Monday, September 21, 2009

Earl Cunningham: Safe Harbors and Lost Horizons

The truck’s name was Dirigo, Latin for "I direct," and it fit the temperament of its owner. Earl Cunningham had a strong independent streak, beginning in his youth when, at the age of 13, he left home to make a living as a tinker and a peddler. Growing up in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in the 1890s and early 1900s, Cunningham also had a lifelong fascination with maritime life. The way he lived his life, and the manner in which he chose to express his dreams and record his experiences, led to the creation of one of the most visually arresting bodies of work in 20th-century folk art.

While spending his youth trying to sell paintings of boats and New England farms painted on salvaged wood, Cunningham also learned the maritime trade from a local ship's captain and obtained a license to pilot boats in harbors and on rivers. In 1915 he bought a 35-foot cabin cruiser, where he lived with his new wife Iva, sailing between Maine and Florida.

The Sunshine State captivated him, with its lush, tropical flora and fauna, American Indian communities, and natural wonders like the Everglades. Cunningham collected Indian artifacts and opalized coral, hoping to sell them back in Maine, and painted his surroundings in brilliant colors. He eventually settled in St. Augustine in the late 1940s, where he opened an antique shop called the Overfork Gallery (a play on the phrase “fork over”). In adjoining rooms he had a gallery of paintings that represented his life's work. They were not for sale.

Cunningham had two life goals; first, he wanted to create 1000 paintings and house them in a museum, preferably a museum of his own making. After several failed attempts to accomplish this goal, Cunningham settled in St. Augustine and set up his shop and gallery. In January 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy accepted his gift of The Everglades on behalf of her sailing-obsessed husband and hung it in his office. In his lifetime the artist completed about 450 works, but despite the success with the Kennedy White House they did not make it into museum collections while he was still alive. There is now, thanks to the collecting of Michael and Marilyn Mennello, a large group of his paintings in the Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida. Cunningham’s other life goal, to buy a houseboat and once again live on the waterways he loved, was likewise never realized.

The paintings themselves are remarkable. A great selection of them traveled to the Fenimore Art Museum in 2008 as part of the exhbition Earl Cunningham's America. Brilliantly colored, and focused upon wildlife and all manner of sailing vessels in snug harbors and bays, they seem to reflect Cunningham’s love of nature and his search for a home on the water. It is also fascinating how he combined the Florida landscape with legends of Norse sailors recalled from his youth in Maine.

Cunningham had a long-time companion in Theresia Paffe, who owned the building that housed his gallery. Their relationship was at times tumultuous, as Cunningham was increasingly riddled with anxiety and depression toward the end of his life, but they maintained a close relationship until his death. In 1977, at the age of 84, Cunningham shot himself. Knowing his lifelong ambition to own a houseboat, Theresia noted poignantly in 1979: “He died with the price of one in the bank, and every picture in Overfork has water in it.”
Top to bottom:
The Twenty-One, 1977, oil on fiberboard, 28 11/16" x 52 3/4"
Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello
Earl Cunningham standing in front of Overfork Gallery, 1970
Photograph by Jerry Uelsmann
Palm Beach, 1950, oil on fiberboard, 32 9/16" x 61 1/4"
Collection of Marilyn L. and Michael A. Mennello
The Everglades, about 1960, oil on masonite, 32 1/2" x 60 13/16"
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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