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Cunningham’s creativity tied to experimentation

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By Sara Miller

One of the secrets to a successful career in art is inspiration. The longevity of a career is determined by an artist’s ability to find daily motivation — something new to arouse the artistic muse and drag him out of hiding. Many artists find this inspiration in new subject matter. Others find it in experimenting with new techniques or styles. For Colorado artist Paul Cunningham, it is a bold mix of both.

Cunningham began his three-decade-long career exploring the black-and-white world of pencil drawings. After a trip to Santa Fe in the early 1990s, his artistic creations changed. He incorporated the precision of his pencil work into a colorful world of Southwestern subject matter.

Cunningham quickly became known for his vibrant acrylic paintings depicting horses, longhorns and the characters of the West. His work captured the personalities of ranch hands and gunslingers down to the finest detail — the intricately patterned bandana around a cowgirl’s neck, the finely beaded earrings of a Native American woman. Cunningham received lavish praise for these Southwestern-themed pieces, even winning the prestigious George Phippen Memorial Foundation Award for Western art.

As engaging as his Western subjects were, the backgrounds against which Cunningham portrayed his subjects were equally dynamic. Followers of Cunningham’s work will notice an evolution during which the colorful, abstract backdrops became just as much of a character on the canvas as the people and places in the foreground.

“I was playing with colors and shapes in the background of my pieces,” Cunningham says. “I began to wonder what would happen if I were to experiment with a more abstract style. I was a realist for many years, and when I started creating these abstract pieces, it was like a breath of fresh air.”

Cunningham’s experiment with abstraction parlayed into a body of work that is both vividly dynamic and intensely personal. Along with his use of color, Cunningham applies a high-gloss resin as his finishing layer. The resin brings the canvases to life, highlighting the subtleties of the textures and colors and inviting the admirer to see new images and themes with each viewing.

“Paul has gone through a complete transformation in his style and his career,” says Steve Sonnen, owner of Mirada Fine Art Gallery, where Cunningham’s work is shown. “He is creating these amazing piece that are filled with color and light. He’s developed a very distinctive style, and people are very drawn to his work.”

So drawn to it, in fact, that they are planning cross-country treks to purchase it. Sonnen describes an ad placed in Southwest Art Magazine highlighting Cunningham’s work.

“Paul painted a series based on forest fires, and our ad showed a piece called ‘Deep Within.’ It’s incredibly vivid, with deep reds and oranges,” he said. “The day that the magazine came out, I had a call from a gentleman in California who wanted the painting. He sent a check that day, and he and his wife made a road trip out to meet Paul and pick up the painting. That painting is now hanging in the couple’s living room with a Salvador Dali piece, so Paul is in very good company.”

Evergreen art lovers don’t have to travel cross-country to see Cunningham’s work. Mirada Fine Art Gallery in Indian Hills will be hosting a one-man show with more than 30 of Cunningham’s original works. The show, aptly named “color and EMOTION,” opens Aug. 20 with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m., and runs through Sept. 5. For more information, visit www.miradafineart.com.