Todd Moe talks with Shelburne's chief curator Jean Burks, and Joe Cunningham - aka Joe the Quilter - who'll give a lecture at the museum next week.
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The Shelburne Museum’s exhibit is titled “Man-Made Quilts: Civil War to the Present.” The idea was conceived by chief curator Jean Burks, who was inspired by a quilt in the museum’s collection that had been made by a civil war soldier recuperating from injury. The 30 quilts currently exhibited in the museum are on loan from a variety of museums and private collectors and span then 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. They represent the individual efforts of men with occupations that range from soldiers to future presidents to fulltime textile artists.
“Men made quilts for several reasons,” said Burks. “First of all, they were engaged in some kind of an armed conflict and got wounded, whether it was the Civil War or the Sioux War or whatever, they sustained injuries. And for some reason, this was considered to be a good occupational recovery tool for soldiers.” There are three quilts made by soldiers in the exhibit.
“Quilts are also made by young boys who were forced to stay at home because of an injury, an accident, arthritis; we hear all these stories. One boy was injured with an axe and had to stay home,” said Burks. According to her, these young boys were unable to participate in the standard activities that their peers took part in and instead were home with their mothers and other female relatives. As a result, they learned to quilt. “In fact, we have a quilt in the show that was made by a future president: a gentleman from Ohio who was injured as a child who then became president of Heidelberg University,” said Burks. Calvin Coolidge also made a quilt in his youth.
The quilts in the exhibit all have unique stories. One of the quilts included in the contemporary section is motorized. Burks described it, “The quilt is a vision of what it would be like if you were sitting in a satellite in space, and of course the planets are rotating, everything’s moving, and so the quilt rotates. And it’s motorized, and hopefully the motor will continue throughout October when the exhibit closes, because it’s constantly on and the quilt is constantly in motion.”
Another quilt in the collection appears as if it is hanging from a clothesline: a piece of rope with two nails at either end. “I have taken 90 guides through this, and I asked them, ‘Take a look at the quilt at the end of the room, and don’t look at the label but tell me what you think it’s made of.’” Some of the guides guessed silk while others said cotton, but the quilt is in fact constructed of wood. It was made by a quilter and Dartmouth graduate in Florida who specializes in carving and painting these quilts that “really fool the eye,” according to Burks.
“The reason I very much wanted to have this in the exhibit is I wanted people to sort of think, ‘Really, what is a quilt? Is it just for a bed?’ Nowadays quilts are made to be art quilts, they hang on the wall, they were never meant to be made for a bed,” said Burks. “What about this piece of sculpture? Is it a quilt? So I sort of wanted to push the envelope of people’s thinking about what a quilt is.”
Additionally, the museum’s founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, was very interested in whimsical items. The museum has witch bowls, glass canes, mustache cups and more as a part of her legacy. Burks concluded, “I think it’s very much in the spirit of Mrs. Webb.”
Joe Cunningham has been making quilts for about 33 years and has written books about quilting. Though he’s currently a resident of San Francisco, he has also lived in Vermont and New York City. He will give a presentation at Shelburne Museum next Thursday, June 28.
Cunningham greeted the question of how he got started quilting with laughter. “In the catalog essay that I wrote for the show, ‘Quilts By Men,” I point out that this was peculiar to my experience, but it turns out that that was the number one question that whenever historically, it’s learned that a man makes quilts, then it becomes imperative to figure how they got started,” said Cunningham, who quilts full time. “It’s a fascinating thing I think because, I think, sociologically, it’s almost a shock for a man to go into a realm that is so identified with women.”
Cunningham explained that he first began quilting in 1979 after he met a woman who made quilts, and he wanted to impress her. The woman received a grant to document someone else’s collection and was dreading writing the catalog about quilts. Cunningham offered to write it, but had to do research on quilts to prepare. He said, “At that time, there were very few books of any scholarly content whatsoever, and so I read all of them that summer and then she came over to my apartment one night with a little quilt in a hoop and said, ‘If you’re going to write about quilts authoritatively, you should know how to quilt,’ and so she taught me the quilting stitch.”
Cunningham worked on that little quilt until he was proficient enough to work on the woman’s larger quilts. It wasn’t long until he was interested in making his own designs. “And then I did what men always do, or almost always do, when they go into a women’s realm. I decided to professionalize it and to make a living out of it,” he said. He printed business cards and has been quilting for over 30 years now.
Cunningham had been a professional guitar player prior to starting his quilting business. “All I had really cared about my whole life, aside from music, was books and art and paintings. And I thought that art was something that could only be done by someone who was an artist,” said Cunningham. “I never dreamed that I would be able to do anything like that.”
Cunningham was also inspired by his female relatives who made quilts, and becuase of this said that, while art had always been intimidating, quilting was not. “It was only in the last decade or so that I started to realize that I had backed myself into making quilts that looked like, and were indistinguishable from, art,” said Cunningham. According to him, most books about quilting refer to men who were injured and therefore incapable of performing more traditionally masculine tasks. “It’s never said in the literature that John Jones took up quilt making because he liked quilts and wanted to make them,” Cunningham said.