Joe Mallard’s license plate reads JMOOSE. That’s short for “J. Moose Stickingneedle,” a moniker bestowed on the soft-spoken 68-year-old by a child who attended one of the embroidery workshops Mallard leads at local schools, churches and community groups. Also known as “Sunshine Joe,” Mallard teaches his students how to make a “Joe stitch” and a “Joe knot.”
Mallard traces his interest in stitchery to his childhood. Born one of seven siblings in Summit, Miss., he says his great-great-grandmother, a former slave who made crazy patchwork quilts, first introduced him to sewing. Though he often threaded her needle, Mallard never dreamed of plying one himself until he saw National Football League great Roosevelt Grier doing needlepoint on TV. (Grier actually published a book on his hobby, Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men, in 1973.) “If a big guy like that can do it,” Mallard figured, “a little guy like me could do it.”
So he began to freeform embroider, using bright colors, geometric designs and stitches of his own invention. By 1972 he was living in Louisville, where he worked with kids at the Boys & Girls Club of Portland, and he eventually launched his career as an artist. His first creation was a tapestry for comedian Dick Gregory’s 1976 World Hunger Run across America. To chronicle President Jimmy Carter’s political career, he embroidered a denim shirt, which is in the National Archives. Mallard now holds about 40 workshops each year.
“I try to teach (kids) that anybody can start a project, but it takes a special person to finish it, and that it’s the little things you do on a daily basis that allow you to accomplish great things over a period of time,” he says, adding, “I cannot save everybody, but I am making an impact in some children’s lives.”