Handmade: Flint water crisis flows through quilt

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Just as the Flint water disaster began making national news, Joe Cunningham was busy making the second addition to his “Crazy City” quilt series. The 84-inch square quilt, titled “Crazy City II”, would be his fiber art interpretation of the city where he was born and raised – Flint. He says he’d heard snippets about the water situation in his hometown, but “it really blew up on the national news” around the same time he started making the quilt.

“The quilt is a visual representation of my feelings about the water and Flint in general. It has a ‘river of blood’ that runs through it.” It’s made with a red fabric “from a textile tile training center in Ghana. I used the African fabric only because I liked the way it looked. The fabric that looks like chains is a hand-dyed Japanese fabric.”

Cunningham has been a professional quiltmaker since 1979 after learning at the hands of a close friend, and although in 1994 he moved to San Francisco where he met his wife, Carol LeMaitre, he still has dozens of friends living in Flint, and they’re “extremely upset” about the contaminated water situation, he says. His mother and sister live just outside Flint in Flushing and Swartz Creek, respectively.

He says, “The ones I’ve spoken to think the governor knew more than he is saying. I hate it. To me, it’s part of a long story that started when GM abandoned Flint, and pulled out 70,000 jobs. When GM abandoned Flint, there was no planning for it. I don’t know what the state or city thought was going to happen. There was no plan to help Flint transition. It’s really been under assault for 30 years. In my opinion, this is just part of the ongoing of any reality in Flint by the state and local government.”

Jan Worth-Nelson, a poet, writer and editor of Flint’s East Village Magazine, is one of Cunningham’s friends who’s lived in Flint the past 35 years. Commenting on his work from Los Angeles last week, she said, “He continues to have compassion about that place. I think it’s great that he’s taken an unconventional role as a quilter, and I would like to think that it reflects something about the surprising elements of Flint. Joe is doing just really wonderful peacemaking with his work.” Concerning lead in the city’s water, she said, “I’ve been so angry about it. It feels like a sin has been committed against us, and particularly the children.”

Cunningham does all the stitchwork for his quilts, either by hand or with his robotic long-arm quilting machine, and each takes about two weeks or a month to complete. He sells his impressive fiber art – often abstract configurations of geometric shapes – to museums, individuals and corporate collectors for prices ranging from $8,000 to $10,000 each. His work has been displayed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey.

Cunningham is the author of “Men and the Art of Quiltmaking,” one of the first books on the subject, and he’s co-written 11 other books on quilting. He’s been featured on the Peabody award-winning PBS series “Craft in America,” and made appearances on the HGTV series “Simply Quilts,” and the PBS series “Sewing with Nancy.” And, as a professional guitarist, he once performed one-man musical quilt shows as “Joe the Quilter” nationwide for guilds and theaters. He has since retired the show, and now holds quilt retreats, just outside Seattle, called the Joe Retreat. (For details, visit his website:

A collection of Cunningham’s quilts are currently on display through March 1 at Kerrytown Concert House (415 N. Fourth) in Ann Arbor. He’ll bring the Flint quilt with him to the gallery reception, set for 4:30-6:30 p.m. Feb. 13, where he’ll play a few of his original Michigan-related songs on his guitar. Admission is free. The following day, he plans to visit and stay with friends in Flint, before taking more quilts to the upper peninsula for another show in Hancock at the Copper Country Community Arts Center (CCCAC).

The accomplished quiltmaker is “thinking” about completing his “Crazy City” series with quilts representing Detroit, Rome Italy and Helsinki Finland – cities he has a “relationship with.” (The first in the series,“Crazy City I,” depicted San Francisco.) All five pieces will be “robotically” quilted.

Cunningham will be in Clawson April 21 and 23 for a lecture and workshop hosted by the CAMEO Quilters. Registration deadline is March 17. Visit

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

Contact Joe “The Quilter” Cunningham at