Monday, November 26, 2012

Meg Pokrass interview amazing quilter Joe Cunningham

The divine Meg Pokrass interviews quilter Joe Cunningham. Thank you, thank you, Meg and Joe! 

Joe Cunningham has been a professional quilt artist since 1979. He has written essays on the subject for museum catalogues, books and magazines. His book, “Men and the Art of Quiltmaking”was the first book on its subject. In 2004 he received a $30,000 Shulte Grant from the FortMason Foundation. In 2009 he received a grant to study with the Gees Bend quilters in Alabama. In 2010 he was artist in residence at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, which purchased one of his quilts for its permanent collection. Joe travels throughout the country to give lectures and workshops on quilt making. His eight books on quilt making include the first biography of a living quilter and a definitive book on marking quilts for quilting called “Quilting with Style,” published by AQS.  

How did you become a quilter? What age? How did this art form find you, or you it?

I was born in 1952 in Flint, Michigan, and grew up in a small farm town nearby, where most of my friends were the children of factory workers. Growing up, all I ever cared about was music, books and art. I would skip school to go to the art institute. I would read books of art criticism by intellectuals who wrote well over my head, hoping that some day I would magically understand what the hell I was reading. Biographies of artists fascinated me.

None of my friends went to college. Instead, we all headed off into various self-made occupations. I had started playing guitar in nightclubs  around town when I was 15 years old, so with that and working various day jobs, from hod carrier to dishwasher, cook to bus washer, I made my living.

I made friends with all the artists in my hometown, and sought any kind of connection to the art world I could manufacture. The thought never occurred to me that I could make art myself. I was not much talented at drawing. I was not much talented at writing or acting. I could play guitar pretty well, however, and I managed to parlay my modest abilities into a modest career as a musician from the time I was 15 to the time I discovered quilts when I was 27. I played any number of small bars, wedding receptions and after-hours joints, five or six nights a week. I even wrote a one-man musical about a hobo in the 1930's that got me a job teaching guitar at Colorado Northwestern Community College. There my teaching salary covered my tuition and books.

I thought I wanted to be a writer, so I studied nothing but English. I took 24 credit hours of mostly independent study in my second semester, since I had taken all the available creative writing and literature courses in the first semester. I liked it so much that I thought maybe I should become an English teacher. But then the next summer I ran into a box of quilts that changed my life forever.

The first time I saw these real quilts, in 1979, I found them dazzling, and tantalizing. Where art had always seemed distant and for someone else to create, the first thing that went through my mind was, "I could do this!" My mother made quilts, so I had seen them growing up; I had in fact slept under her tied comforters since I was little. Surely if my mother could make one of these I could.

First, however, the collector offered me the chance to write a catalogue about these quilts. I was interested in them, I wanted to be a writer and here was a writing project. In order to write about the quilts I had to learn quilt history. Fine. If I was not going to return to college, I thought, I should at least give myself a college education in quilts.

My mentors were Mary Schafer and Gwen Marston. Mary was born in Hungary in 1910, emigrated to the US in 1915 and lost her mother in the influenza pandemic of 1918. To make her a desirable marriage prospect, her dad sent Mary around to the neighborhood European ladies to learn the various needlework skills she would need. Eventually she married and had a son, then took up quilting in 1948. By the time I met her in 1979  Mary had won every possible blue ribbon in the state and had stopped entering competitions so her friends could have a chance. 

Between Mary and Gwen, a younger expert quilter, I learned that to be the sort of quilter they respected I had to read all the literature so as to be familiar with the history of quilts and quilt fabric. Knowing the regional and ethnic styles would help me know how old a quilt was and where it may have been made. I had to become an engineer and designer of quilts and quilt patterns. I had to master all the techniques involved in making a quilt so as to be able to copy old quilts and absorb their lessons. All in all it was a sort of apprenticeship along classical lines. 

It agreed with me. I loved the sewing and the study. Eventually, Gwen and I teamed up to make quilts together and ended up writing books and magazine articles about quilts, making videos and traveling all over the country to teach. We worked together for 12 years.
Altogether I think that my subconscious desire to be an artist, together with my idea that anyone could make a quilt, made becoming a quilter  seem like a logical and desirable thing.

What is it like to be a male in a female-predominant art form?

Well, I understand that when a woman goes into a realm traditionally considered male, men will often do anything they can to keep the woman down, to shut her out, to marginalize her. In my case it has been the opposite of that. When I went into quilts I was a 26 year old tall white boy who felt comfortable around older women. Those older women responded by treating me like a most honored guest, and very quickly began treating me like an authority, an expert...instead of marginalized I got centralized. This continues more than  30 years later.  But there are psychic aspects of quilt making I will never apprehend, whether it is from being a man or from being wired a certain way. For me, quilts have always represented an art project. For many quilters it is the community of women that is most important, and the actual quilts less so. The quilts are gifts to be given either to loved ones and friends or to charitable organizations to be dispersed. So I am a foreigner in this quilt world, psychically and physically. After a while, the subject of my gender becomes uninteresting in the quilt world. But it is a daily freakout to every single person  who learns that I am a quilter. It is like my wife, to whom people used to exclaim, "But, you don't LOOK Jewish." But, I don't LOOK like a quilter. That just goes with the territory, and if I didn't enjoy the attention and the very freakiness of it, I would tell people I was a janitor, or a bookkeeper.

What is the hardest thing about being a male quilter? What is the best thing about being a male quilter?

This is actually two questions, now isn't it?

The hardest part is communicating the fact that I have dedicated my life to this thing, that I am struggling as hard as I can to do something original and serious. The very idea of a quilt seems to ward off serious thought and intention.

The best thing is that over the years I have come to know some of the most brilliant people in the quilt world, true scholars and wonderful human beings I almost certainly would never have had the chance to meet and share it all with if I were in another field.

What are some of the most exciting moments you have experienced in your career?

It is monumentally exciting to hold a copy of your first published book. Even though my first book was a simple Dover pattern book, I will never forget seeing my name on the cover the first time...the first time I sold a quilt to a museum for thousands of dollars...the first time I went to Gees Bend in Alabama and met--and quilted with--the women I had read so much about, whose quilts I had studied, was a great thrill. The best part of that trip was the very quilting itself, for this reason: my whole project from the beginning has been to apprehend how women of the 19th century thought and felt about quilt making, how they arrived at the the state of personal freedom that allowed them such unfettered creativity. In Gees Bend I was able to quilt with women who really had learned from their female relatives and forebears in a direct line back to the 19th century. Even though nothing of the mental state, the emotional or cultural condition could be articulated, I was able to just enjoy the immersion in the moment of working together and to enjoy the state--against all odds--of being, for a moment, a peer, just one of the people around the quilt frame. Of course that feeling vanished when the women started singing hymns in spontaneous harmony. Never have I felt more unnecessary or extraneous. The women had been singing together since the cradle. The beauty and, once again, the spontaneous creativity of it all, could only be insulted by my croaking along in a lower register.  But that only emphasized all the more how lucky I was to be able to participate in the quilting as a peer, an equal.

Where to you ideas for design spring from. Do they find you, or do you find them?

My ideas come largely from my questions about quilts and art that I want to explore. Can I make a quilt that uses some of the Ab Ex ideas I like? Can I do the quilt I am most afraid of? What happens if I just cut this fabric in half and sew something else to it? What if I did this over and over? Could I make a modern version of an 18th century idea? etc.

Do you mentor? Have you had mentors? 

I have had mentors. First there was Mary Schafer, who taught me her philosophy of quilting, as well as lots of technical information. Then there was Gwen Marston, Mary’s pupil and my partner, who initiated me into the world of quilts by showing me Mary’s and talking about quilts in a brilliant and fascinating way. Over the years, I have learned  much from older women I met around the quilt frame. Birdie Rutherford taught me how to handle and thread needles better than I ever could before. Mary Hostetler taught me how to quilt in a circle. Lucy Mingo taught me how to think about the commercial and non commercial aspects of what I was doing. Julie Silber has been my mentor and friend since I met her in 1980 or so, constantly helping me to think about quilt history and the meaning of what we are doing in this crazy world. Randy French taught me how to see design in everyday objects, as well as the history of furniture, and indeed most everything I know about industrial design. 

I have been a mentor to a couple of people, one who came to me and asked me to be her mentor and one young guy I met when I wrote a book about male quilters. Deborah now lives in Mt Shasta and makes great quilts. Luke spent some time here in San Francisco and used to come by my studio and ask questions all the time. Now he lives in Seattle and has had many shows of his work in galleries and museums, and he still calls and confers on quilt things.

William Wiley has been my friend and inspiration since I met him 10 or 12 years ago. Even though we have not spent a great deal of time together, every time we meet I am reminded of what I want to do, how I want to live, how I can be in the world. 

Also, my late friend Pierre Cabrol, an architect from France who lived in LA for many years, and who did high-level work and who knew how to enjoy life. Pierre had the knack (like several of the European men I have known over the years) of making you feel like the most interesting person in the room...reminded me somewhat of Marcel Proust in the way he wanted to know everyone from the maid to the princess, from the doorman--like I was when he met me--to the CEO. A lover of fine food and wine, music and art, plants and animals and people, Pierre seemed to wake up happy to be alive every day of his life. He became my friend and mentor, with whom I had many wonderful times and memorable meals and conversations. He was the model of the idea of the cultural life.


mo said...

great interview and had to go in search of joe's website ~ his quilts are so incredibly beautiful i sat in stunned awe ... when im rich and can afford a mansion with lots of walls i plan to cover many of them with his astounding work ... what great images to fill my head and start the day ~ thanks caroline for this ...

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