Interviewer Janneken Smucker (JS): Good afternoon, this is Janneken Smucker.
Im here with Joe Cunningham, who has graciously agreed to be interviewed as
part of Quilters Save Our Stories. Today is August 18th, [2007.], and we are
in Joes studio in San Francisco, California. Thanks so much for agreeing to
meet with me today.
Interviewee Joe Cunningham (JC): Youre welcome.
JS: Im really happy to have met you this weekend, and I look forward to
getting to know you better.
JS: Were going to start our conversation today by talking about one of the
quilts here in your studio. Do you have one that you would like to talk about
JC: Well, yes, I think the blue-and-white one.
JS: Okay. JC: It represents a lot of things that Im all about. For one,
its nice to sleep under; its a blanket. For another, its a classic
pattern. I get all of my ideas from quilts. I get really edgy or not edgy,
nervous when Im not making a quilt. When Im making a quilt, I dont get
nervous at all. I feel like, Oh, well, I know how to do this. Its the
one thing I know how to do, is to make a quilt. So when I make something like
this quilt over here, Id ask, Should I do this? Should I do that? What
do other people think about it? et cetera. I have these endless
insecurities. But making a quilt, like the blue-and-white one, I dont have
those kinds of insecurities.
This was made in 2001. Its a six-year-old quilt now. And I made it for my
musical about Joe Hedley, Joe the Quilter, from England, who lived 200 years
ago. And so I made six quilts to tell the story of his quiltmaking career. And
I tell the story of his life and then sing songs that I wrote about him. So
this quilt is a classic design. Tree Everlasting, its called, or other
things. Its just sawtooth-edged bars that I wanted to know, What would it
be like if I just used scissors and cut everything freehand? Because you
know a lot of old quilts were made that way. Youll see quilts youve
seen quilts that you wonder, What kind of template was she using, anyway?
The template she was using was no template, I think, sometimes. So, What
would it be like to just cut well, you see the top row there, its
disappointingly easy to do, it turns out. You can just I wanted a wilder
effect, so I started out on the top row just cutting triangles. Well, my eye is
good enough at this point, I could just cut triangles and they all fit and
everything was easy. Thats not the effect I wanted. So then I started
deliberately messing things up and using scraps to sort of get it so that I
could finally get wildness like I did eventually. You can see it as the bars go
down. Then I evened it all up because I have enough of the quiltmaker in me
or the, what do I want to say, the prissiness or something in me from learning
from old ladies how to make quilts that I want it to be square and flat.
So I evened it all up, added borders, and then quilted it freehand. And so
since I quilted it freehand let me see, so I quilted in the letters down the
white lines there. Joe Hedleys first quilt, it says, made by Joe
Cunningham. In the next bar, the next white bar, it says, Blue and White
2001, and then on the bottom its just a kind of a vine with leaves, with
background quilting. In the blue print there, theres fancy designs. Its
around the outside border, theres this sort of a sunrise, then a half of
a feather wreath, and then a swag with this sort of so its this very
fancy design. Then down the blue and white bars, the blue bars there, its a
spiral that goes into a fleur de lis.
JS: Oh, I see it.
JC: See that?
JC: A spiral into a fleur de lis. And then here theres the swag. Heres
the little bit of feather wreath. This is kind of a sunrise. Its very
complex. And I quilted it all freehand. And when I got it done, you couldnt
see it at all. It took me months. I mean, it was not months of quilting. As
you know, it doesnt take that long. For me, it takes about twelve days,
twelve working days, to quilt a quilt, a six-foot-square quilt. But it took me
months to get those twelve working days in. So it was months working on it, and
then when I get it done, there I am with something that you cant even see the
hand quilting in it, which is one of my favorite things, actually. Because a
woman gave me a quilt one time it was a 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. And Im trying to
remember, were they pink and yellow or red and yellow, that kind of and it
was the Ely and Walker print, the tiny little calico print that was in print for
130 years or whatever it was. So it was made sometime near the turn of the
century, a little before probably, 1890 or so. It was so boring. It was just
you couldnt even there was nothing. But it was nice and she gave it to
me, and so, Thank you very much.
One day in my studio, it was lying in a certain way, and when the sun raked
across it, all of a sudden I could see that in this bar were cables, in this bar
were feather wreaths, cables, feather wreaths. But you couldnt see; they
were invisible. Well, thats somebody that likes to quilt. And I like to
quilt. And quilting, hand quilting, the one element of its decline has been
that people how people view it. They view it as this enormous barrier
between their finished piece. But all the effort goes into the top. This,
Its surface design. Were artists. Were making this design.
Were making this artistic statement. And once the top is done, the
artistic statement is over. Theyve done it, theyve said everything they
have to say, but, We still have to quilt it. [spoken disdainfully.] You
know what I mean? So they still have to quilt it, so either they will what
used to happen is they would quilt it perfunctorily. They would quilt it and
you could see they didnt enjoy that, did they? [laughter.] They werent
too hot at it and they didnt really like it and they got it over with as soon
as possible by keeping the lines far apart and all that, quilting in the ditch,
all of that stuff. Which is hard. Its yucky to quilt in the ditch, you know?
JS: I agree.
JC: Who needs that? But theyre so ashamed of their quilting oh, forget
it. Anyway, so, therefore, when machine quilting came along, people were primed
for it. The people, the women of this revival were primed for it because
quilting had become just a chore. There was no joy in it. There was no
artistic value in it. There was no its just a functional thing. You
have to make it a quilt by sewing the two layers together. And the last thing
that people will say many things about hand quilting, but the last thing
that theyll say is how great it is and how renewing it is and how rewarding
it is. And as you know from being a quilter, when you have made this object and
you have quilted it, when you sit down at the frame and its an ocean of
fabric in front of you, its like, its the most unrealistic thing in the
world to think that youre going to quilt that, right?
JC: How are you going to do it? You do it a stitch at a time. You cant see
it; its stupid. Theres no way youre ever going to get it done, it just
looks like. Its so intimidating. And then you start quilting and then
its six hours have gone, and you dont know where they went, except you do.
Theyre all right there. And, furthermore, if you quilt on an old-fashioned
frame so that you roll it up as you go, its really great psychologically
because your finished stuff gets rolled up and rolled up and rolled up, until by
the time you have it done, when youre however you do it, but its going
to be twelve or fourteen inches down the middle is all thats left thats
visible, you take that last stitch in there and then you unclamp and yo unroll,
and you cut that sucker out of the frame or unpin it, however you do it, and you
get to see what you did for the first time. Whereas and its great.
Its really, Ah! what a feeling. Hang it up and get a glass of wine, is
what you feel like. Whereas, if you quilt in a hoop, you have the whole thing
dragging around. The whole thing is looking at you all the time, saying,
Partly done. Partly done. Partly done. [laughter.] And theres no
big deal when you get it done. Its no different than when you first started,
looks-wise. I mean, you got it done and thats good. Okay, thats good,
you got it done. And you can hang it up now. But you know what I mean?
You dont get that because when I finish I work spontaneously. I
dont make drawings and I dont get on the computer, so I work
spontaneously. And I dont know what Im doing I mean, I dont know
what its going to look like until Im done making the top, and then I go,
Oh, thats what that idea looked like. Okay. This time. Okay.
So then I put it in the frame and then I quilt it. Lots of times, because it
takes me so darned long to get something quilted nowadays, months, I dont
remember what it looked like. Not really, you know, because I only saw it for a
little while and then I quilted it down, and so its a moment of glory for me,
of existential glory, to pull a quilt out of the frame.
So if you cannot see the quilting, guess what? Who cares? I know its there.
I can find it. If we crawl around on our hands and knees when its on the
floor, or you walk right up to it in a show, and you can see, Oh, yeah, yeah,
yeah. Because quilting, the other aspect of it to me, is that quilting is so
precious. Its so I mean, if youre going to do hand quilting, if you
go to the show where theres 300 quilts hung up in the big auditorium or
convention center, if you are going to hand quilt it, well, by God, those
stitches had better be perfect and theyd better be they better meet at
right angles, and by God, theyd better be close and theyd better be
because youre hand quilting it and youve got to put a lot of hand
quilting. [sigh.] And its so precious because its just not done. And so
you have to do all of this stuff. Well, I just hate the idea of making hand
quilting so precious. I love to quilt and its part of my life. Im a
quilter. And so the idea that its so precious, that engenders, that fosters
all kinds of unhelpful thinking, I believe. If its so precious, then, like I
say, By God, you better not make any mistakes!
And so youre I mean, when I teach hand quilting, Ill get these expert
hand quilters in there whose stitches are much finer than mine, often, in my
classes. But what theyre trying to do is perfect their stitches. And they
want to know, So, at the corner of the block, what do you do? You know,
Youve got the seams. What are you going to do about the seams?
Well, I avoid them, if I can! If theres any way I can, I avoid them.
Well, what do you if you cant avoid them?
Well, my stitches get bigger.
And as you can see, see how it ruins the quilt? See, over there, how it ruins
the quilt because my stitches got bigger? You know what I mean?
JS: [laughter.] Yes.
JC: And I think theres a lot of things that foster that kind of thinking.
One is the competitions, because judges will actually say that stuff on their
forms, that, Stitches spread out in the corners. And you get marked down
for that. So in a way, the people are right who say that, who think that,
theyre right. If theyre entering contests, theyre going to get marked
down if theres the slightest so I think contests foster a lot of it. But
also, its just the general, overall preciousness of hand quilting. People
then feel like its life and death, its life and death, its the furthest
thing from an ordinary part of my life. Its this, Everything is coming
together. A whole tradition is coming down on me right here in my frame or my
hoop or however Im doing it, and everything has got to be perfect! And
so, what if theres what if you draw a feather wreath and theres one
fewer feather on this wreath than there is on that wreath? How can I make
these feathers line up? Well, they cant line up because its a curve.
Theres going to be more feathers on the outside than on this. What do you
mean, they cant line up? They have to line up! Well, no, they dont.
If you line them up, its not a feather design; its something else.
Arrgh, the tension of it all! And so, I like anything that militates
against the tension in quilts and the overall, but specifically, thats 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. What would that look like? What would it look like to do a
two-color quilt without any without a plan? So, here we go, this is what it
looks like. Well, guess what, Janneken, its not the greatest quilt ever
made. Its cool. I like it. I like it a lot.
JS: As do I.
JC: But its not the greatest quilt that ever walked. I mean, there it is;
its a two-color quilt. Two-color quilts dont set me on fire, in the first
place, generally. Theyve got to be really unusual, like that chicken the
other night, which did have a third color but still, oh my goodness. Theyve
got to be really something. And this one, it is what it is. Well, good. I
accomplished what I set out to accomplish which was to find out what it would
look like. Right? I found out. It looks like that. Well, great. And in my
show that I made it for, it has a function and its very valuable and
everything, but if its not the most successful quilt, if you cant see the
quilting, well, theyre not all going to be your first quilt, your best, your
greatest quilt you ever made. And so but I believe theres something
about this revival that has made many people feel, I dont know, that their
reputation is at stake or something. I mean, it seems to me that nineteenth
century quiltmakers felt empowered to make quilts their own way. They were
doing something so fundamentally different than what were doing that its
hard to discern and its hard to define, but they were doing something, I
believe, fundamentally different. For instance, there is a great deal of
randomness with nineteenth century quilts. The women would be making pieced
quilts, they would work along until they ran out of that fabric, and then they
would start in with a new fabric. Well, that tells me that they had a wholly
different idea of what they were trying to do. Women today, when theyre
making quilts, if they run out of well, they wouldnt run out. You plan
ahead. Youve got your software telling you how much yardage to get, right?
But if you were making the blocks and you ran out, then youd have to do
something clever. Then, Oh, okay, Ill use another brown and Ill put it
in the corners. Ill arrange it symmetrically. Or Ill put those in the
middle to do the one composition that everybody knows, which is like an
exploding sun or something from the middle. We have an area of lightness but
then so well do something like that with it. Or well in any
event, we have to indicate that it looked intentional. We must control every
aspect of this process. We have to look like I mean, Were artists.
You cant just let things happen, you know what I mean? Where nineteenth
century quiltmakers just let things happen, a lot. They cut borders off. The
border design is going along until theyre done with it and then they cut it
off. You reach the end of the border. Well, now you have to resolve the
JC: And all this stuff. You have to control every aspect of it. And
nineteenth century quiltmakers, theres many things that they left out, tht
they left to chance. Lots of the great appliqu quilts, the majority of the
great appliqu quilts, their abilities to replicate curves, exact curves, how
about the handles of baskets? Something about the handles of baskets, so that
if you see a basket quilt from the nineteenth century, every handle will be
different. Its because they were doing something fundamentally different.
They were putting handles on the baskets, right? Quilters now are making a
pattern, and youve got to [grunt.], and so you have the template and every
single handle is exactly the same. Stuff like that. Thats what Im so
because otherwise, if you just put handles on the baskets, it would look like,
what? Like you didnt control it. And the suggestion then, I believe, maybe
Im reading too much into it, but the suggestion then is that you didnt
know how to control it. And theres a lot of angst around your ability to
control your process. You want the quilt to lay flat. You want the quilt
and you want the stitches and you want everything symmetrical and you turn
the corner evenly and you know what I mean? [laughter.]
JS: Yes. [laughter.]
JC: So Im always trying to do things that are that I dont control.
Im trying to lose control. Im trying to shed control. So when I do
lectures, its the same thing. I want to provoke myself to use whatever
happens in the room to make it now, to keep dragging myself into the now, and
not into my outline. And so and when Im making quilts, I keep trying to
drag myself into the now. I want I dont want to know if I in the
past, when Ive made commissioned works and I would draw them on computer or
by hand and make a tissue overlay for the quilting designs and everything, and
then I start making the quilt once I get my down payment, and were doing it
and its all official for the designer or the architect or whatever, and I
start work on it, Ive already done Ive already done I have already
had all the fun. And all thats left to do now is the work. Ive done all
the creativity. I solved all the problems. And now I just have to do the work.
And theres a certain journeymans joy in doing something that you know how
to do. Its a good thing, just to do a job that youve worked a long time
at and you can do it. And theres a certain amount of that. But I dont
have to do that anymore, really. I dont Im not thats not what
Im doing. Thats not what I want to do. So I keep trying to come up with
ideas. Well, what would it look like if? And so, then, my quilts are an
answer to that, It would look like, they end up saying, like this.
Thats the message of my quilts, Like this.
JS: There it is. Yes. Thats great. So how did you begin quilting, quiltmaking?
JC: I started making quilts -- [off-the-record discussion about the tape
machine]. Ive got a twenty-three minute answer.
JS: Thats all right. Thats all right. Im happy not to be talking.
JC: I was back in my home town, Flint, [Michigan.], for the summer, after my
one year of college in Colorado. I was going to go back to college that fall.
I went home to work on an album, as a guitar player, with a friend of mine, and
to write the lyrics on this album. And I was there that summer and a friend of
mine said, You should oh, no, he told somebody else. He told this
woman, folk singer, You should hire this guy to play guitar with you on some
concerts. Her name was Gwen Marston. And so Gwen called me up and I went
over to her house for rehearsals for some a series of concerts she was
doing. At her house were these boxes full of blankets. They were blankets;
they were old. It turned out they were the quilts of Mary Schafer, who just
died this winter. She [Gwen.] had gotten a grant to document Marys
collection and to produce a catalogue. She had a bunch of boxes of quilts at
her house, about a third of the collection, for the photographer to take
pictures of. And I wanted to look at them, so she showed me a bunch of the
quilts. Well, something happened to me, you know, I loved them. She made
quilts. She had learned to make quilts from a Mennonite quilting group in
Oregon, when she had been there on a sabbatical once, and so she was making
quilts for her kids and what have you, but just working along as a quiltmaker.
But she had discovered Mary Schafer, who was this great quiltmaker in
mid-Michigan at the time. She [Mary Schafer.] was born in 1910; this was in
1979, so she was sixty-nine years old. And what I wanted to be was a writer, so
and I had just finished my one year of college studying English, primarily.
And Gwen told me at one point as she was doing the documentation for this, she
loved getting all the information together but she was dreading writing the
catalogue because she didnt feel like a writer and she didnt want to
become one just to do it. Well, Id been studying English for a year. I
could do almost anything, really, with the English language, you know what I mean?
JC: I was twenty-six. And so I said, Well, I can write that for you.
Well, youd have to know something about quilts.
And I had heard a phrase that I loved in school, which was, All the available
literature. I loved that, and I thought to myself, Know something about
quilts? How about if a read all the available literature? How would that be?
JC: Which, at the time, this is 1979, there was about eight or ten books.
JS: You could read all the available literature.
JC: You could read it all. It took me most of the summer to read [Ruth.]
Finley and Dr. [William Rush.] Dunton, and Marie Webster, Florence Peto. There
was just not that many. These women, all of them became my heroes. And then
Barbara Brackmans stuff in Quilters Newsletter. So I just read
everything that I could read. Then I met Mary, herself, and well, Mary was
thrilled. Here was this young man that was interested in quilts. And one
night, Gwen came over to my apartment with a little crib quilt, it was a
Drunkards Path, and a big thimble that she had found someplace. And she
said, If youre going to write persuasively about quilts, you need to know
how to quilt. So heres how its done. The rocking stitch, she taught me.
All right. I was already becoming very interested in her, so, Fine.
This will make a good impression.
JC: So by the time I finished that quilt, about a week later, my stitches were
good enough that I could sit at her frame and quilt on her stuff. And then I
wrote the catalogue and we put up this big Mary Schafer quilt show that year, to
which an editor came from a now defunct magazine. Her name was Carter Houck
from the it was called Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts Magazine. And
Carter was doing a story on Michigan quilts. She asked me if I would write an
article about Mary Schafer. Well, I wanted to be a writer. Getting paid to do
an article about Mary Schafer, who I already had all the material, Id already
written about, Well, sure, Ill do that. And we went around and I
started seeing what other people were doing in quilts, and it seemed to me that
I was so arrogant, but it seemed to me that peoples take on quilts was
fundamentally unserious. There was something see, theyre too serious and
now I want them to be less serious. Im serious. This is my life.
JC: And people would call themselves traditional, meaning what they do is make
all symmetrical. I use time-honored blocks and I use easily-blended colors
and I arrange them symmetrically with a border. Thats what they meant by
traditional, when the traditional will put hair on your toenails. Traditional
is wild. Its this realm of wildness, if you really look at whats in the
tradition. And it just it always seemed insulting to me. Well, anyway, and
I thought, Well, I can do better than that. Come on. And so I wanted to
make a quilt. So then we wored together on a quilt and sold it for like
fifteen hundred dollars, the first quilt that we ever made together.
JC: Then one night, on the way to a gig I was playing, Gwen was going with me
to Ann Arbor, and I said, I know what to do. I got this thunderbolt of
inspiration. I realized many years later that it was, I think, partly inspired
by reading the story of Joe Hedley, Joe the Quilter from England, a man who was
a professional quiltmaker. But anyway, I said, Lets go pro. Lets get
some business cards printed up that say, Professional Quiltmakers. And
when we meet people, lets tell them were professional quiltmakers.
And, you know, what are they going to say? Like, Whered you go to school?
Wheres your license? or something? They cant prove that youre not
a professional quiltmaker. And then people started hiring us. The Antique Club
there in town heard there was these professional quiltmakers and we would come
and give a talk, so well get paid fifty bucks to talk about the history of
quilts, which thats all I was talking about anyway. [laughter.] And we were
also performers, and so getting up and doing a lecture, well this is a piece of
cake. Its easy. Whereas, at the time, this is late 1979, early 80, when
were getting started, 80, 81, most of the people who were doing quilt
lectures were not performers. They were women who had become very good at
quilts. And its two different things. And so many of the great, the early
great quilt authorities that I saw were reading their lectures from an outline,
and they were not that comfortable doing it. And so and I was twenty-six,
twenty-seven. It was so I was this very tall guy, and it was very easy to
stand up. It was very easy to get a lot of attention. Plus we worked like
crazy. Gwens kids were in college then, and so we had no children to contend
with, so we could just spend all day making quilts. Lots of times we had to
play gigs at night, but we just quilted all day. And so we could produce a lot
of quilts, quilt one at least every month and sometimes more than that. And so
we had a lot of hand quilting done in a hurry and it was very impressive. And
then we started writing. We got a book contract for Dover right away, and then
AQS, and we wrote a bunch of books together, and then eventually got a column
for Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts, and wrote for them, how to make
quilts. So we eventually built a house on an island in northern Lake Michigan,
and had the upper part of it was a quilt studio, and we moved up there and
started the Beaver Island Quilt Retreat, which still goes on, although not on
the island. Its someplace else now. And made quilts and traveled around the
country and wrote books and made videos and all that sort of stuff, all through
And then we finally split up and I moved to New York City in ninety at the
end of 91, early 1992. And I went back to music for while and was music
director for a theater company, and then got a radio show in Vermont, a crazy
series of things, and I worked for the theater company up there. And then
eventually, I was hired by Julie Silber, who was then the curator of the Esprit
Quilting Company quilt collection, to come out here because she was starting her
exhibition business, The Quilt Complex, and needed a writer, quilt writer who
knew Amish quilts to write all of her materials. So I came out here for a
five-month job and then met Carol, and got married and stayed. So Ive been
here ever since. So thats how I got started. [laughter.]
JS: Thats great. Okay, thats Im glad you brought in the piece
with Julie Silber because thats how I became familiar with you, is I read
your essay in the catalogue of the Brown Collection [Amish Quilts 1880-1940 from
the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Museum of Art, 2000)]
JC: Oh, yes.
JS: And that was when I first saw your name and I was really struck by that,
that essay, because I was starting to study Amish quilts at that point and saw
the exhibition. So did you do a variety of things with Julie and The Quilt Complex?
JC: Yes. I mean, when I started, and let me just reiterate here it was 1979.
JS: Yes, much earlier.
JC: 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.
Mary and Gwen and I went. So there we are, well Mary goes up to this Sawtooth
Center Diamond, and shes got her little cloth tape, you know, and she said
well, she knows not to touch quilts, but shes there like this
[indicating.], and so shes measuring, Those are inch-and-a-half on a
side. Where Im there taking notes and the guard comes over and says,
What are you doing?
Making a sketch.
There is no sketching, no photography, no drawings.
So, Okay, so one of us would stay out in the hall and the other one would
go in and [measure.], Its about six inches, and then go back out and
tell the person, Its six inches, you know?
JC: So that was the first Amish quilts I saw in real life. But for the
majority of Amish quilts that we Gwen and I went through a phase when we
first started, I wanted to be serious. Oh!
JS: Well, of course.
JC: And Amish of course! And Amish quilts, you cant be any more serious
than Amish quilts. So I wanted to make these copies of center diamonds and
center squares and stuff. So where could you see them? Well, Julie, I knew a
little bit, and she I had met Julie and she sent me pictures of quilts.
There was the Gallery of Amish Quilts came out then by Bishop and Safanda,
and was it Phyllis Haders had a book on Amish quilts then? [Robert Bishop and
Elizabeth Safanda, A Gallery of Amish Quilts: Design Diversity from a Plain
People, (New York: Dutton, 1976); Haders, Sunshine and Shadow: the Amish and
their Quilts (New York: Universe Books, 1976)]
JC: So we copied a bunch. We copied about twenty-five Amish quilts. Well,
were making them out of cotton, but I learned a lot by trying to copy the
quilting. And then I met some Amish quilters, and so I was just totally into
Amish, Amish, Amish. Wed copy these quilts and meticulously copy the colors.
When I came out here and saw the quilts that I had been copying, they were
completely different. They were completely different in every particular. The
colors were not right; the proportions were off. I had copied them very closely
but they were off. And then the quilting designs, which I was so good at
copying, were embarrassingly more sophisticated and better done and, oh, it was
embarrassing to see how I thought I was making these beautiful things [but.] I
was making these pale imitations, these ugly I mean, they were not ugly, but
they were imitations of
JS: When you saw the
JC: when I saw the real thing and was able to handle them a lot. And so
ever since then, nineteen ninetyI saw them when I came out in the eighties,
during the glory days of the Amish Quilt Collection there at Esprit. But ever
since I moved out here to help with Julie, Im the one that handles those
quilts, so Im the one that packed them up to send them to Lancaster when he
[Doug Tompkins, founder of Esprit] finally sold them [Amish quilts] back [to
Lancaster, Pennsylvanias Heritage Center Museum]. And so Ive lived with
these quilts and Ive breathed in their dust and I just love these quilts.
And if I were to set out to make an Amish quilt today, I think I could do a lot
better than the ones that I used to make.
JS: Much more intimately acquainted with them. Those twenty-five or so quilts
that you were making, painstakingly studying, what happened to those?
JC: Well, when Gwen and I split up, she got all of the quilts that we had made.
JS: So those werent ones that you had made to sell or on commission?
JC: A lot of them got sold. Let me seehere. This [indicating a photograph.]
is not a copy; this is just an Amish style Log Cabin. It got sold. They got
sold or, I dont know, is the other answer. I got ten quilts when we
split up, and I only have a couple of those left. Ive sold them.
JS: Right. What is the name of that book? Sets and Borders by Gwen
Marston and Joe Cunningham.
JS: Yes, its a pretty good copy.
JC: Its pretty good. Its pretty good until you see the real thing and
JS: Of course.
JC: But then, of course, this photograph doesnt really represent that quilt
either. So now were in this middle ground. Theres these two quilts, and
so that ones pretty good [indicating.]. This one I was very proud of, trying
to make a modern version of an Amish quilt.
JS: What did you like about Amish quilts?
JC: Oh, I mean, its very clear to me what I liked about them. Like I said,
I was afraid of people and especially, my guitar player friends, when they
and musician friends, when they heard that I was making quilts, I was
deathly afraid that they would think that I was making Sunbonnet Sue
things or little tea cozies and stuff like that. Well, the last thing I was
ever going to do was something cute. No thank you. Im a serious
Im an intellectual, and I dont make junk like that. Little gifts for the
grandkids and stuff like that, you know? Come on!
JC: I make serious things. And theres nothing that could be more serious
than a Lancaster County quilt. You know, its cold. Design-wise, nothing is
more colder and icy and intellectual and seeming, at the time, to me, thats
what they represented. And so thats what I wanted to do. I wanted to do
something that would look intellectually detached and cold and severe, severe,
like that, and intellectual and minimal. And it resembled minimal art. And
its so embarrassing, but thats true. Thats true. And I really liked
the Lancaster County stuff initially, but then that opened the doorway into the
Midwestern stuff. And then, being in the when the [David.] Pottinger
Collection book came out and seeing all those, well, it was a revelation. And
then when I got to actually see Midwestern Amish quilts, then I started having
this whole series of revelations. And especially the Arthur Illinois quilts.
JS: Oh, Im with you.
JC: You know what Im talking about?
JS: Yes, exactly.
JC: Those, thats it for me. And then when I saw, Oh, you can be free.
You can just be free. Oh! And so there was those, and it took me a long
time heres a copy of an Iowa Amish quilt. Ive never seen the
original; just a picture of it. There was a time oh, I lost my train of
thought because I saw this picture. I was trying to show you here, see, this is
in here, this is the last book that we did together [indicating.], and you
can always tell, her quilts are playful and fun; my quilts look ice cold. [laughter.]
JC: This is what appealed to me. I wanted to copy a very difficult quilt of
the past. Oh, theres this gallery section in here. Okay, heres what
were talking about. See? Well take the fundamental ideas of an Amish
quilt and then well alter it in a more intellectual way. Where shes going
much more free stuff. We did these together, but this is me [indicating.].
JC: So it took me a long time to get over that, but gradually, thats my
train of thought. We did a book on appliqu quilts, but that was never my
favorite thing. It really wasnt. Appliqus meant flowers and all of that.
Well, by golly, by studying these old quilts and then copying them, then I
started to feel I started to get an appreciation for all these different
kinds of beauty and these different kinds of aesthetic realms that quilts represent.
JS: Any questions? What, I get to ask questions? [laughter.] So how has
how did you make that transition from the very serious quilting?
JC: Once you see what happened to me was I met Mary Schafer early on.
Mary, one of the worlds great quiltmakers, where did her aesthetic come from?
Well, I could show you where it came from. Kit quilts. Her whole idea of how
to make a quilt came from kit quilts. She studied history extensively but what
she copied was the symmetrical, was the engineered borders, was everything about
kit quilts, the way they are engineered and designed, she learned to imitate,
down to the way she marked quilts was with a brown paper sack. She would sketch
the design and then perfect it on a brown paper sack and then poke holes with a
knitting needle through, and then lay that on and put pencil marks so that she
had a follow-the-dot pattern because that was the first quilts that she made,
were kit quilts, and they had follow-the-dot patterns. Her whole aesthetic came
from that. So I thought one of my first original ideas that I took over to
Marys, this quilt top, I said, Now I want to quilt it like this. And then
on the border, heres what Im thinking. Heres what Im thinking.
Just bear with me. I want to put the binding on and then just inside the
binding, I want to do this little piping, just like a little, oh, a little
eighth of an inch edge of maybe yellow up against that red binding. And she
said, Well, its not traditional, you know.
JC: Oh, yes, I guess its not traditional so I guess I cant do it. She
was so serious about the tradition and there was something about that that
appealed to me. And so, Okay, I wont do it then. Fine. It wasnt
that I kept myself from doing anything original, but, I dont know, but
anyhow, so then a couple of years later, Merry Silber showed me a quilt dated
1863, that had a little piping around that border that binding. A little
piping around the binding! Well, what would you know about that! And I mean,
Ill never forget that moment when I saw that quilt and I thought, Now wait
a minute. What is Mary [Schafer.] talking about thats traditional and
whats not? and all of that. And then I really started looking at the
tradition. And when you, like I say, when you look at old quilts, people think
of old quilts as like this sort of mottled brown sort of things or something.
But when you look at whats there, its so wild and glorious. And it was
from really starting to collect and to study old quilts that then the ones that
appealed to me were the ones then okay, what happened was my idea of
intellectual seriousness flipped. And I started thinking more like John Cage.
You cant get any more intellectually serious than that, but also playful. I
started thinking of a whole different thing. I started seeing the other quilts.
And you can find whatever you want. You can go to Kansas, mid-twentieth
century, and get Charlotte Jane Whitehill and that whole crew, Rose Kretsinger
and all of them. Well, you could get lost in that and do that for the rest of
your life. But what appealed to me, as a musician and as a person, was not
knowing what was going to happen next. And once I realized I could find that in
quilts, thats what I wanted. Thats what I wanted to seek and thats
what I wanted to do.
So thats 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. At a certain
point, my thinking changed because of what I actually saw in the tradition.
When I actually realized when I realized that, Oh, guess what? Guess
what, Dude? Women thought of large-scale, abstract compositions, with a
great deal of randomness. In the mid-1800s, you can find utility quilts where
she didnt know what it was going to look like; she was just sewing pieces
together, and cutting them freehand, for that matter. Fifty years and
its a good thing I have a woman and a child in the room with me or my
language would go terrible fifty yearsbefore the painters discovered this,
that you could make a large-scale, abstract painting and not know what it was
going to look like ahead of time, you could just express yourself with the
paint, women already were just expressing themselves with fabric, and they had
already discovered this and they were already doing it. So now, then,
eventually what happened was I realized that this was pissing me off that quilts
still look at the Gees Bend quilts; its just the latest thing to happen.
I love the Gees Bend quilts, but the reason that they got institutional
credibility was because they resemble art. And so everybody its so good,
its like art. Its so good, its a model of art. Its so
condescending, number one. Its condescending to think because the whole
message here is that these uneducated women, these foolish, frivolous women,
stumbled into this they actually it turns out they somehow accidentally
made these things that we, sophisticates, can appreciate them for how artistic
they really are. It makes me want to punch somebody. It makes me so mad that
and so, eventually, I got the feeling that quilts didnt need art. Quilts
exist in an aesthetic realm of their own. There is no art in a Nine Patch, a
red-and-white Nine Patch. Its a community pattern. We all make
red-and-white Nine Patches at some point in our career, or we dont have to,
but we used to. All women used to make a red-and-white Nine Patch at some
point, a green-and-white Nine Patch, make a two-color Nine Patch. Thats a
community pattern. Were not expressing our individuality with it. Were
not expressing an artistic concept that we invented. Were using all
community materials. And yet, and yet, you can look at a red-and-white Nine
Patch and it can be so sublime in its proportions and in its composition that
you just float away from it, its so beautiful. And is it art? To me, its
doing something all different than art is supposed to do. But is it an object
with some form of aesthetic power? Yes. So I started to have the idea that
quilts dont need to be made into art. And then I but then, I see its
just the opposite. [Sigh.]
JC: Its just the opposite, is whats happening now. Now, everybody thinks
that in order to make quilts legitimate, to make them legitimate, we have to
make them more resemble art. The more a quilt resembles a quilt, the less
intellectually serious you must be. The more a quilt resembles art, the more
intellectually serious you must be. Its that way in the quilt world today.
You know what I mean?
JC: So if you make a quilt, dont just dont do it! Be creative!
Express yourself! Just dont make a boring Nine Patch; just dont do it.
Youre told, Dont do it. Because thats just what everybody does.
You dont want to just do were Americans, for Gods sake. We have to
go our own way. We have to be mavericks.
JC: We have to be creative. We have to be artists. And that so, for
instance, Joan Schultz is an artist.
JC: Shes an artist. And shes primarily an artist, and shes working in
the quilt medium. Shes using quilts as a medium.
JC: And that, I have like absolutely no problem with that. Thats what
people who want to be artists, who make quilts want to make quilts, thats
totally fine. Im not against that at all. But what Im against is the
general feeling in the atmosphere that I just described, that quilts that are
made as art are more valuable, are more serious. This is life and death to me.
Im trying to play as if my life depended on it. Im serious, but Im
trying to play and have fun. And so thats so but, I just keep coming
back to all these ideas come right straight out of the tradition. You dont
have to you can do I mean, you can find whatever you want in the
tradition, but the more you know about the rest of the world, the deeper you can
see into whats already there in quilts. And it doesnt bother me at all
that people are using quilts as an artistic medium, but what bothers me is that
the denigration of the tradition, that its not a worthy pursuit. I want
to make it into a worthy pursuit, to make traditional quilts.
JS: All right.
JC: Of course, I havent thought about this before.
JS: Not at all. [laughter.] So youre currently doing what?
JC: Right. Im currently completely abandoning all those things I just said.
[laughter.] No, my last hand-quilted quilt was eucalyptus leaves and I dont
have it here. Its called The Way Home. Its about where I live in
the Presidio. And I feel like I finally have I dont have to do things
that are using a quilt format any longer. I feel like now I can make quilts
at this point in my life, I feel pretty free to make whatever I want and to do
whatever I want. And so, like this one here [indicating.], its called My
Own Fault, and its about living in San Francisco. And when Im done
quilting it, itll be a quilt big enough to sleep under. Thats all I
really know about it. But at this point, it feels to me like not doing
community patterns. Thats what I feel like not doing. I feel like I just
want to make my own stuff for awhile and see where it goes. But its very
so thats what Im doing.
JS: Well, I think we are running to the end of our time together today.
JC: All right.
JS: I really look forward to continuing our conversation in the future.
JC: Yes, Im all for it.
JS: Thank you so much. Its now 2:49 [p.m.] on August 18[, 2007.], and this
is Janneken Smucker signing off with Joe Cunningham for Quilters S.O.S.
Thank you so much, Joe.
JC: Youre welcome.