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 John Cunningham  (1904 - 2004)

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Lived/Active: California/Michigan/New Jersey / Italy      Known for: abstract imagery, landscape painting, teaching

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John Cunningham
An example of work by John Cunningham
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Obituary. Carmel Herald (January 29, 2004)

Carmel: John Cunningham remembered as teacher, creator.  Artist's life paralleled city's.  January 29, 2004 by Lisa Crawford Watson special to the Herald:

The loss of legendary Carmel artist and teacher John Cunningham, who died last week less than three months shy of his 100th birthday, marks the end of a colorful era and creative life that characterized the first century of Carmel-by-the-Sea.  Cunningham was born April 5, 1904 into a New Jersey family of painters and poets.  The year he was born, Cezanne painted Mount SainteVictoire, Matisse returned to St. Tropez, a 23-year-old Picasso claimed Montmartre and moved into the Bateau-Lavoir, and Puccini premiered Madama Butterfly at La Scala in Milan.  

Carmel was as nascent as Cunningham.  He was raised in New York with the Metropolitan Museum of Art as his playground.  Although he spent a semester at Manhattan College in New York, a moment at St. Mary's College in Moraga and a stretch at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco, finally commencing from the University of California at Berkeley, it was acting that brought him to Carmel at age 22.  The young artist was performing in intimate theater venues when he premiered in 1926 at the Kuster Golden Bough Theater as a cast member in Noel Coward's The Young Idea. The show ended and the theater company departed, but Cunningham remained in Carmel.  

That same year, on April 3, 1926, the local newspaper reported, "It is somewhat of a wonder that Carmel, known the world over as an art center, has no centrally situated, picturesquely located, open-at-all-times gallery."  On the afternoon of Aug. 8, 1927, 19 artists, including Cunningham, met at Gray Gables, the home of artists Josephine Culbertson and Ida Johnson, to establish the Carmel Art Association "for the advancement of art and for cooperation among artists."  Membership in the new association was made available to artists of "accepted standing" in the art community.  Meetings were held weekly at Gray Gables until a suitable gallery could be established.  Finally, for $40 per month, the association rented Bert Heron's Seven Arts Building at Lincoln Street and Ocean Avenue. A craftsman building with high gables and wooden beams considered perfect in appearance and location for high-quality art exhibits.

Meanwhile, in 1929, having earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees from UC-Berkeley, Cunningham became an honorary traveling fellow of the university.  He studied with Hans Hoffman in Munich, apprenticed with Andre L'Hote in Paris and traveled to Cagnes-Sur-Mer to work with Italian sculptor Beniamino Bufano.  Cunningham returned to the United States to become the artist-in-residence and chairman of the Fine & Industrial Arts Department at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.  By 1935, he was directing the summer session for the School of Fine Arts at Mills College in Oakland.  Cunningham returned to California in 1939 to become staff artist on the Governor's Commission for the Golden Gate International Exhibition of Treasure Island.  Cunningham's work caught the attention of acclaimed painter Armin Hansen, who had established the Carmel Art Institute two years earlier.  Now ill, Hansen invited him to assume instruction at the Institute for the summer session.  By summer's end, he became director of the institute, paid Hansen a reported $64 for furniture and equipment and continued to run the operation as a nonprofit corporation well into the 1980s.

Cunningham also established an institute abroad program on the Italian island of Capri, where he would become the artist in residence for months at a time, alternating with his first wife, Patricia, and local artist Gene Elmore.  "If it hadn't been for John," said Elmore, "1 wouldn't be a painter.  I was pre-med in college; I was going to be a psychologist.  Two wars stopped that.  I would have been in school till I was 90.  I had two GI Bills, so I decided to move to California.  I went to Carmel and couldn't find any work, so I took a walk on Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, where I saw an ad for the Carmel Art Institute.  "I spent the next four years at the Institute with John and Pat.  John was such a good teacher. For the first year, we did nothing but color exercises.  After students got started in art, Pat would take over. She was a marvelous artist herself."  

By 1961, Cunningham was divorced from Patricia and was teaching art in Carmel when a young woman, also named Patricia, stopped by the institute to inquire about art classes.  Instead of learning to paint, she says, she fell in love with the painter, and the two were married in the fall of that year.  They enjoyed 43 years of marriage before his death.  "John was known as a great teacher with many, many students, who turned out to be very successful," Patricia said, "He was a very kind, pleasant man, who had a unique way about him."  Carmel artist Sue Roberts was another student of Cunningham's during the 1960s who continues to acknowledge his influence in her work. "John had such an incredible will and personality," Roberts said, "He was so important in the art community and quite a dramatic figure around town.  I can tell you most of the artists on the Peninsula studied under him at one time.  He would critique us, and he had such power.  I can still hear his voice when I paint.  I learned color from him.  He had a way of treating color and space in a way I'd never seen before or since - ~except maybe from Cezanne."

Information submitted by the artist's daughter, Blair Cunningham

Biography from Crocker Art Museum Store:
John Cunningham (1904-2004)

A painter, sculptor, graphic artist, he was born in Madison Township, New Jersey on April 5, 1904.  When he was a child, Cunningham moved with his family to New York City where the family home was on the same block as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He attended Manhattan College and worked for a few years as a seaman before settling in the San Francisco Bay area.  There he enrolled at St Mary's College and received an M.A. degree from UC Berkeley in 1928.  At that school he was awarded a traveling scholarship for further study in Munich with Hans Hofmann and in Paris with André Lhote.  While in France, he met sculptor Benny Bufano in 1930 and became his assistant in Cagnes-Sur-Mer.

In 1937 he settled in Carmel, California where for nearly 50 years he was director of the Carmel Art Institute.

Member: Carmel AA (pres. 1965, 1985).

Exh: Munich, 1930; De Young Museum, 1932 (solo); Detroit Institute of Arts, 1932; Chicago World's Fair, 1933; Paris Int'l Expo, 1937; Pan-American Expo (Houston), 1937; NY World's Fair, 1939; Carmel AA, 1939-89; Stanford Gallery, 1943; SFMA, 1951; Gump's, 1956 (solo); Seaside (CA) City Hall, 1967 (solo); Nat'I Art Gallery (Washington, DC), 1970; University Club (SF), 1988 (solo). Murals: Firestone Winery (Los Olivos, CA); Macys (NYC). &Invw;

WWAA 1938-62; WWPC 1951.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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