Art has the ability to shift perceptions and inspire. It connects us in ways that transcend language and we’re permanently changed by the creations that move us. If you’re ready to be forever transformed by an artist and his poignant work, then meet tapestry-quilter, “Sunshine Joe” Mallard, who has been breaking down barriers and building up hope for over 50 years.
Sunshine Joe is a masterful storyteller, using pieces of brightly colored fabric and embroidery floss to speak his truth. Joe’s tapestry-quilts are created with thousands of tiny stitches and hand-tied knots and he explains, “It takes me four to five years to make one piece, and it’s my passion.”
As a child growing up in Summit, Mississippi, Joseph Mallard didn’t set out to become a quilter. When Joe was a young boy, his friend group teased him because of his smaller stature and then excluded him from their basketball and football games. Feeling rejected by his peers, Joe went home to confide in his great-great-grandmother, Mandy Greene, a woman born into slavery. “I’d tell her that no one wanted to play with me, and she’d pull me close and say, ‘Don’t worry about what people say you cannot do but find something you can do.’” Then she would let him thread her quilting needles, and that’s how Joe got his start.
While Mandy was there to sew Joe’s first threads of quilting inspiration, there are others who helped. In his twenties, Joe saw the famous former defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams, Rosey Grier, on television doing needlepoint as a stress reliever. Witnessing a man doing needlework was a pivotal moment for Joe. “It took me back to my childhood days and I started stitching,” Joe begins, “the ideas flowed and I was really excited.” That moment solidified that in the world of sewing, there was room for men and masculinity–—a world that had been primarily populated by women. “In my quilts and my tapestries, every one of them has neckties—which symbolize masculinity,” Joe says.
Joe stepped undaunted into the world of quilting and hasn’t looked back. At 80 years old this year, he stitches four to five hours a day—a task that never becomes tedious. Joe says patience has little to do with completing a piece as it’s more to do with harnessing the passion that guides him. “I’m obsessed,” he says. Sunshine Joe’s enthusiasm for his art not only shines from his colorful and elegant tapestries but also radiates from him. The fifth-grade student who gave Joe the nickname “Sunshine Joe” must’ve been witness to this when the student remarked, “The sunshine brings light, and you do, too.”
Joe pays his knowledge of craft and life forward through speaking engagements and working in the classroom with kids, and explains: “I have the children embroider a square to show the need to work as an individual, and then we put it together to show the need to work together as a group. Then we leave the quilt at the institution, and it’s amazing how they really get involved.” For close to 30 years, Joe has volunteered with We Survive, an organization that helps those who live in poverty or are susceptible to poverty, hunger, and homelessness. While working with We Survive, Joe shared motivational thoughts and helped underprivileged children create one-of-a-kind pieces. This year Joe was acknowledged for his contribution with a congressional commendation.
Through his work in textile arts, Joe has learned one must do what it takes to follow his or her dreams. “I’ve been a waiter, scrubbed floors, and washed toilets so I could do my artwork,” Joe says. Some of the highlights of his career have been creating art for President Jimmy Carter, Sammy Davis Jr., and President Barack Obama. “I think back to my great-great-grandmother saying, don’t worry about what other people say you cannot do, and that’s how I live my life,” Sunshine Joe says.
By Tonilyn Hornung | Photo Submitted
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