male painters did. He evolved into thinking that quilts do not need to look like art or be considered art; they should just be quilts.

Keywords: abstract painting; Antique quilts; Gee's Bend quilts; Gender in qulitmaking; Quilt history


GPS: Boykin, Alabama, home of Gee's Bend quiltmakers
Map Coordinates: 32.075450, -87.290907

Hyperlink: Joe Cunningham, "Some Dumb Old Painting," 2012, collection of the artist.

56:14 - Current work

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Partial Transcript: So you’re currently doing what?

Segment Synopsis: Cunningham notes that he is currently abandoning his philosophy of making what he has called "traditional quilts" or "community patterns." He is forging his own way, as with the piece "My Own Fault," pictured here.

Keywords: Art quiltmaking; Hand quilting; Quilt Purpose - Art or personal expression; Quilt Purpose - Bedcovering; San Francisco, California


Hyperlink: Joe Cunningham, "My Own Fault," 2007, private collection.