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
ARCHANGEL GABRIEL Wood, 13 x 36"
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,
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." -
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.
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
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."
THE MENNELLO MUSEUM OF AMERICAN
Loch Haven Park
900 East Princeton Street
Orlando Florida 32803
Tuesday-Saturday 11 am to 5 pm
Sunday Noon to 5 pm and
Thursday 11 am to 8 pm
Art Around Florida
The Best Antiques Guide Magazine
in the U.S.!
[Top of Page
| Editorial Articles |
|For best results, use a Netscape