Moments of inspiration spark young career

ADDISON — Along the way to choosing a career as an artist, Addison resident and 2010 college graduate T.J. Cunningham experienced two epiphanies.
One came five years ago, when Cunningham, then 17, worked at Addison’s Bridge Restaurant. Cunningham had always since the age of 4 or 5 spent time, in his own words, “drawing pictures and creating things and painting.”
In his teens, the home-schooled Cunningham turned to sculpture, and began creating turtles, snakes and dinosaurs. At one point, he persuaded the restaurant owner to allow him to display a roughly two-foot-tall sculpture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Sitting in Middlebury’s The Art House this past Thursday, Cunningham explained what happened next — something that convinced him to consider fine art as a career: Two days later someone paid him $100 for the dinosaur.
“In the instant I sold the sculpture, I was like, ‘You know, I’m 17 and I sold this, and if you can sell something, you can make it,’” he said. “That was what I was thinking, that I was going to put aside the doubt and just follow this dream.”
Cunningham, whose family had moved to Addison from his native Cambridge, Vt., when he was 10, enrolled in Florida’s Pensacola Christian College. He majored in its commercial arts program to give him a fallback position, and graduated Magna Cum Laude in May. But he went intending to become a sculptor.
That plan lasted about two weeks into his first oil painting class, when he experienced his second epiphany. After instruction in the fundamentals — drawing, lighting, edges and color — the class began its first painting project, a still-life of a pear. One night, Cunningham was alone in the painting lab as he neared completion of the work.
“It was just me and the canvas and the pear. I knew then. I don’t know what really marked the moment. I think I felt myself succeeding. I think it was the tip of the iceberg. It was just something I could just explore excellence in for the rest of my life,” he said.
Now, Cunningham is preparing for his first solo show in his career as an oil painter. The Art House, in the Marble Works between the Marble Works Pharmacy and the Farmers’ Diner, will host the show from Aug. 13 to Sept. 4. The show kicks off with an open house on Friday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. and coincides with Middlebury’s monthly Arts Walk.   
His diverse show includes still-lifes, portraits, historical scenes from the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and more intimate looks at college life.
Art House gallery assistant Linda Hampton-Smith, an artist herself as well as a longtime art teacher, said she is amazed that Cunningham’s work is not that of a mature, mid-career painter.
 “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve taught art for years … He’s a quick study, and I mean the quickest of studies. He really latched onto this, and from the sound of it, he’s a passionate paint-aholic,” Hampton-Smith said.
Cunningham won’t dispute that assessment of his passion. He recalled what happened after he painted the pear.
“It was as if it was all that mattered, it was all that I needed for a long time. It was almost over the top for a while. I was obsessed with painting. I definitely missed out on a couple friendships and things like that in college that everybody else (enjoyed). I never went to anything. I was always, always, always painting,” Cunningham said. “Balance is a little difficult sometimes when you’re so in love with something.”
Cunningham had worked with different media, but liked the freedom and expressiveness he found unique to oil painting. Acrylic paint dries quicker, he said, and watercolors did not speak to him the same way.
“It’s just the way oil feels, the way oil looks. There’s a life and energy when you’re painting … I think it feels so free, you’re just gliding across the cloth,” he said. “You can take a large brush and just sweep across and cover a square foot of canvas just like that, and then slow way down and do something just delicate and intricate.”
Cunningham also discussed the variety of his subjects, from dorm rooms to defeated sailors on the gunboat Philadelphia.
“They’re like the steps of a journey,” he said. “I definitely have a desire to take things that seem common … but they’ve affected my life in certain ways. I want to remember these things. It’s almost like a journal. You can see college. I love Vermont.”
His personal experiences inform his work, including portraits of friends or people who have impressed him, landscapes of Snake Mountain, and even “With Regret,” depicting the sailors on the Philadelphia. An unsuccessful attempt to move away from home three years ago sparked that painting, he said.
“Dad had to come in the minivan. I stuffed everything in the minivan and went home. It was sort of like that frustrated retreat,” he said. “I wanted to express those (feelings) in some kind of way. And the expression on his face, he’s not pleased about what has happened, but there’s determination in the retreat that there will be a victory to come.”
Cunningham’s religion also informs his work, he said. Cunningham said he wants to say “something worthwhile” with his art, especially his portraiture.
“I’m a Christian. That shifts all of my world views in a certain direction. I believe very strongly in the dignity of man, and because of that I see something beautiful in every person,” he said. “There will still be landscapes. There will still be still-lifes. But I’m really headed in the portraiture direction. Because I see a human being, and because of my religious views and my view of God as something so special and so wonderful … I want to show my respect and my admiration for what a person is.”
Hampton-Smith said a focus on portraiture, which she said is a field that few master, might be a wise choice for Cunningham.
“I love his portraiture,” she said. “Photo references are the tools of the trade, but the ones he’s done from life, where the people are sitting and fidgeting, and he just has to quick, quick, quick, catch it, those are the ones I like.”
Cunningham and Art House owner Mary Swanson arranged a year ago to stage this show, and Cunningham has been hoarding his paintings since. He has put up only two for sale, both at The Art House at around Christmas. One, an 8-by-10-inch painting of a quaking aspen in his Addison yard, sold for $180.
“It sold fairly quickly. That was really the only time I have had a painting for sale,” he said. “It was a little confidence boost in the middle of the school year.”
 After this show, he will focus not only on his art, but also his career.
“I will be working very hard to set up more shows in places that have larger collector bases … I would like to be approaching galleries in New York City within a year,” Cunningham said. “I have shows I have specific ideas for, and it’s just going to be marketing those, lots of press releases and posters and more marketing.”
But first, Cunningham is doing his best to make sure his career starts well at The Art House. 
“This is the attempt to leave the runway, if you will. I’m really going to just paint after this, and so I really need to make a lot of connections and make some friends and really push my work from here on out,” he said. “This is the time it’s going to start, and from here on out I’m going to be a fine artist and make my living at this. And really say something worthwhile.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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