by Britt Aamodt
This is a story Amy Cunningham likes to share with her students at Westwood Elementary in Zimmerman.
When she was an adolescent, not much older than her students are, she wanted to be a slice of pepperoni pizza for Halloween. A neighbor girl dropped by to have Cunningham’s mom, who was a seamstress, fit her for a costume.
The teenager looked over at the young Cunningham busily drawing large slices of pepperoni without aid of a compass or tracing paper. Her work was picture perfect.
Who knows why the neighbor girl decided Cunningham’s drafting skills would fit her for teaching, but the words were prophetic. Cunningham teaches art at Westwood Elementary School. She’s also an artist.
“Sometimes you know what you’re going to be in life,” Cunningham said. “Sometimes you come back to it later. That’s what I did.”
As a high school student, she said she was “never a bad kid. I just didn’t fit in.”
Not fitting in often made her feel left out — except in Mr. Reichel’s class. Jack Reichel was her high school art teacher. He recognized her talent and encouraged it.
“I didn’t have a lot of positive reinforcement then. So he really influenced me,” she said.
Still, Cunningham decided to drop out of school. A few years later, she was working at a factory, feeling like she’d lost her way in life, when she remembered Reichel. She had his phone number and called him during lunch break.
That one phone call not only changed the direction of her life, but it also set her on the path she’s on today.
He asked if she wanted to volunteer in his alternative-learning art class. She did. And she continued to volunteer as she acquired her GED and later a bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University.
Now Cunningham has her own classroom of students, third through fifth grades. She teaches them painting, drawing, sculpture and even a little bit about history.
As an oil painter, Cunningham has a fascination with people and their machines. It all started with an uncle who loved old cars; Cunningham inherited that interest and created a series of classic car paintings.
Then she saw an old photo of her husband’s uncle Emery. It showed Emery propped against his car, a Fedora on his head and a cigarette burning between his fingers. A rifle rested at his hip.
“The next photo in the series was of him with a buddy and there’s a dead bear in the trunk,” she said. “He looked like the Marlboro man.”
She fell in love with the photograph and with the bygone era suggested by the car and the man in his Fedora and overalls. The painting she made from the photograph now hangs in her living room. It’s the first in an ongoing series Cunningham calls Faces of Minnesota.
The artist has already produced a handful of paintings for the series, all of them derived from pre-1960 photos set in Minnesota and/or picturing Minnesotans. Cunningham has culled through her own family photos and solicited vintage photos from others for the series.
One painting is of Cunningham’s family relaxing after a pheasant hunt. A great uncle sports bib overalls — the same overalls handed down to Cunningham, which she now wears when she paints.
The idea for the series sprung from an interest “in how machines change the face of America,” she said.
The images she chooses have a strong sense of place and time. Her current painting derives from a photo taken in the early part of last century: Picnickers circle a portable phonograph and hoist china cups of coffee to the photographer.
Cunningham shares her paintings-in-progress with her students at Westwood. The arts classroom is where her two worlds — artist and teacher — combine. It’s also where, years before, Reichel taught her to appreciate what she does naturally.
“Art for me,” Cunningham said, “is like breathing for other people.”
Faces of Minnesota – Call for photos
Guidelines for Photos
•The photo must have a Minnesota connection (either taken in Minnesota or of a Minnesotan).
•It should represent the theme of people and their machines. A machine can be anything from a car to a stroller to a vacuum cleaner.
•The photo should be pre-1960.
To submit a photo for possible inclusion in the Faces of Minnesota project, email a scanned or digital copy of the photo to Amy Cunningham at firstname.lastname@example.org.