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He's a Regular Joe the Quilter
By Betsy Bannerman
Joe Cunningham says he thinks of himself as a quiltmaker making quilts, not as an artist making art. He even titled one of his quilts, "This Is a Quilt, Not Art." "Oh sure," kids his wife, Carol LeMaitre. "Then you charge $5,000 per quilt to make sure that whoever buys one will put it on the wall instead of on the bed!"
Cunningham, 48, admits he wants it both ways -- artistic and "quiltistic" -- adding, "To me, quilts inhabit their own realm of aesthetics. Quilts, unlike curtains, clothes, or pillowcases, have a long history as expressive objects and are able to convey multiple meanings and almost infinitely complex designs. It doesn't matter whether they are art or not. They are fascinating on their own terms."
Michigan born and raised, Cunningham learned to quilt in the 1980s when he and his then girlfriend, Gwen Marston, built a house with a quilting studio on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, "the most remote inhabited freshwater island in the U.S." Marston taught him how to make quilts, and he taught her how to write the catalogs for the exhibits. After they made a few quilts together, Cunningham suggested, "Why don't we just call ourselves quilt professionals? What are people going to say, 'No, you're not,' or 'Let's see your license'?"
Over the next 10 years, he and Marston collaborated on eight books and more than 60 articles on quilts. Their best-known work is Quilting with Style, published by the American Quilter's Society in 1993.
In 1994, Cunningham came to San Francisco to write the promotional materials for the Quilt Complex, a quilt exhibition company now based in Mendocino County. It was here that he met LeMaitre. The couple married in 1995 and settled into a house at 29th and Sanchez streets.
For the past few years, Cunningham has been the primary caretaker ("Is it caretaker or caregiver?" he muses) of their two sons, Jules, 5, and Dorian, 2. "The first words both my sons learned, as we drove around block after block, were 'Daddy, parking space!'" he jokes. "They still get excited when they see one."
Still, the closeness is also what he likes about Noe Valley. "You can walk everywhere -- bank, post office, market, dry cleaner's, coffee shop. We can get a babysitter and walk to a wonderful restaurant." His wife Carol, a Pilates instructor, works downstairs from their living quarters, at the exercise studio she owns.
They enjoy being able to run across the street to get milk for breakfast at St. Paul's Market. The guys who run the grocery store know the whole family, says Cunningham, "and that's something I really love."
But outside of parenting, his main pursuit continues to be quilting. He makes quilts on commission -- for individuals, corporations, and museums. He writes extensively on quilting, lectures at quilt guilds all over the country, and recently appeared on the HGTV cable show Simply Quilts. He teaches the kids at his sons' preschool how to make quilts, and this past spring their combined stitching raised thousands of dollars to benefit the school. He even has a web site: joethequilter.com.
An accomplished guitarist, singer, and songwriter (his CD is titled Another Joe on the Street), Cunningham has also found a way to weave quilting into his music. He has composed a semihistorical, one-man show, appropriately called -- although not for the reason you think -- "Joe the Quilter."
"Joe the Quilter" imagines the world of Joe Hedley, a tailor-turned-quiltmaker who lived in England during the last half of the 18th century. Although little is known about the real Joe Hedley, and only a few of his quilts survive, Cunningham tries to capture his spirit in story and song, with music ranging from Old English ballads to "sort of gutbucket blues."
In the show, Hedley unveils what he calls his "masterpiece," a medallion quilt depicting a snake in the Garden of Eden. This was a departure from the standard quilt motifs of the 1700s, which focused on the tree of life. "Hedley deludes himself into thinking the quilt will somehow change quilt history," says Cunningham. "In fact, when he shows it, people are indifferent. It changes nothing." The true meaning of Hedley's work is personal: it helps him weather a midlife crisis.
"The importance of quilts is that they were developed, mostly by women, as objects to mark important passages in life," says Cunningham, "to commemorate family or friendships, to keep us warm, to keep us busy, to use and reuse fabric, to make manifest our feelings about someone or something.
"They are not important to art," he maintains. "They are important to culture, and they embody a realm created and still enjoyed by women. Quilt guilds around the world are the chief social outlet for millions of women. In this realm, I am still a tourist."
Nevertheless, he finds the craft irresistible. One of Cunningham's favorite quilts is one he named "The Perfect Existential Object," in tribute to a male friend who used to tease him about making quilts. "He'd say, 'What is this with quilts and flowers and teddy bears? You're a smart guy, you could do anything, what do you see in quilts?' But one day he burst out with, 'I get it now! The quilt is the perfect existential object! It soothes the pain of existence by beautifying your surroundings, and you can also wrap up in it against the coldness of the universe.'"
Cunningham says making quilts is time-consuming -- about three weeks from start to finish, for a six-foot square -- but ultimately very satisfying. He first designs and sews all the pieces for the top of the quilt on a machine, whether they are appliquéd (material on top of material) or pieced (side by side). He then stretches the three layers -- top, cotton batting filling, and back -- onto a large frame and stitches them together by hand, "scrolling up" as he works toward the middle.
The stitching is the step that is actually called the "quilting," and ironically, most people miss seeing it when they look at a quilt. Probably they are distracted by the colorful pieces and designs that make up the top layer, and they don't see the tiny threads that hold the quilt together.
Cunningham uses many traditional stitching designs -- pumpkin seed, crisscross, hanging diamonds, feathered vines, clamshells, wreaths. "I would call my style old-fashioned. My stitches look like designs from the 19th century."
However, his colors and shapes are often more abstract. A quilt he made for the Hedley show, which he calls "Joe Hedley's Last Quilt" (it appears right before Hedley's death at age 80), is a maze-like design with echoes of a Rubik's cube and a Clue board game.
Though he works by himself, not in the traditional "quilting bee," Cunningham is never at a loss for a critic or an admirer. His studio is in the basement of his sons' preschool. "My son Jules is so young he still gets juice out of the idea that his dad is a quilter working down the hall," he says proudly.
Clearly, Cunningham still gets juice out of being a quiltmaker, too. He sews his name, the date, and often a title into the quilt. He stitches his designs freehand, without any markings, not even sure where the pattern will end up as he needles across the quilt's expanse. It's his favorite part of making quilts, because it's spontaneous, loose, and full of charm. "I make it up as I go along," he says.
That's a pretty good motto for a well-pieced-together life.