THE EVERGLADES 32 1/2 x 60 1/4". On loan to the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Boston. Presented in 1961 to Jacqueline Kennedy by Earl Cunningham.

Earl Cunningham  "The Everglades"

 
a St. Augustine folk icon

Earl Cunningham (1893-1977) was born in Edgecomb, Maine. At age 13, he was sent into the world to make his own way. He peddled pocket knives, pans and even his paintings. In 1912 he found a job on J. P. Morgan's thirty five foot yacht, the Grace, and later became a seaman sailing the large schooners that moved cargo from Maine to Florida. In 1949 he settled in St. Augustine, Florida and opened an antique and second hand shop called the Over-Fork Gallery.
It was on a sunny day in November, 1969, that two women, Marilyn Mennello and her friend, Jane Dart, decided to drive from Winter Park to St. Augustine for a day of shopping. They entered an antique shop. Standing in the corner was a small man with grey hair, round glasses, a bushy mustache and the attitude I-really-don't-care-if-you-buy-anything-just-get-our-of-here. They left the shop and came to an abrupt halt when they looked into the window of the shop next door. Peering through the grimy windows, they could see several large paintings full of vibrant colors, simple but engaging designs and signed Earl Cunningham. A sign in the window warned These Paintings Are Not For Sale! Not to be denied, the two women returned to the Over-Fork Gallery where they convinced the owner, Earl Cunningham, to let them view the "treasure trove" of vibrant and primitive paintings.

ARCHANGEL GABRIEL Wood, 13 x 36"
Earl Cunningham "Archangel Gabriel"

They convinced this "crusty dragon of Saint George Street" to sell a painting to each of them. To avoid parting with his beloved works of art, he demanded five-hundred dollars cash each, thinking the ladies would never return. Cunningham was shocked when the two women did, in fact, return the following week with the cash. He almost cried. The paintings were like family and he couldn't bear to split them up. He had always envisioned his collection of work would one day be displayed in its entirety in a museum. Finally, Cunningham relented and sold the two paintings. It was then the seed of discovery of this 20th century folk artist was planted.
In May, 1970, Marilyn Mennello arranged for the Loch Haven Art Center (now the Orlando Museum of Art) to feature his work in a one person exhibition. Two years later, the Orlando show was followed by an even larger show at the Museum of Arts and Science in Daytona Beach.
Sometime in the late '60s, Cunningham traded a painting to the internationally recognized photographer, Jerry Uelsmann, in return for a series of photographs of his antique shop, his gallery and himself. The dusty St. Augustine storefront was torn down long ago and replaced by a replica Spanish colonial house. Today these photographs are crucial documents for understanding Cunningham's business and his informal museum on historic St. George Street. "No one really took him seriously" says Lightner Museum director, Robert Harper, who was an 11-year old tourist when he met Cunningham. "You know the saying: A prophet is ignored in his own country. That applied to Earl Cunningham. He was something of an oddity. No one really appreciated what he was doing."

A SAIL AT DAWN 20 x 24" Oil on masonite, c. 1960
Earl Cunningham "A Sail At Dawn" "There were paintings of three-masted schooners larger than mountains and lighthouses striped like barber poles from which he had painted rays of light beaming out hope to the little people in the ships below. He painted with a childlike freshness that simply fascinated us and made us want to possess every painting there." - Marilyn Mennello


In 1984, Michael Mennello began to make inquiries about Cunningham because he wanted to acquire a painting for Marilyn. He discovered the artist had taken his life in 1977. The news spurred the Mennellos to begin a nationwide search to find his paintings. Over the years, they acquired, restored and cataloged about 300 of the known 450 artworks.
With the guidance of Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of America Folk Art, New York, a collection of sixty-six works titled "The rediscovery of a major twentieth century American folk artist" was shown in 1986 in New York City. Bishop wrote, "Today his work remains at the forefront of the 'historic fantasy' evolution of twentieth century American folk art." Since then the paintings have been displayed in more than thirty museums across the country and around the world and are part of the permanent collections of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.Earl Cunningham
The Mennellos and their Cunningham collection were featured in this publication's Winter/Spring 1990 issue which ran in conjunction with a Folk Art lecture series sponsored by Antiques & Art Around Florida. One of the featured speakers was Dr. Robert Bishop, then director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. We regret his untimely death the following year.
The Mennello Museum of American Folk Art opened in Loch Haven Park, Orlando, Florida in November, 1998. The setting, full of whimsey, color and spectacular views overlooking Lake Formosa, includes two large rooms devoted to the one-hundred Cunningham paintings and wood carvings that make up the museum's permanent collection. The rest of the museum displays sections of the City of Orlando's Public Art collection and traveling exhibits.
"I believe this is the realization of all his dreams" says Mennello. "He knew he was good and he knew his paintings belonged in a museum. This is their home."

Earl Cunningham "Archangel Gabriel"

THE MENNELLO MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FOLK ART
Loch Haven Park
900 East Princeton Street
Orlando Florida 32803
407-246-4278

Email: cityoforlandoart@mindspring.com
www.mennellomuseum.com
Tuesday-Saturday 11 am to 5 pm
Sunday Noon to 5 pm and
Thursday 11 am to 8 pm


Antiques & Art Around Florida
The Best Antiques Guide Magazine
in the U.S.!

[Top of Page | Editorial Articles | Home]

For best results, use a Netscape browser.