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Featured Artists

Earl Cunningham

 

A painter of fanciful, highly colorful scenes of Florida, Earl Cunningham (1893 - 1977) 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.

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