SAN FRANCISCO GATE
Meet Joe the quilter
By Nancy Davis Kho
April 25, 2014
By focusing its latest installment on the business of craft, PBS’ Peabody Award-winning series “Craft in America” acknowledges the financial reality expressed by one of the artisans featured in the one-hour episode: “When it comes down to it, I need to be able to pay my rent.”
As much as crafting is an act of love and creative expression, there has always been a pragmatic, commercial component to making objects that are beautiful and functional. “Craft in America: Industry,” airing next Sunday on KQED, looks at how the 21st century economy supports crafting traditions from decades, if not centuries, earlier.
Making a living
San Francisco quilter Joe Cunningham, featured in the episode, readily acknowledges that he couldn’t have made a living as a professional quilter before the 1970s. “Traditionally, American quilting was a women’s world; that’s built into its DNA. In the 18th and 19th century, a quilt was a gift you made for someone, and quilting was a communal act,” Cunningham, 61, says. “Men ignored it because there was no economy attached to it.”
That changed during the American Bicentennial, when a quilting revival took hold. Around that time Cunningham, a former rock ‘n’ roll guitarist, offered to write a biography of esteemed American quilter Mary Schafer.
“Mary was one of the greatest quilters who ever lived, and she was unknown outside of the Michigan State Fair,” Cunningham says. Inspired by “her mission to bring glory to old-time quilt makers,” Cunningham kept researching and writing, and picked up a needle himself in 1979, quilting with Schafer, his creative partner Gwen Marston and “groups of women who would teach me, wherever I could find them.”
Cunningham began giving lectures on the history of quilting in the early ’80s. “I started working the quilting conferences and did the circuit, and I’m still doing it 35 years later,” Cunningham says of what has become a $3.58 billion industry, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Creative Crafts Group. “My income comes from talking and teaching about quilts, then writing and lastly from quilting.”
Although Cunningham says the women who taught him to quilt accepted him instantly, participating in what has traditionally been a woman’s craft is “psychologically upsetting to some people. They can’t quite figure me out.” He’s written a book called “Men and the Art of Quiltmaking” (American Quilter’s Society, 2010) and says men are becoming more visible in the industry. But, he adds, “I don’t want to be known as a ‘man’ quilter. I want my work to be measured against the 19th century women who created all these masterpieces.”
Cunningham, who lives with his wife and sons in the Presidio, works from a sunny studio in the Mission, where fabric in every conceivable shade and pattern is stacked on metal racks.
Starting at $8,500
Hanging from rods nearby are completed quilts, which start at $8,500, that Cunningham has either quilted by hand, using a long arm sewing machine, or on a huge robotic quilting machine programmed from his MacBook Air.
While Cunningham is renowned for his modernistic quilts, his reverence for the tradition is palpable, as in the scene when he visits Gee’s Bend and pays homage to quilter Lucy Mungo, joking after folding her quilts, “I’ll never wash my hands again.” Cunningham’s admiration for the generations of women advanced quilting through their creativity is also apparent in his current project, a response to a Robert Rauschenberg artwork from 1955 called “Bed,” in which the postmodern painter hung an old quilt on a wall and applied paint to it.
“Every museum catalog I read about ‘Bed’ said something along the lines of, ‘The humble quilt was elevated by Rauschenberg’s painting.’ That pissed me off: what about the artisanship of the woman who made the quilt in the first place?” Cunningham says. This explains why the pieces pinned to the quilt in progress on Cunningham’s wall are segments of an oil painting, cut up and arranged in an arc on a white background. “I’m going to elevate this humble painting by quilting it,” Cunningham grins.
The “Craft in America” episode delves into other aspects of craft and commerce and brings the digital economy into the picture: the final segment focuses on Etsy and the craftspeople who rely upon it to connect with buyers.
Cunningham applauds how “Craft in America” brings craft stories into the mainstream. “And it’s a dream come true for someone like me, because they let you tell your story to a national audience. And I like to talk.”