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Earl Cunningham? Who He?

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The name didn’t ring any bells.

The scholars and collectors attending the opening of “Earl Cunningham’s America” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum all knew of this artist and his work. But for us Ordinary Joes, this guy’s body of work was a major discovery.

Or perhaps we were all just suffering the end-of-vacation blues. Because to admire a Cunningham is to fall for coastal scenes of nostalgic idylls and fanciful visions. The brightly colored paintings are embellished with Viking ships and 19th-century schooners, all looking as naturally a part of the surrounds as a robin in the garden at springtime.

“Wishful memories,” is how curator Virginia Mecklenburg characterized the 50 folk art paintings on view. Cunningham made them over a lifetime of travels along the Eastern seaboard from Edgecomb, Maine, where he was born in 1893 to St. Augustine, Florida, where he tragically took his own life in 1977.

His name is new to us now largely because he hated to sell his works. He called them “his brothers and his sisters.” He ran a curio shop on St. George Street in St. Augustine and anyone even broaching the subject of purchasing one of his paintings was likely to have been tossed from the shop.

One stubborn admirer, Marilyn Mennello from Winter Park, Florida, managed to convince Cunningham to sell just one work. And after his death, Mennello spent decades finding, collecting and assembling a body of his works--the core of the exhibition now on view at SAAM.

For admirers following now in Mennello’s footsteps, take heart, there may be more of them out there. A quick check on eBay, though, and the only Earl Cunningham there is a Reggae artist. Not the same guy.

(Courtesy of the collection of Mr. Ross L. Silverbach) 

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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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