Monday, August 15, 2016

Crazy Cities

Crazy City: San Francisco, 72 x 72, 2016 

Last year sometime I opened one of my old--1980!--quilt engagement calendars, looking for a quilt to show someone. The first quilt I saw, however, caught my attention and gave me an idea I have been pursuing ever since. The quilt is called "Crazy City, 1885," and is signed by C Winnie. I immediately realized that, living in San Francisco, I could also make a crazy city quilt.
So I did. I made a quilt that was all about San Francisco. To quilt it, I took a picture of one of the many, many construction sites all over this town and transcribed it for my Handi Quilter longarm with the Pro Stitcher computerized system so the quilting would be like looking through a chain link fence down into the site of the new subway station. 

I've since made a few Crazy City quilts, like this one below: 

"Crazy City: Detroit." 72 x 72, 2016

The painted Hugs Kisses fabric was created by Therese May. The quilting design here, being Detroit, is the parking lot outside an assembly line. I'll make the picture extra large so you can see the many parked cars. 

Lately I've made a few quilts about Flint, and its neighbor Swartz Creek, my home town. Here is one called "36 Views on the Way to Flint."  The 36 white and black blocks were embroidered by Barbara Zerbe. To create those designs, I photoshopped pictures of tar patches on various highways, the calligraphy-like lines that result from repairing cracks on a paved road. Like this:

"36 Views on the Way to Flint." 72 x 72, 2016

 Making quilts about these cities has given me a rich set of subjects, from which I can draw allusions and inspiration.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Why Go To Finland?

I recently went to Oulu, Finland, a beautiful town way up north to be part of a show of 8 American quilt artists called, "Quilt Visions." Since I was going, my whole family decided to go as well. We had a great time. The breakfast buffet at our hotel was a wonder to behold. No matter what you wanted, you could find it here or have it specially prepared.

Most of the artists had a posse with them, so we were a large group. Here are most of us:
From left it is Judith Lazerlere, Jane Burch Cochran, Linda Levin, me, Vouko Isacksson, Elina Vieru (The curators) and Heather Pregger. Diana Sargeant was absent for this shot.

One day Elina and Vuoko took us to a stone age village!

My family left Oulu in a rental car and drove down the coast to Vaasa, then to Tampere, where there seemed to be art everywhere.
Sculpture overhead.

 A museum show of the latest fashions in 1969Sculpture just lying aroundMy favorite bistro, for obvious reasons

My favorite installation of the whole trip, by Kaarina Kaikkonen 
And then onward to Helsinki where it seemed like art was everywhere

Every day we took a sauna. Now I want to build one in my San Francisco apartment. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Alegre Retreat 2015

This year I taught at the retreat founded by my friend Katie Pasquini Masopust, the Alegre Retreat now held at the Gateway Canyons Resort in Colorado. Oh, it was splendid. The setting, the accommodations, the food--all was top notch. My students went along with me on a journey with no set end point, just making things using some of my favorite techniques: freehand piecing, bias tape applique and etc. 

The ideas were constantly amazing.

Everyone's sensibilities shone through.

A teacher could not ask for anything more.

Exactly what I hoped would happen.

Personality plus.

Next time I get to teach like this is at my own retreat this fall: 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New Lone Star

I just realized recently that I have been working on a series for years, a series I did not even know I had started. It is something I have had in mind for decades and it seems to circle around and whack me in the head every once in a while. After I took this Lone Star out of the frame last week, I realized I was building up a group of quilts based on the idea that I could take the name of a traditional quilt pattern and come up with my own image for it. Years ago I made this Grandmother's Flower garden:

All its flowers are in the quilting. Just last fall I finished this New York Beauty:

And a couple of days ago I got this Job's Tears off my design wall and onto the Handi Quilter frame for quilting. 

I have some ideas about the next few in the series. But now I have to quilt this new one. I better get to work. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Man Made

I have a few quilts in a show that recently opened at the Craft and Folk Art Museum--"CAFAM"--in Los Angeles. Man Made is a show of quilts by, guess what: men! Is there a need for a show like this? I don't know. Gender specific shows leave me cold, usually, because gender is such a vague thing to fit a bunch of artists into. I mean, just because we are all of the same gender is no reason to think that our work will  have anything interesting to say when it is all thrown together. And as I have said over and over, while there were a few men in the business when I got started at the end of the 1970's, my real heroes in the quilt world have all been women. Of course! Quilts were defined in the USA as a gender specific realm of women, by women, for women to make gifts for people they loved. Naturally, then, it was women I looked up to and was inspired by.

But this idea of men making quilts is hot right now. There is the freak show angle, the burning question of what kind of weirdo would to do this anyway? And there is the idea that quilts want to be modern, that they want to be brought out of the past, and people are casting around for ways to do that. Looking at quilts by men is a short cut to this, a way of seeing them as something radically new.

And there are the men themselves, some of them young and sexy like Luke Haynes, or Ben Venom, Aaron McIntosh or Jimmy McBride, or well, all the guys who are young. These guys have been to art school and have the ability to frame what they are doing in high-enough-faluting prose to lend a sort of conceptual art gloss to the whole enterprise.

I think it all feeds into the strain of thinking that has been there ever since this revival started in the early 1970's, the idea that making a quilt is too confining, that we need to "get out of the box," to have "Tradition with a twist!" or to break the bonds of tradition. This idea has persisted, even though there has never been another tradition that is less confining. Regardless of what some stodgy traditionalists may have thought, the very notion of a quilt is that it can look like anything you want, as the women of the 19th and 20th centuries have shown us over and over. It is not a box within which we must stay; quiltmaking is a doorway to a realm where we have the privilege of making anything we can conceive.

The guys in this show demonstrate that. But it would have been extremely easy to find 8 women to demonstrate the same thing. And for the women who have complained that a show of 8 women quilters would not have received any of the significant press this one has, I would say they are correct. So, that is one reason a museum would choose to have a show of quilts by men; its newsworthiness.

I have also heard the complaint that women can make great quilts all their lives and never get any recognition for it, but if a man makes one quilt he becomes a rock star. All I have to say about that is that I do not think anyone in the business becomes a rock star easily. A man might have it easier to get notice in the beginning, but even a man has to do the work of making something amazing and different to get noticed in the long run. And I do not think any man goes into quilts to have an advantage over anyone else. Making quilts is just something that grabs you, regardless of your gender. No one goes into it hoping to become powerful.

So, the show has opened and I had a chance to spend time in it and see what I thought. I am probably too biased to have anything of value to say about it, but I would still say that I think it is an interesting way to spend some of your time. The quilts are varied enough that it would be hard to become bored at the show. It turns out that it will be traveling to Asheville NC and Lincoln, NE in the next year and a half. So if you live near either of those towns you will have a chance to see for yourself. I would love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Coming Wave

This is a picture of my friends Nancy Bavor and Julie Silber in the sewing room of my friend Bonny Morley. Bonny was stricken with Alzheimer's Disease a few years ago and is now in a long term care facility. When Bonny was making quilts she was one of the most organized and involved people in the quilt world. An early member of the American Quilt Study Group, Bonny was deeply knowledgeable in the area of quilt history. She had been making quilts since the early 1950's. As you can see in the shelves behind Nancy and Julie, Bonny kept many binders full of patterns, quilting patterns, magazine articles and quilt ephemera of all kinds. What you cannot see is the papers in the drawers lower down, once again meticulously organized.

Everything in Bonny's sewing room is organized and filed, blocks, fabrics, magazine articles, quilt layouts and patterns, books and all. It is an archive. Bonny, sadly, will never make another quilt. She will never make another quilt diary entry about her inspirations for each quilt. 

Bonny's husband, Dave, asked me to help find a home for this fantastic archive. I am looking for one. It is possible I will find an institution that will take it. 

But in thinking it over and talking to scholars in the field, I am beginning to realize that our quilt world is soon to be hit with a tidal wave of material like this. In any given guild meeting, I am still a young person in the room, at 62. As people of my generation, the ones who saw studying quilt history as an imperative, as we age and pass away, this mountain of material from homemade archives is going to become available, and I fear that no one is going to want it. Our kids do not want it. The few institutions that foster quilt study are already overstuffed. 

The Modern Quilt movement is building another generation of quilters, but so far that generation is more or less ahistorical. Discovering the history of the American quilt was the mission of my generation and those who were my mentors. It is not the mission of young quilters now, nor do I think it should be. But I wonder what is going to happen to the archives and quilts created by the amateur scholars and historians who spent their lives gathering materials and creating quilts of a high caliber. Dave Morley showed me the cupboard with 42 quilts in it. Many of them are masterworks. There are too many for the family to absorb, but they are not sexy prizewinning quilts that institutions would be interested in. 

It is a puzzle. And I think the coming wave of archival material and wonderful, "traditional" quilts will have a difficult time finding new homes. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What It Looks Like

I was invited to write about my creative process for a blog hop by my friend Judy Coates Perez. Judy makes some of the most beautiful images I have ever seen on quilts. Check out her cool work at

We all have challenges in our quiltmaking practices. My biggest challenge is trying to focus on what a quilt will look like. The problem is, what it looks like is not my primary concern when I start out on a new quilt project. My primary concern is what I am doing, or what I am trying to do. Here is what I mean.

I am starting on a new quilt project, one of a series I have returned to again and again over the last 35 years. My idea has been to ask myself what it would look like if I rethought or redesigned classic quilt patterns. This one is my new version of Bethlehem Star. In the very first batch of antique quilts I ever saw there was an early Bethlehem Star made of printed chintz fabrics from about 1830 or so. It had cutout corners at the bottom to fit around the posts of a four-poster bed. The star was the common design made of diamonds, sometimes called Lone Star, with eight large points made of many small diamond shaped patches.

Since then I have seen thousands of similar stars, from the solid fabric stars of the Amish and the Sioux to the scrappy stars of Alabama and on through the pastel stars of the 1930's. Yesterday, I decided to make my own large star pattern, but to do it with my favorite medium: bias tape. From the beginning of my project, then, it was something I was going to do, even though I had no idea how I was going to proceed or what it was going to look like.

My next step was to select fabric to start my creative juices flowing. I  pulled out some Yukata cottons with space themed prints and tossed them on the floor. Then I found some pure white I had washed and ironed for another--untouched--idea, and tossed that down beside the yukata cloth. Hmmm. I rummaged around and found a wild orange and green print off some clearance shelf somewhere and tried it with what I already had. Nothing yet. Then, underneath a plastic bag of felted wool sweaters and a chunk of black batting, I found yards and yards of a hand dyed lightweight cotton with a brown background and little black "cracks" with pink smudges here and there. Since I am planning to quilt this by hand, the light weight appealed to me. And the little cracks in the universe got me thinking along a whole new line. I folded up everything else and filed it away.

From my drawers and drawers full of bias tape I pulled half a dozen colors and laid them across the brown cotton. I liked the way the brown reminded me of the original chintz Bethlehem Star I was keeping in mind while I worked. But none of the colors of the bias tape were sparking anything else. Then I saw a spool of 1/2" white I had bought on eBay once for $2.57. 100 yards of white bias tape--enough for about 34 Chanel suits! It gave me plenty of contrast against the brown. Perfect.

Now, onto the star. I had no idea how to proceed. Should I make large spikes? Overlapping circles? Spoke-like straight lines? Then I thought of the pictures I had seen of actual stars themselves, and thought about how they looked almost like fluid...and then I saw in my mind that I could use short pieces of bias sewn down at random but clumped together into a roughly circular, gigantic star on the space-like brown.

"I wonder what that would look like?" I  asked out loud, and then I started sewing. The photo above is where I stopped for the day after a few hours of sewing. I imagine it will take a few full days before I have enough white lines to know if I am getting done.

That is how I work. I  find out what something is going to look like by making it. I know that many people prefer to know what it is going to look like before they start. But for me the gamble that I might not like what it looks like when I am all done is worth the gamble that I might love the surprising effects I cannot forsee when I start. Primarily, however, I am just excited to have a concept that makes me want to go to work. If I try make something beautiful, or something historic, or something that will be easy to teach, I find my mind wandering, and I end up feeling like my heart is just not in it.

I need the feeling of exploring unknown territory. That is what it looks like to me!

Joe Cunningham