Joe Cunningham - 1871, 2012

Why Quilts Matter – Discussion Guide Q&A with Joe Cunningham

As part of our celebration of National Quilting Month we are pleased to present a series of blog interviews with people you have said you “follow”. We reached out to many of your favorite quilters, museum professionals, textile artists and designers and asked them to answer a few questions taken from the new Why Quilts Matter: History, Art and Politics Discussion Guide.

Joe Cunningham - Ancestors - 2012

Joe Cunningham – “Ancestors” (2012)

First up in the series is Joe Cunningham. Joe began making quilts professionally in 1979 after a ten-year career as a musician in Michigan. His quilts are in the permanent collections of museums, as well as in numerous private collections, and has both authored or collaborated on numerous books on quilting.

Since Joe is currently shooting a program on Gee’s Bend for the PBS series Craft in America, his Discussion Guide questions were taken from those for Episode 5: Gee’s Bend: “The Most Famous Quilts in America?”



Why might the quilts of Gee’s Bend be overlooked by the general quilting public?

While the current quilt world is changing rapidly, it is still heavily defined by the people of my generation and older who started making quilts in the 1970’s. At that time we all learned that “traditional” quilts were those with symmetrical layouts, generally with engineered borders, room for quilting and pleasing color schemes. In other words, quilts that looked like the kit quilts of the 1940’s. The actual tradition, of course, was right there in front of us in the form of quilts from the 1800’s, but we somehow managed to blind ourselves to all the asymmetry, the wildly imaginative, the crude and the maverick. Accordingly, when the quilts of Gees Bend began to gain notoriety and to be hung in museums, many quilters interpreted it as an insult to all the years they had spent learning what they thought was the “correct” way to make quilts. The younger generation of quilters, many of whom are forming their own groups under the heading of “Modern Quilts,” do not seem to resist the Gees Bend quilts as much, if at all.


Do the quilts of Gee’s Bend belong in museums – why or why not?

Some do, some don’t. Some are simply stronger, more musical, more graphically interesting and powerful than others.


Why was the art world so receptive to the work of the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers?

Since the Gees Bend quilts so strongly resembled certain strains of 20th century painting; art critics and curators could accept them on the same walls. It also made them feel comfortably noble and sophisticated; to be able to recognize the fact that these humble objects could be interpreted as art works. There was a lot of discussion of the idea that these quilts were created out of necessity, out of whatever scraps were on hand, merely to keep people warm. While this was not true, it let people think that they could recognize the artistry of the quilts when the very makers could not. And the quilters of Gees Bend have promoted this idea themselves. But it devalues the makers of the quilts. They are the ones who decided which piece came next, how to cut it, how to sew it. They are the ones who started the quilts and who finished them. The art world likes the idea of the primitive quilt makers who somehow stumbled onto this artistic way of working. It does not recognize the fact that American women of the last two centuries developed these ways of working and that the Gees Bend quilts are part of that tradition, and that they knew exactly what they were doing.


What is next for you?

I just learned that I am going to get a computerized long arm machine from Handi Quilter, which means that I can continue my series of quilts made in collaboration with the “robot.” So far I have made two whole cloth quilts, each of a large single image I programmed into the computer. With this equipment in my studio I can make a series of each design, like a printmaker would make a series of prints. I am going to be on QNN showing my technique for this.

I am hand quilting my first “portrait quilt,” a portrait of my friend Luke Haynes, who gave me the idea that we should try to make a quilt in each other’s style.

In April I am both shooting footage in Gees Bend with Craft in America, the PBS series, and shooting my first set of lessons for Craftsy on pattern-free piecing.

In November I am conducting my first quilt retreat in twenty years, in collaboration with Patricia Belyea at a beautiful retreat center outside Seattle.


What was your initial reaction to the Gee’s Bend quilts?  Have they inspired you to create one in a similar style?  Let us know in the comments section below, or join the discussion on Facebook!


Quilts by Joe Cunningham:

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Left to right: “1871” (2012); “Me and My Favorite Words” (2010); “Safety in Color” (2010).

More About Joe 

Cunningham’s 11 books on quilts include the 2010 book Men and the Art of Quiltmaking, and his essay for the de Young Museum show, Amish Abstractions: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.” His column for the national magazine The Quilt Life is called “Biased and Edgy.” He has appeared on the HGTV series “Simply Quilts with Alex Anderson”, the PBS series “Sewing with Nancy” and on “The Quilt Show” with Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims.”  He performs his musical quilt show, “Joe the Quilter,” for guilds and theaters nationwide and teaches regularly at conferences across the country.  More information and teaching availabilities at