Folk Painter Gains Recognition That Eluded Him in Tormented Life
Earl Cunningham’s paintings were not for sale. Crockery, old magazines and little trinkets were all available at the shop Cunningham opened in 1949 in St. Augustine, Fla. His folk paintings, however, stayed in a backroom studio where the self-taught artist toiled and dreamed of a day when they would grace the walls of a museum gallery.
That day did come, nearly five decades later and 21 years after Cunningham—paranoid and depressed—put a gun to his head at the age of 84.
The real tragedy is that his one true champion—a woman who hunted down paintings that had disappeared in relatives’ attics, and who traveled all the way to the White House seeking financial support to display them—didn’t make it to see the Smithsonian begin its national tour of his work.
Collector Marilyn Mennello, who opened the Mennello Museum of American Art in 1998 to display a large portion of Cunningham’s 400-plus paintings, convinced the artist to sell her a painting after wandering into his shop in 1969. She spent decades promoting his work, a campaign that culminated last month with the first installment of “Earl Cunningham’s America” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibit opened less than a year after she died from cancer.
More than 50 paintings are featured in the exhibit, most of them on loan from private collectors and museums including the Mennello Museum. Although fans of the avant-garde may find folk art generally pedestrian, the pieces chosen for display do stand out for their vibrancy and playfulness. Contrasting the muted neutrals that tend to surround many of the Smithsonian’s exhibits, accent walls of bright blues, reds and yellows were chosen for Cunningham’s colorful pieces.
Part reality, part imagination, Cunningham’s paintings were created out of nostalgia for the places he lived in and loved, with a daydreamer’s knack for pulling fantasies into the mix. Boats entering a harbor in New England boast bright blue sails. An imaginary volcano bursts in large brushstrokes of red, green, yellow, black and gray. The sun sets in flamingo pink or streaks of blue and yellow, depending on which imaginary skyline you’re looking at. One especially entertaining painting is “Amusement Park,” which features a fancily decorated locomotive and ship.
Although the figures of Cunningham’s paintings were often gnome-like creations of his mind, the landscapes he chose were influenced by what he knew. He left the Maine farm where he was born at age 13 and supported himself as a peddler before sailing back and forth on freight-baring schooners. He never had formal training, instead beginning his painting on scraps of wood, using the boats and farms he saw from his fisherman’s shack as inspiration.
By the time he completed the last of his paintings, Cunningham was divorced, sad and mistrustful. Gazing through the paintings on display, however, it is hard to believe they are the product of a tortured artist. The dark colors and dismal symbolism one might expect from a suicidal painter are virtually absent.
Although the reputation he left behind suggest a tormented individual, his paintings suggest something else. A “something else,” perhaps, that Mennello saw when she first walked into his shop years ago.
Earl Cunningham’s America through Nov. 4 Smithsonian American Art Museum 8th and F Streets, NW For more information, please call (202) 633-1000 or visit http://americanart.si.edu.
About the Author
Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.