Friday, September 25, 2009

Joe the Quilter

I've always wondered how someone becomes a professional quiltmaker, and I know many readers have as well. Lucky for us, Flint Expatriate Joe Cunningham, who now lives in San Francisco, is here to tell the tale. Take it away, Joe...

I was born at McLaren hospital in 1952 and graduated from Swartz Creek High in 1970. Played guitar all over mid-Michigan in the ‘70s. Had a band called Two Steps Higher that acted as a sort of house band at the old Rusty Nail for a couple of years. I used to run the amateur night at Doubie's. Had a band in the early '80s called The Suttle Family, played a lot at Hat's Pub and other places downtown.

I got started making quilts in 1979 when I had returned to Flint after a couple of years on the road and a friend of mine, Larry...Larry...what the hell was his last name? Oh, right Larry McCarthy, an artist who used to live in lofts downtown, told me he knew a woman who needed a guitar player for some folk gigs she was doing. (Larry was a wonderful artist who made grotesque landscapes of faces, etc. with a ball point pen.) Anyway, the woman—Gwen Marston—had a house full of boxes of quilts. She had a grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation to document the collection of Mary Schafer from Flushing, a great quiltmaker, collector and historian. She liked doing the documentation and collecting all the info on the quilts, but dreaded writing the actual catalogue.

I myself had just finished my only year of college, studying English. I wanted to be a writer. So I offered to write the catalogue. "Fine," she said, "But first you would have to learn about quilts." So I read all the available literature: only about a half a dozen books at that time had any scholarly content. Then one night she came over to my apartment—in a house owned by the infamous John Kotarski—and brought me a small quilt, a thimble, and needle and thread, and showed me how to do the actual hand quilting, so I could write with conviction.
We played some gigs together; I wrote the catalogue; then I started to sit at the quilt frame with Gwen and quilt. Then I wanted to make my own quilt. Then I had the idea of becoming a professional quiltmaker. You don't need a license, a diploma, nothing. Just a business card. We got some gigs talking to quilt groups, then I wrote some magazine articles, then I got a book contract, then the next thing you know, we were professional quiltmakers. We bought some land and built a house up on Beaver Island and started the annual Beaver Island Quilt Retreat, attended by quilters from all over the world.

I returned to Flint in 1989 to start a musical production company with the late great John Johnson, a local composer and musician who died in a car wreck with Bruno Valdez in Feb, 1991. Gwen and I then moved back to the island. We split up, then I went off on my own and ended up in NYC for a year, then in Vermont, as host of a radio show. In late 1993 I was hired to move out here to San Francisco to write all the materials for some international exhibitions of quilts from the ESPRIT quilt collection. It was just a five-month job, but here I met Carol LeMaitre and got married and started a family. Now I travel all over the country to perform my one-man musical, Joe the Quilter, and teach classes. I wrote an essay for the upcoming quilt show at the deYoung Museum and will be doing some lectures, seminars and docent training for the exhibit.

To learn more about Joe and his work go here.
And find out about Gwen Marston and her work here.


  1. Great article, Joe! You need to bring your show to Flint for those of us who aren't in sunny California.

  2. Small world. I was born at McLaren in 1953. Gwen and I went to the same church. I thought she was one of the coolest women on the planet. I am now a quilter.

  3. Flint Historian ApproximatelyNovember 29, 2012 at 7:17 AM

    Ellen, if you're the Ellen Jones that was born in 1953 and went to Longfellow, you're one day older than I am, and sat next to me in Mrs. Powell's class. I have been writing down lists of all the people I remember at different points in my life. I have a patient who was a professor in my program in graduate school, and we have a grand time recalling all the people associated with the program when we get together. The other day, I wrote down all the people who I remember working with during my summers at Chevrolet. I'll soon have to write down a list of all the people I remember from Longfellow.

    1. Flint Historian Approximately - Who are you?! I loved Mrs. Powell and I may be able to help you with your list. Please send me at message at Facebook.

  4. Many fond memories of Joe Cunningham, Gwen Marston and Debi McFarlan at Rusty Nail, Hats and our "second living room" Doubie's back in the seventies. Joe was always an excellent musician!


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at