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 Earl Cunningham  (1893 - 1977)

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Lived/Active: Florida/Maine      Known for: naive landscape and coastal view painting

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Earl Cunningham
An example of work by Earl Cunningham
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Nicknamed 'The Dragon of St. George's Street, Earl Cunningham is notable as an eccentric artist who literally chased away customers. He is best known as a marine painter and worked mostly in Florida and Maine from the 1920s to the 1970s. His style combines naïve and fauve.

A semi-literate, self-taught painter, Cunningham wandered the country during the early part of the 20th century. His art focused on the simple and colorful everyday life, and has been associated with the works of American Folk Artists such as Grandma Moses, Morris Hirschfield and Lawrence Lebduska. Cunningham painted outside the established discipline of his day, and proclaimed himself a 'Primitive Artist'.

Critics and curators have described his work with many terms, including Outsider Art, Primitive, Art Brut, Naïve, and Visionary. Generally labeled as American Folk Art, his work is held in major museums and galleries, and has become mainstream. His pieces are found in the permanent collections of many museums across the country, including the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art.

Cunningham was born in 1893 in Edgecomb, Maine. When he turned thirteen, his father informed him he was now a man, so with his parents' blessings and his promise to complete the eighth grade, Earl left home and went off to work a variety of jobs, including tinker, fisherman, and junkman, while along the way gathering considerable nautical experience. He became an accomplished mariner sailing the East Coast on large coastal ships. During one of these voyages, around 1913, Earl first visited Florida. Over his lifetime, he owned several boats and during World War I worked as a seaman. Cunningham's nautical experience was central to much of the imagery in his art.

In 1915 Earl Cunningham married a piano teacher named Iva Moses, whom he called 'Maggie', and the couple began an almost nomadic lifestyle for several years. They purchased a 35-foot cabin cruiser and traveled up and down the East Coast between Florida and Maine. After World War I they motored between St. Augustine and Maine in a truck converted into a camper, selling Indian relics and coral. Later Cunningham worked at farming in Maine and South Carolina while continuing to paint.

In his artwork, Cunningham used vivid colors to portray his reflections of American life in landscapes and seascapes. His life experiences influenced his works, which celebrate the beauty of nature and often depict dramatic storms or sunsets. His canvases are filled with images of birds, trees, boats and the sea.

Around 1936 the couple were divorced, and in 1949 he moved to St. George Street in St. Augustine, Florida, and opened a second hand shop, which he named the Over Fork Gallery. His landlady, Theresa Paffe (Tese), became his patron, close friend and personal and professional mainstay. From his shop Cunningham sold a variety of items that ranged from marine hardware to greeting cards. He would paint in a back room while keeping an eye out for customers in the shop. Cunningham displayed his artwork with 'Not For Sale' labels, and became known as 'the Dragon of St. George Street' because of his crankiness and eccentricity. He was likely to run prospective customers out of his shop and was more than reluctant to sell his paintings. Cunningham had established a goal to create a museum of one thousand of his own paintings, and this was probably one reason why he was disinclined to sell his work.

Adjacent to his Over Fork Gallery was an art gallery where he did allow some people to view his paintings. Cunningham became acquainted with photographer Jerry Uelsman, who documented the eccentric artist's life. Uelsman agreed to photograph Earl and his gallery in exchange for an original painting.

In January of 1961 Jacqueline Kennedy acquired a Cunningham painting, The Everglades, and had her social secretary write the artist a letter of encouragement, which was understandably a source of great motivation and pride to Cunningham.

In 1969 he was 'discovered' by Marilyn Mennello of Winter Park, Florida, when she visited his Over Fork Gallery in St. Augustine and purchased one of his pieces. Years later, after Cunningham's death, she acquired sixty-two additional works and then, together with her husband, Michael, set out to find as many more as they could.

During his lifetime, Earl Cunningham was not recognized as a significant artist and rarely sold a painting, but it had been his dream to have all of his works displayed in a museum setting. That dream was realized in 1998 when the City of Orlando opened the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art (now The Mennello Museum of American Art) to house the extensive collection of Cunningham's works that the Menello's donated to the museum.

In 1977, Cunningham committed suicide at the age of eighty-four.

The late folk artist was inducted in June 2003, by Secretary of State Glenda E. Hood into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, which had been established by the Florida Legislature in 1986.

Today Cunningham's work is displayed in museum collections through out the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Abby Aldridge Rockefeller Museum of American Folk Art, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Mennello Museum of  Art, Orlando.

By Teta Collins, with credit given to the website of WMFE; to writer Mark Strand; to Gary Libby, director of the Museum of Arts and Sciences of Daytona Beach; to the website of Outsiders' Gallery.

Biography from The Mennello Museum Of American Art:
A painter of fanciful, highly colorful scenes of Florida, Earl Cunningham was a native of Edgecomb, Maine, who worked as a seaman, chicken farmer, and junk dealer before settling in St. Augustine, Florida.  When he was thirteen, his father had told him he was a man, so from that time he left his home, a hardscrable farm, and made his own way, wandering New England as a peddlar, tinkerer, and fisherman.

He lived in a fisherman's shack off the Maine coast, earned a certificate from an automobile repair school, and got a license to pilot ships. Before World War I, he sailed on the huge coastal vessels that toted cargo from Maine to Florida, and many scenes from these ventures appeared in his paintings. In 1915, he married and visited Florida for the first time, returning often to dig up Indian artifacts and catching fiddler crabs to ship back to Maine. When he settled in St. Augustine in 1949, he was divorced and became focused on buying items for less and selling them for more.

In St. Augustine for three decades, he ran an antiques and second-hand shop he called the Over-Fork Gallery on St. George Street. It truly became a curiousity shop with odd objects ranging from coal buckets and birds eggs to Indian artifacts and reproductions of modern art. Living to the age of 84 when he committed suicide, he painted as a side line, creating 402 works by his own tally, short of his goal of 1000 pieces that would be enough for a museum that he planned for his work. Although he never had the museum he envisioned, he had a viewing area in a space adjoining his shop. When people wanted to visit the museum, he would lock the Over-Fork, often asking customers to leave.

Some persons dubbed him the "Grandma Moses" of Florida, although critics have said that he was much less canny about pleasing his audience than Moses--he painted for himself, usually from memories of his childhood. He is considered a 20th-Century Primitive painter, completely self taught with work reflecting his imagination and a world of innocence and purity and orderliness. In his paintings, he had no interest in conveying perspective or depth, but he used color profusely, with his favorites being reds, burnt oranges, and yellows.

His paintings with bold colors, from hardware-store paint cans, and minimal brushstrokes were of sailing ships, flowers, birds, trees, skies and volcanos, and frequently incorporated the image of his wooden sculpture of the angel Gabriel.

In appearance, Cunningham was quite a character. He wore shapeless pants, a sport shirt that was never tucked in, and a beret like Field Marshal Montgomery's. He had his paintings in his shop, usually with "Not For Sale" signs; however he occasionally sold them when he needed money, usually for $100. apiece.

In the early 1970s, he was befriended and promoted by Palm Beach art dealer and museum administrator, John Surovek who with his friend, photographer Jerry Uelsmann, arranged for several exhibitions at the Orlando Museum of Art. They wanted to hang about 50 paintings, but Cunningham insisted on exhibiting 300. Uelsmann also made visual records of the interior of Cunningham's antique shop.

When Cunningham died, he left no will, and his paintings were scattered with a Jacksonville man having 62 and others being in Bath, England, Seattle, New York galleries, and even in the personal collection of Jackie Kennedy, the First Lady. Eventually they were reassembled due to the efforts of Marilyn Mennello, a Winter Park resident who in 1968, drove a visiting friend over to St. Augustine. They went to the Over-Fork, and she asked Cunningham why his work was not for sale. "Because they're not," he replied. He later told her he wanted to keep his work together in one body, but on that day he reluctantly sold her one work, "From the Widow's World," for $500., and he sold her friend another for the same price. He made the prices high, thinking they would never make the purchases, but they did.

When Mennello returned for the paintings, she brought along David Reese, director of the Loch Haven Art Center, which became the Orlando Museum. They convinced Cunningham to have a one-man exhibition there in 1970, and two years later an even larger one was held at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach.

When Marilyn and her husband, Michael Mennello, heard of Cunningham's death in 1977 and that his work was dispersed, they initially purchased 62 paintings from his nephew and later rounded up more, assembling 350 of them or about eighty percent of his output. They had the work cleaned, restored, and catalogued.

Of his work, Marilyn Mennello says she loves "all the little people doing things." She is also well aware that her care and promotion of the pieces is causing them to go up in value, but like their creator, her attitude is that they are "not for sale."

The Mennellos also assembled an archive with the artist's scrapbook and journal and an array of postcards and photos, including those taken by Jerry Uelsmann, that document Cunningham's life and show that what some might regard as pure fantasy was indeed Cunningham's reality.

In 1986, the Orlando Museum of Art had an exhibition of his work arranged by the Mennellos, and in 1987, the Jacksonville Art Museum had one titled "Earl Cunningham: His Carefree American World." In 1995, an exhibition titled "Earl Cunningham and Grandma Moses 'Visions of America' " was held at the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan.

Of Marilyn Mennello and Earl Cunningham, it was written: "Without Marilyn Mennello, the art world would never have heard of Earl Cunningham." Of her efforts, she said: "It was an enormous commitment that has consumed my life. We have lived and breathed Earl Cunningham for so many years, we feel as if he were a member of our family" (Folio Weekly, Orlando, 3/14/2000).

Credits:
Florida Newspapers:

Folio Weekly of Orlando, 9/29/1987; 3/14/2000
Sun Sentinel of West Palm Beach, 7/24/1994
Palm Beach Post, 7/24/1994

Southbridge Massachusetts News 4/19/1994

"Folk Art Messenger," Newsletter of the Folk Art Society of America, Winter 1994.

"Art in Review," New York Times, 2/17/1995. Section C 30

Times-Union Journal 10/26/1986

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Note from JD Jackson on behalf of The Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, Florida

Special Events:

October 9, 2003
Marilyn & Michael Mennello present Earl Cunningham’s painting, “Camp David,” to President George W. Bush in a ceremony at the White House. The painting is currently on display at Camp David.

June 2, 2004

Florida Secretary of State, Glenda Hood, will be present at the Mennello Museum on June 2, 2004, to induct Earl Cunningham into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

2007

A solo exhibition of 60 paintings by Earl Cunningham will be part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s grand reopening celebration in 2007.


Biography from Butler Institute of American Art:
Born in Edgecomb, Maine, self-taught painter Earl Cunningham traveled the East Coast of the United States until he settled in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1949.

Cunningham's complex yet idyllic landscapes and seascapes can be considered "historical-fantasy," combining elements of the past and places he had seen with elements from his imagination.

With his colorful palette and historical inclination, Cunningham frequently depicted Florida's Seminole Indians. In Seminole Indian Summer Camp, Cunningham portrayed Native Americans in the Florida Everglades with flamingos and Viking ships.

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