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Rising Stars: Meet Erin Cunningham

Today we’d like to introduce you to Erin Cunningham.

Hi Erin, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
My journey as an artist began in my youth while growing up in Kailua, Hawai’i. I showed an interest in making art at a young age, and my parents supported it by signing me up for a variety of art classes during the summers. While most of my friends would be at the beach surfing, you could find me working on watercolor paintings of tropical flowers or in my stained-glass class, cutting wave shapes of ocean blue and green glass. When I think back on it, I was beginning my exploration of materials and mediums that I continue to do in my work today. Hawai’i is an incredible place to grow up, surrounded by the islands’ beauty and the people, a place so rich and diverse in culture. While my work no longer includes the visuals of Island landscapes, I am a person and artist shaped by this very special place.

After graduating high school, I spent a few years in community college in Hawai’i and San Diego. I had some excellent art instructors along the way that encouraged me to go to art school. However, the concept of getting a college degree in art was foreign to me and a little scary. In addition, it doesn’t provide a structured path to a stable career like most college degrees. Luckily, I had an incredibly supportive family that recognized my passion for making art.

I took a big leap and attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago to pursue my undergraduate degree. Moving to Chicago was a huge culture shock for a Hawai’i girl, and those winters were brutal!. However, I loved that city, and I experienced so much growth as a person and artist. While at SAIC, I explored many different mediums of art-making but found that I gravitated to sculpture and metalsmithing.

After completing my BFA, I attended The University of Texas at Austin, where I received an MFA in Studio Art. Graduate school provided me the challenge that I needed to find direction in my work. During this time, I discovered a supportive community of artists and friends that I would eventually return to and find has grown stronger.

Following graduate school, I moved around for a few years, teaching at different Universities in Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia. I have always loved teaching, so I followed the opportunities that came my way, allowing me to gain more experience. I expanded my artist family and made life-long connections with each place I went.

Nine years ago, I made my way back to Austin with the intent of staying put for a while; it always felt most like home to me. So many of the artists and friends I knew from UT were still in the city, which made for a smooth transition. Five years ago, a few of those artists and I came together to form ICOSA Collective. ICOSA is a twenty-member artist collective with an exhibition space located in the Canopy Complex in East Austin. Our programming showcases work by our members and artists from our community and beyond. Being a part of this collective has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my artistic career thus far. It has taught me so much about collaboration, curating, and the day-to-day logistics of running an exhibition space. While maintaining an active studio practice, I also continue to teach. I am currently an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There is a certain resilience that you need to have as a creative. The path is rarely linear, and you have to be willing to take alternate routes or detours to keep moving forward on the journey. There were times when I picked up and moved across the country to a new city for a teaching position that wasn’t guaranteed for more than a year. I have been a “runner-up” many times for job positions and exhibition opportunities. But those are some of the detours; you have to keep pushing forward and not get too discouraged. There have been times where my studio practice has slowed to an almost complete stop because I was working three jobs.

Also, the processes that I use to make my sculpture require facilities and equipment that are not always easy to access. As a result, I often have had to travel long distances to get the work made. While this is not always convenient, it has allowed me to work with some amazing people over the years.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
My work is mostly sculptural in medium. I utilize the processes of molding making and casting to graph and embellish isolated details of the female form. Mapping contortions and sections of flesh, I become my own cartographer. I create landscapes that are freed from habituated social perceptions and shift the experience of a body from an external gaze to one of a more intimate investigation of the surface.

The investigation of materials and processes plays an important role in my work. Visual properties of materials and their metaphorical ability to convey meaning are crucial. I have an affinity for iron because it communicates the powerful dualities of masculine and feminine, disposable and precious, fragile and strong. It has a long history as an industrial material but at the same time, it possesses visual aesthetics that help to elevate its status when used as a sculptural medium. 2800 degrees, that’s the approximate temperature at which iron starts to melt. It has been a prevalent material in my work for about 15 years now. The casting process is intense, and I fell in love with the alchemy of it, just as much as I did with the material itself. It is also very collaborative, you can’t do it safely without a team of experienced people.

I have built myself a large “toolbox” of skills over the years and it continues to help me improve as an artist and teacher and that, I am very proud of. I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world, going to residencies in Iceland and Germany, attending sculpture conferences in Wales and the UK and, exhibiting work in Tokyo. These travels have been invaluable not only in the development of my work but in what I have learned from the different cultures and people along the way.

Are there any books, apps, podcasts or blogs that help you do your best?
I highly recommend the podcast Austin Art Talk, hosted by Scott David Gordon. There are some really inspiring and in-depth conversations with Austin artists and creatives. My other go-to podcasts are Radio Lab, Passport and Hidden Brain.

I just started reading “Ninth Street Women” by Mary Gabriel and looking forward to digging into it this summer.

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Image Credits

Images of artwork taken by Scott David Gordon

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