Published  01/05/2008

Searching for the Dragon of St George Street

Searching for the Dragon of St George Street

Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) or 'The Dragon of St George Street', as he was called by residents near his Over-Fork Gallery in St Augustine, Florida, left home at 13 to make his way in the world. He spent much of his life travelling by ship along the coast from Maine to New England and Florida, collecting Indian artefacts and various gadgets and trinkets that he sold as his main means of support. He also created more than 400 paintings.

Curators and critics have labelled his peaceful odes to pre-industrial life in an American Eden in many ways. Whether one calls Cunningham 'folk artist', 'modern primitive', 'memory painter', 'an American Fauve' or any other term evoking his passionate colour sense, intuitive compositional strategies, idiosyncratic imagery and confident blending of inner and outer experience, there is no doubt that he stands with the most talented self-taught artists.

Cunningham's work might easily have been lost if not for 'fate', as collector Marilyn Logsdon Mennello called the force that made her Cunningham's primary champion.1 Mennello met Cunningham in 1969 at his gallery in St Augustine and, captivated by the paintings he had hung in a space next to his curio shop on St George Street, just barely persuaded him to sell her and a friend one each. Soon after meeting him, Mennello helped to connect Cunningham with curators who could organise exhibitions of his work; these shows include 'The Paintings of Earl Cunningham', held in 1970 at the Loch Haven Art Center in Orlando; 'Earl Cunningham: American Primitive at the Museum of Arts and Sciences' in Daytona Beach, Florida; and one that has travelled across the States, 'Earl Cunningham: His Carefree American World', presented by the Museum of American Folk Art and New York University's Center for American Art. While he lived, Cunningham resisted breaking up his body of work. Only after he died (by his own hand) in 1977 was Mennello able to track down and acquire her collection. To house it, in 1998 Mennello and her husband Michael opened the Mennello Museum of American Art, which contains most of his extant pictures, as well as materials that fill in some of the many blanks in his life story.

'Earl Cunningham's America', a major travelling show of 47 works currently on view at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, owes an enormous debt to the woman who was the artist's cheerleader for decades.2 The show's location at the museum's Lincoln Center branch is fitting and fortuitous. Away from the main site in midtown Manhattan, where crowds spill over sidewalks waiting to enter the Museum of Modern Art next door, or travel to and from nearby Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue shops, visitors can revel in Cunningham's peaceful harbours, glorious skies and quirky imagery. Good news for all: the show and a detailed, full-colour pamphlet, The Collector's Legacy, are free of charge.

It is likely that visitors will be tempted to purchase two other publications available at the venue for their home libraries. The full-colour, hardcover exhibition catalogue, Earl Cunningham's America, includes texts by writer Wendell Garrett, Virginia M Mecklenburg, Senior Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Carolyn Weekley, Director of Museums at Colonial Williamsburg. These authors place Cunningham within the genre of American folk art that, beginning after World War I, drew increasing attention from curators, critics and established artists. Another catalogue, Earl Cunningham: Dreams Realized, was produced when the Mennello museum opened. H Barbara Weinberg, Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, wrote a sensitive, perceptive text discussing the artist's life and linking his approach, imagery and colour sense with known artists, including Thomas Cole, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marsden Hartley, Charles Burchfield, Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck and Anna Mary Robertson ('Grandma') Moses.3

Cunningham had hung a reproduction of one of de Vlaminck's paintings on a wall in his gallery, and Grandma Moses, a national celebrity by the 1950s, was clearly a touchstone for him. Reproduced on greeting cards, wall calendars, home fabrics, tins and other novelty items, her paintings were readily available to Cunningham the curio dealer. Mecklenburg says, 'It is tempting to believe that Cunningham was inspired by the aging grandmother's meteoric rise to fame. He clipped articles about her activities, signed one of his paintings "Earl Cunningham American Primitive", printed a business card identifying himself as a "primitive artist", and published an advertisement, presumably in hopes that he, too, would be discovered'.4

Born in 1893 to a farming family in Edgecomb, Maine, Cunningham was a wanderer from his early teens until 1949, when he settled in St Augustine. He earned his living variously, learning automobile engineering and watercraft navigation. A scavenger and amateur archeologist, he dug for Indian artefacts, coral and whatever items he could sell to tourists. As early as age 16, he also painted, using boards that washed ashore from the sea as canvas and purchasing paints in five-and-dime stores; sales of his early paintings added to his income. In 1915, Cunningham married piano teacher Ivy, or 'Maggie', Moses. The couple travelled between Florida and Maine in a 35-foot cabin cruiser, spending time in Ohio, Georgia and South Carolina as well. During the 1920s, he purchased a farm in Freeport, Maine, and opened his first 'museum' to display specimens from digs and paintings. Sometime after 1936, he and Maggie divorced; he subsequently moved to South Carolina, bought a farm and raised chickens.

By this point, art had become the centre of his life. He set a personal lifetime goal of 1,000 paintings; he envisioned a museum to house them, and set up his gallery on St George Street. During the years that followed, it seems that Cunningham became increasingly isolated, prone to depression and even paranoia, but he did maintain a close friendship with his landlord, Theresia Paffe. Weinberg says, 'He became an eccentric, prickly and irascible shopkeeper, the notorious 'Crusty Dragon of St George Street', who was likely to turn away customers even when the gallery was open and was resistant to selling the paintings that he begrudgingly permitted a lucky few to see'.5

Like painter Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988), who placed a 'No Paintings for Sale' sign on the door of his studio, Cunningham actively kept his paintings out of the marketplace. (A hand-painted sign with the message 'Nothing for Sale' hung in the window of the gallery). Another correspondence between Hubbard and Cunningham is their level of self-reliance and rejection of industrialised America. A fierce sense of independence, notable in America's early settlers, marked both. While Hubbard sought adventure on land as a follower of Henry David Thoreau, Cunningham was drawn to sailing. Hubbard's vision of Eden was a secluded riverbank in Trimble County, Kentucky; Cunningham's consisted of settlements along the East Coast.6 Aside from electric lights that shine out from some of Cunningham's lighthouses, 'progress' on industrialists' terms is absent. Rather, Cunningham added charming covered bridges, horse-drawn vehicles, schooners and canoes to his carefully arranged views of nature preserved.

Photos of Cunningham's shop suggest a precise and methodical turn of mind. A professional in his own eyes, he painted on durable material (masonite), gave up dime store paints for those of finer quality, and crafted wood frames with unique treatments suited to a work's mood and imagery. Early in 1961, he sent a painting, 'The Everglades' (c.1950), to Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House. (The work is now at the John F Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.) When the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida, offered him a one-person show, he insisted that all 200 paintings completed to date be included.

Cunningham's jumbling of recurring motifs (the Everglades and Seminole Indians, double-ended Viking ships and schooners, flamingoes and palm trees) is quite idiosyncratic, but the motifs themselves are not. Some were publicised in popular periodicals from the early 1900s through to the mid-century. Hundreds of schooners had been built in the shipyards of Boothbay Harbor, near his birth place; he witnessed the peak of the industry, its demise in the 1920s when schooners were being supplanted by steam-powered craft, and public discussion of the issue. Similarly, Viking lore sparked regional and national interest. In Cunningham's birth year, a Viking ship was exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. For decades afterward, stories of Viking activity and settlements along the Maine coast circulated among adults and children as popular mythology. Mecklenburg explains, 'Interior Secretary Harold Ickes travelled to Florida in 1935 to negotiate an official end to the 100-year-old war between Seminoles and the US government and to open legal and political channels that would facilitate commercial development. Tourism, road construction and swamp drainage for farmland threatened not only to transform the natural environment of the Everglades, but also to alter permanently a traditional culture'.7

Just as he adopted motifs from popular culture, Cunningham, early in life, embraced an image of America created by its founders. This fiercely independent sojourner kept on the move, observing an America he cherished. Throughout his life, he kept other people at a distance. Yet his elusive character was, evidently, affected by a deep feeling for signs and symbols. 'Independence', 'adventure', 'resilience' and 'fortitude' are words that might come to mind while reading his biography. He is known to have been an engaging storyteller, frequently recounting tales of his adventures. His inclusion of human characters of various colours suggests an egalitarian society, and he added American flags and lighthouses as beacons leading to safe harbours to a number of paintings as well.

Even in the few paintings depicting stormy weather ('Hurricane' and 'Hurricane Warning', both c.1970), the overriding mood of Cunningham's works is peaceful. The safety and security that his paintings exude are grounded in nature. Coming upon one of his oases is like turning a corner on a secret place that has, miraculously, escaped modernisation; in essence, a place functioning outside of time, but rooted in the specifics of a distinct period and way of life. Semi-tropical landscapes like 'Sanctuary', c.1933, and 'Palm Beach', c.1950, testify to nature's bounty and benevolence; and the neatly ordered existence shown in scenes of Maine and New England ('Safe Harbour-Perkins Cover', c.1930, and 'New England Autumn', 1928, for example) report harmony between nature and human beings.

Cunningham achieved his peaceful vistas, viewed for the most part from water to land, dramatically through an intense relationship with colour. Weinberg states, 'His strong unmodulated colours suggest the influence of animated cartoons, such as Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937) or 'Fantasia'(1940), as well as the works of Paul Gaugin, the Symbolists and the Fauves, whose aesthetic had been assimilated into popular imagery'.8 Cunningham's horizons are, frequently, explosions of colour: gold, rust and orange in 'Summer Day at Over-Fork', c.1955; indigo, peach, bisque and lavender in 'View of Volcano Island', c.1930; and a juicy melon-like red in 'Red Sky Over Folly Beach, SC', c.1975, among them.

In some paintings, he even painted curtain-like clouds in the upper corners, evoking stage sets. Because bodies of water, mountains, trees and large expanses of sky are dominant, it takes a few moments for the eye to register a profusion of smaller details. Considered in terms of the stage, his flexible transposition of elements from different places and times within single paintings (flamingoes in Maine, canoes and Viking ships sailing in the same harbour) makes sense as props taken from a storehouse of images stocked over the years.

As the writer Gail Sher says in her book The Intuitive Writer, 'Complete fidelity to an experience is impossible. Bridging the gap between one's perception and one's representation is seemingly beyond our grasp'. Levine uses the term the 'imagining ear' to explain how an artist or writer bridges the gap. 'Hovering around the event, objective truth has a chance to mingle with the truth of one's inner experience'.9 Judging from his work, Cunningham was confident that his inner, intuitive process would render a more accurate, or truer, expression.

Mennello died on 17 October 2006. Her husband continues to oversee their museum with a broader scope of American folk art. Although she did not live to see Earl Cunningham's America, the exhibition and catalogue are dedicated to the woman who tirelessly promoted him. The concept of fate is tricky, but by the end of her life Mennello might have recognised something stronger than fate - passion, sensitivity and patience, perhaps - behind her collection.

Cindi Di Marzo

1. Describing in hindsight her initial encounter with Cunningham, Mennello stated, 'After reading this story, I am sure you will agree with me that it truly was "Fate" that took me to St Augustine so many years ago. If anyone had told me in 1969 when I first met Earl Cunningham that I would one day be the curator of his great collection of paintings, I would have laughed and called them quite mad'. ('The Collector's Story', in H Barbara Weinberg and Michael A Mennello. Earl Cunningham: Dreams Realized. Orlando, FL: The Mennello Museum of American Folk Art, 1998, p. 21).
2. The official exhibition schedule for 'Earl Cunningham's America' is as follows: the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, 10 August-4 November 2007; the American Folk Art Museum, New York City, 4 March-3 August 2008; and the Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, FL, 6 March-2 August 2009.
3. For a comprehensive study of Cunningham's life and work, see Earl Cunningham: Painting an American Eden by art historian Robert Hobbs (New York: Harry N Abrams, 1994), a volume now out of print but available in public libraries and second-hand.
4. Virginia M Mecklenburg, 'The Dragon of St. George Street'. In: Wendell Garrett, Virginia Mecklenburg and Carolyn Weekly, Earl Cunningham's America. Smithsonian American Art Museum, p. 33.
5. Earl Cunningham: Dreams Realized, p. 27.
6. For more on Hubbard, see: Wendell Berry, Harlan Hubbard: His Live and Work. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
7. Earl Cunningham's America, p. 42.
8. Earl Cunningham: Dreams Realized, p. 31.
9. Gail Sher, The Intuitive Writer: Listening to Your Own Voice. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002, pp. 69-70.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA