For the last three years artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham has been on the road. That’s over 1095 days straight on what he refers to as a “Permanent Painting Adventure” and as we get into summer of 2017 he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon. To coincide with his latest series of original works Indigenous Sovereignty Protects Land Air and Water we welcome back the nomadic writer, who has become nothing short of prolific to give us an update on his last three years on the road. Read on for more and shop Spencer’s latest works right here on 1xRUN . . .
1x: Tell us a little bit about this series of original paintings, anything immediate you would like us to highlight about this imagery?
Spencer Keeton Cunningham: Well first off, 50% of the sales from these original paintings will go directly to benefit displaced water protector refugees I befriended while at NODAPL Standing Rock camps before my Native American brothers and sisters were forcefully removed from their treaty land. I made these paintings on the road after leaving the Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone Camps in March. I originally came to Standing Rock in the Fall (leaving and coming back on and off) and ended up finally leaving in the spring. It was a long winter.
While I was stationed at Standing Rock, I left periodically, to paint a total of 7 Standing Rock Themed murals nationwide, coast to coast (in Seattle, New York City, Massachusetts, SF, and Portland Oregon) to help spread awareness about what was happening at the Native Camps in North Dakota in real time. It was both encouraging and discouraging arriving in cities where people wither had no clue about what was going on in North Dakota, or on the other side of the spectrum were very well informed. The war that happened there will not be forgotten, and it is still happening now but no one is paying attention. In March we were helping get our friends out of the camp with all their belongings. They set up a BIA checkpoint and it became harder and harder to get through till they arrested the last remaining water protector. After I left Standing Rock in March I created this series of paintings made available here on 1xRUN.
These paintings made available here are a rendition of various apocalyptic future scenarios of an oil soaked indigenous North America where rivers flow black with oil and silhouettes of black oil stained sacred hillsides are all that remain, an unsettling view of what could happen on our current path of environmental and cultural genocide in the United States. The paintings are layered with series of bright and vibrant colors, not my normal color palette. They are painted with acrylic gouache that is responsive to blue LED light.
1x: Were these pieces all a part of a recent theme, series or show that you had? If so how did it fit into that given grouping?
Cunningham: Yes, they were all the same recent theme and show. The show was a solo exhibit in Vancouver, British Columbia at a Gallery called Antisocial that opened just last month. In addition to these paintings, other elements of the exhibit included a 3-D interactive sculpture, alternative gallery lighting, and a few video elements including video interviews from water protectors at Standing Rock. It was actually my 7th solo show at Antisocial gallery since I first showed there in 2010 with my debut show titled “A Meric An Indian Genocide” (a foreshadowing title referencing past and present genocide of North American First Nations people.)
This time around I was revisiting old and new contexts to create an exhibit based on my experiences at Standing Rock, and I wanted to create an art exhibit to benefit native people that were kicked out of the camps, their lost jobs, cars and houses, and are still in dire need of support even though their stories aren’t in the media right now.
On a side note, I’d just like to mention that there were quite a few Standing Rock “benefit” art shows raising money during our battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline that never actually gave any money to the native people at the camps. I just wanted to let that be known and to make note of that to those out there, you know who you are. Attempts at exploitation of native nations continue both on land and even in the form of “benefits.” Sometimes it’s good to do research and find out who is really benefiting from some of these bandwagon scams.
I will try to keep it positive for the most part in this interview, but I also just want to say to all the overly self righteous burning man white hippies that came to Standing Rock starting arguments with Native elders about what the right thing to do was in our scenario there, learn to know your place in the world. And trying to take over or tell Indigenous people how to fight their battles is not your battle if you yourself are not indigenous. People all over this nation are very unaware that they are stomping on cultural traditions daily. In their speech, in their sports teams, and in their constant denial mentality of manifest destiny and extraction of natural resources from native land.
It’s okay to want to help, but in the end you can’t be native even though you have a “white indian name” and are a “16th Cherokee with a great great grandmother who was a “Cherokee princess.” There is a lot of mistrust on reservations and rightfully so. A lot of people who came to Standing Rock did a lot more harm then help accidentally. One sentence that stood out for me is when the Red Warriors of the Oceti Sakowin camp put up the sign “DECOLONIZE YOUR TRASH.” Referencing the wasteful nature of some of the non-native visitors. I saw many non-native people leave the camp with empty fancy SUV’s walking away from Standing Rock with their token “Indian Photo” and footage for their “Standing Rock documentary movie” for profit.
1x: What materials were used to create these original pieces?
Cunningham: Blood, sweat, and tears. Also canvas on wooden stretcher bars with gouache paint that is interactive with blue LED lighting.
1x: When were they originally created?
Cunningham: These were originally made while driving through North Dakota at various rest stops in Montana, Oregon, Washington and Vancouver BC, Canada.
1x: Tell us how the idea and execution came about for this body of work?
Cunningham: I prefer my execution Wu-Tang style. First. I fuckin’… I fuckin’…lay your nuts on the dresser…just your nuts laying on the fuckin’ on the dresser. And bang them shits with a spike fuckin’ bat…Blah!!
The idea came from deep within. I have been focusing on native issues in my art since an early age. I lived on my Indian Reservation in a blue Volkswagon van next to a lake when I was a young child with my brothers. My brothers and I are all a part of the Colville Tribe. I’ve been an enrolled member of the tribe since birth, with a 1/4th blood quantum which has given me the benefits of a full blooded Native American on the Rez in regards to voting for Tribal council and receiving funds when funds are generated through the various industries that are native owned on our reservation. My grandma was full blooded. When I moved to San Francisco early on in 2004 to create art, I met like-minded native artists and felt embraced by them so my art flourished in a sense that way. Friends of mine and I started what would be known as the Indigenous Arts Coalition in San Francisco (which was a contemporary Native Arts Organization) and the rest was history. So in a sense, my art comes from a place of native ancestry and European ancestry. Two clashing ancestries to form one human in a sense. A lot of my earlier works had to do with mixed Native/ European blood identity.
My Indian reservation is in Northeastern Washington. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is the name with 12 confederated tribes total. I met a good friend from the Colville Rez named Dan Nanamkin out at Standing Rock. We became a good friends out there, and he taught me some of our native language that I never knew while we were gathered around the sacred fire. I say “Lim’limpt'” to him for that. It meant a lot to me.
But back to the work. This body of work is based on an illustrative take on different characters I met out at Standing Rock. The paintings are actually all mimicking the same composition in this series. The formula is “a character in front of a hill” with variations of particular native patterns with specific meanings. At Standing Rock the Hills that the police, homeland security, national guard, army, and military was posted up on are not meant to even be walked upon because they are sacred burial sites on treaty land. The hills in these paintings have either black snakes roaming across them. The Black Snake, for those that don’t know is what we called the Dakota Access Pipeline. (B.S.K.) Black Snake Killers. Other paintings depict guns floating down rivers or just black oil filled river. I wanted to make these paintings simple and give them a cartoon/illustrative feel showing a cartoon like apocalyptic future.
1x: How long did each of these images take to create from start to finish?
Cunningham: Quite some time actually. There is quite a bit of detail in them, and I used a really small brush to create them. The actual time will forever remain a mystery. Time is hard to keep track of when you’re on the road and the time zone changes on you. But I can say they were made in various time zones across the United States and Canada. So in a sense these paintings were made “while time traveling” which makes them more futuristic I guess…
1x: What is unique about this series compared with your other work?
Cunningham: Nothing unique in art. Everything is a copy of a copy. Unless you’re an outsider artist. To be honest. These are probably the only paintings I will ever do that look like this so if you’re a fan of my work they are quite a collector’s item. And in regards to my own personal art historical significance in my career these rank pretty high. To be out at Standing Rock for so long and have fought with such strong indigenous warriors and warriors from all regions of the world meant a lot to me. We stayed put through the icy arctic winter conditions and were still fighting till the very end and still are. The battle has just begun and it also never ended.
1x: Why should people buy this one of these pieces?
Cunningham: I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. Don’t buy anything. But. If you have to buy something. Buy art. Hunt for your food. Grow your vegetables. Decolonize. But buy art. That’s my motto. But really if you want to support water protectors who are still fighting for the cause purchase one of these.
Like I said made all these new original paintings available as a benefit to remaining displaced Water Protector refugees for a reason. Right now I’m attempting to raise funds for my good friend ‘Lead Horse’, who, along with the others, is still fighting strong. I have been helping get funds to Lead Horse that he then uses and shares with others in the movement to get from place to place.
Some water Protectors that left the Standing Rock camps are still in route to other pipelines including the Hudson pipeline. I talked to Lead Horse and he told me after Hudson he is headed to the Diamond pipeline, a pipeline planned to go from Oklahoma to Tennessee.
The Mekasi Camp Horinek of the Ponca said there “definitely” will be an encampment. A 440-mile pipeline by Plains All American Pipeline & Valero Corp. would go from Oklahoma to Tennessee across Arkansas. The Arkansas River & other waterways are threatened. “Plains All American” has a bad environmental record & with recent, high-intensity earthquakes, the pipeline is a serious threat to drinking water.
Mike Casteel, of the American Indian Movement, Indian Territory, provided documentation showing that the Diamond Pipeline will cross the historic Trail of Tears. Hundreds of unmarked burial sites along the route will be disturbed.
Lead Horse told me some of the “the young men and women are home now and honor songs and gifts are coming. We’re making our way back east slowly. We will be heading for the Hudson pipeline and then to Oklahoma to meet head people for the Diamond pipeline. So looking to raise more money – still rolling to next stop .”
1x: Describe this series in one gut reaction word.
1x: It has been a bit since our last release with you, and you’re constantly on the move, bring us up to speed on what you’ve been up to over the last few years and life on the road…
Cunningham: It’s been a wild few years to say the least. Well you know… it’s not that I am really on a road trip anymore… I sort have become the trip in a sense, I guess. After you’ve been traveling for this long you seem to forget what being in one place ever felt like. My story is that of a fast moving tumble weed tearing through small towns and cities leaving in its path a trail of blood, sweat, tears, paintings, and the occasional film or bizarre short novel.
I guess I’m still just making marks on walls really — nothing special — just exercising my creative instincts. We’re all born with these instincts, some just learn to suppress them. I still consider myself a modern day cave painter attempting to document ideas that arise in the form of paintings, cinema and other mediums. And, on occasion, I take a break from the road to help some Indigenous brothers and sisters fight oil pipelines and other threats to animal species and our environment.I’ve been known to step into galleries with a single bound and create an entire solo show in one or two nights.. That’s my new thing. Not sure if people like it or not.
I recently found out I was in the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. My art has been in there for 4 or 5 years now in print form and I didn’t even know. It really came as a shock to me when I discovered that while visiting the museum and protesting Trump’s inauguration in Washington DC. Other notable mile markers for me include having my art adopted into the 34th Annual World Congress of Art History in Beijing, China last year by a well known Art Historian (which was a huge honor.) I also recently featured in an art exhibit in a museum with my paintings hanging next to the work of the late legendary painter Fritz Scholder. The MoMA took 5 of my paintings and then lost them in their inventory storage. I’ve been painting various murals all over Australia and New Zealand, including 6 large scale murals in Tasmania.
Lastly I did a big retrospective art show that include 2 decades of art I have created, while saying goodbye to San Francisco for good. SF was a place I called home for 12 years. I lived in SF for over a decade in the same house, but with this tech money move in “gentrified” version of SF the greedy landlords eventually kicked us out of there by not fixing a black mold problem. But yea, I kind of just view everything from the road, still moving with the ground blurred under my feet, while I try to uncover deeper meanings of freedom daily in weird ways. I’ve now explored almost all of North America by car except the top, middle and furthest top eastern parts of Canada.
Painting out in Tasmania was definitely a highlight for me last year. I painted 6 large-scale murals in 6 days and 6 nights and made a film about it. Traveling around the island of Tasmania solo in a car was really exhilarating. It was my first time seeing a kangaroo, and believe it or not I even saw a Tasmanian devil. The Tasmanian devil is currently endangered, and is suffering from a cancer that is wiping out its species. My paintings out in Tasmania had to do with endangered and extinct species including the Tasmanian tiger. I had no plan when I arrived in Tasmania. I just showed up from Melbourne,Australia where I had just done a big illegal piece next to a 1984 Keith Haring Mural. The headline read “Artist Vandalizes advertisement signs in Melbourne, Australia in support of Aboriginal Rights reclaiming approximately 20 billboard poster spaces.” The signs are adjacent to a Keith Haring Mural painted in March of 1984. It’s rumored that this piece is an homage to Haring’s beginnings of painting on advertisement signs in subways in New York. It’s also part 2 of a series, the first being this 3 years prior.
Also painting throughout Australia with good friend Phibs in the cities, and way out in the Australian outback was a pretty memorable experience. I taught a class in art for environmental activism in Melbourne Australia as well, which was amazing to learn about all the issues effecting the lands and seas there. It was great working with the students creating ideas for art projects to help spread awareness about important issues to the Australian environment. Seeing Rone, Makatron and Meggs is always fun as well.
Other memorable experiences out in that region of the world included visiting and painting and making a film with my good friend Anthony Lister in his studio in Sydney. It was great to see the wild man himself in his homelands. I drove all over New Zealand as well. Painted a large mural about shark finning in Napier, New Zealand for the Seawalls project there. I also ended up painting a wall in Toronto last summer as well, which was a fun experience. I never knew Toronto was such a big city. The way it is spaced out reminded me of Mexico City.
When we did that last interview I was still traveling in Mexico. I ended up staying down there for 200 days. I painted in Guerrero Mexico, Zihuatanejo, Tulum, Cancun, the Yucatan, Bacalar, Mexico City, Near Pico de Orizaba and on countless beaches and unknown towns for 6 months. I still miss it there. The culture, the people, the art, everything. Coming back to the U.S. after being in Mexico for so long was a culture shock. I still think in pesos (2 years later) in regards to purchasing food in the U.S. In comparison to Mexico we pay so much for food it’s insane. We have kind of accepted the absurd costs of food and don’t even notice it anymore. I still laugh when I roll into a whole foods and get a drink and a salad and pay 26 dollars. You could eat off that amount for days and days in Mexico. Or accidentally roll into the “gentrified” parts of Seattle and the cheapest donut on the menu is 6 dollars.
1x: What are some of the recent strides you feel you’ve been making with your work?
Cunningham: Well it’s funny you ask. Because even though the SF MoMA took my work — and I’m in the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, and my art is written about scholarly journals in the World Congress of Art History, and I’m Meeting with Biennale curators that worked with Ai Wei Wei that want me to do similar large scale public art projects, and my art is taught to classes in Universities by Art Historians — I’m still dirt hustling in a sense. I’m that artist that still sells a painting out of his trunk occasionally to a friend to buy a sandwich. And that hustle mentality comes out in what my art looks like I guess, at times, and where it ends up. I guess by choice, but also due to circumstance.
There’s a fine line between where I am now and where I want to be… and when I get to where I want to be I will know it. I’m just not there yet. Even after 15 years of exhibiting in galleries and museums I’m still striving for more, because I haven’t reached what I would call my personal version of success. Although as I mentioned in a previous interview a successful artist can be perceived as one who has made a commodity of oneself. I’ve realized that when a collector buys a painting. They don’t just want to buy a painting they want to purchase the “idea behind the painting.” Constantly striving to own what is not “ownable.” I’m disenfranchised with the art world at times. But I play the game. I don’t jump through hoops and I still do zero commercial work. I’m kind of like that old fashioned artist. Who still types on a typewriter. Who despises computers. Who makes money only from painting his art on large-scale buildings and selling work to individual collectors and buyers.
I recently was offered to do a mural for a Nike office in Portland. I met with them and had the idea to paint a sweatshop inside of a giant Nike shoe. They even liked the idea and I was thinking maybe these guys will even fall for it. But in the end the wall was never painted. I have dreams of these corporations giving me big walls to paint to advertise for their company and just completely making a huge grotesque disturbing mural about sweatshop labor in China.
The day has yet to come where I can be given such opportunities to call out corporate greed and profits at the expense of human life like that, but I’m not big on having a “Converse ad” for a mural on the back page of Juxtapoz. So I guess I’m just not that artist. If you ask me, I think Juxtapoz isn’t that great of a magazine and High Fructose is about the same. Boring if you ask me. They rarely feature artists that make anything other than “wallpaper art.” Also in the 12 years I lived in SF, zero coverage. I guess I’m just not nice to arrogant art folks and don’t mingle well with the in-art crowd. The owner of High Fructose actually threatened to sue me once for making a mock cover of their magazine. The art world is a funny place. I burn bridges constantly. I think it’s fun actually.
Maybe one day people will find some of these paintings I’ve scattered across the globe in various countries once I’ve come and gone, but for now I like to remain “the known unknown” in a sense. I know that is quite a tangent of an answer to the last question. But the art of answering a question is an unknown art form in itself.
In regards to scale and context of my work, I’m still pushing. Always pushing. I guess I glide more than stride. Must be a skateboarder thing. I don’t ever sketch anything for a large wall. If someone wants a sketch, I make a horrendous photoshop edit of a building and a pixelated painting. Or if they want s sketch for a mural I spend about 5 seconds making a sketchy contour line but that’s about it. You have to approach a wall and let the wall tell you what to paint. That’s the way I do it. I call it “wall speaking.” People ask me when they walk by. What are you going to paint? I tell them I don’t know.
I am working on a short comedy film piece that showcases the worst case scenario of when a person comes up behind you while your painting a wall. I’m filming it with actors as a narrative short film. But it’s kind of like a scenario where you get the worst civilian ever behind you, asking all sorts of insane questions while you’re just trying to paint. Most mural painters know this can be one of the very most frustrating things to deal with while painting. Especially when you have to deal with it in the range of 50-60 conversations like this while painting one large wall. So, the movie goes like this: the person behind the mural painter has been ranting for about 10 minutes with no response from the mural painter. Each question becoming more annoying and more invasive. The artist painting the mural closes his eyes. Begins to twitch, and all of a sudden…jumps off the lift and performs a Mortal Kombat finishing move to the pedestrian. End of film. Then the artist opens their eyes and realizes it was just a daydream and the person is still behind them rambling. End of movie.
On another unrelated note. I made 6 4 ft. x 4 ft. paintings last night with my good friend and fellow painting colleague Erick Andino. It was fun. We just let loose. Put on some jazz and created. It wasn’t about whether the paintings were going to be good, bad, or even made for any particular show but just for us. These particular paintings in a sense are untouchable in that sense, they can’t be judged, they just are what they are, an expression of a moment in time documented in video form from start to finish. It was a good exercise because at times I can get too caught up in deadlines for exhibits and shows and it’s nice to just paint for pure experimentation purposes. When the artist fails to experiment and isn’t having fun while painting then why even paint to begin with? To create a formula to sell to the masses? I’de rather hibernate with the bears in Alaska.
1x: What types of things have you been focusing on more as of late?
Cunningham: Lately I’ve been working on getting a bit looser when I paint like I used to. Going back to my old drawing style mixing it with new ideas. Gestural experimental painting. Also with film as well. I make more films then paintings actually and sculpture. And music. I recorded a 12-track album with my friend Isiah Flores featuring Layla Agahee in 2 days, which I am really happy about. It’s a new instrumental project. I have been getting more into licensing my music scores for film. I guess that’s the closest I get to commercial work, even though it’s far from commercial. I have been focusing a lot of energy into music lately when I am around a studio that I can record in. I’m a big fan of jazz. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t see any difference between music, paintings, sculpture and cinema. It’s all the same, you’re just cutting different things away. There’s a rhythm, throwing things out, saving things, carving away, editing things down, adding things in and just putting your essence down on the format whatever it is.
I was up in Vancouver, British Columbia recently recording some movies with a legendary Canadian rapper friend of mine, named Moka Only. I think the movies we are making now are some of my favorite creative things I have been working on as of late. One of my newer strides. Kind of creating a six part music video series / musical on some real experimental documentary level.
1x: You’re constantly on the move, how does that work in harmony with creating new work for you?
Cunningham: Being always on the move allows for a constant change in my work and my surroundings which is good. But it creates problems when wanting to feel grounded somewhere. Loneliness can set in when your way up high on a mountaintop in Canada, but that feeling never lasts long. I just put the feelings down on canvas and move onto the next town. The road can be a healthy and unhealthy place all at once. It nourishes creativity, but it limits relationships with people. It’s good for my writing. I’m planning on publishing a novel or short novel series in the near future. I always keep my portable typewriter by my side when in times I need to write I can. I like writing the old fashioned way like Woody Allen still does. I hope he keeps making films. But the old typewriter lends itself to what I call “in the moment” writing more then any other writing medium. My hands can never keep up with my brain but I still give it a go once a day or so.
I only write in the present tense as things are happening. So there’s never a reflection moment or a memory really. Later I’ll re-edit writings down and adapt them in different ways to make them more seamless. Also the idea of movement and the being on the road is translated to my canvases quite often as well. I have a hidden language of symbols that I use to tell a story. Some can read it. It’s relentlessly autobiographical. Although sometimes I think I may be the only one that can read it.
Having no studio has its problems. But then again I’ve never had a studio. Even when I lived in SF for 12 years I always worked in my house and basically lived on top of my art in a sense. If I’m on the road and I need to paint some large canvases I just put up a couple pieces of plywood against a tree, grab a staple gun, and stretch an 8 x 8 ft. of canvas across the 2 pieces of wood. Or if someone wants me to do an exhibit I usually just roll into the gallery with 20 -30 blank canvases and create a solo show in 1-3 days start to finish. That’s kind of been my new thing.
1x: Any new artists, visual, sonic or otherwise that have been inspiring you to push yourself lately?
Cunningham: Richard Castaneda, Erlin Geffrard, Erick Andino, Moka Only, Art Blakey, Chet Baker, and a whole lot of painters that have come and gone from the 13th-18th century.
1x: What else is on the horizon for you in the next few months?
Cunningham: I’m painting a mural with a friend, Jesse Hazelip in Portland, Oregon very soon. We were set up to paint a mural in a gentrified part of Portland in a building that was soon to be demolished but it fell through once the wealthy building owner found out our them of the mural was about gentrification.
I then have a few solo walls in the northwest. A commission mural inside a collectors house named Christian. I actually just got done painting a mural in Grass Valley, California last night. I’m headed back there in a day or so to paint another one. Which is pretty fun. Just painting in the woods on large shipping containers. That’s an old past time of mine. Other than that I have a few potential art opportunities and walls in Europe. It’s been a long time since I’ve been out to Italy, London, Switzerland, Belgium, etc. I think Europe may be calling me again so maybe I can translate what I have done in North America on this painting adventure over there on this very same trip. Only time will tell. I’ve never been to France but heard its hard to paint walls there but I would still like to attempt it and maybe say hello to my good friend Blek le Rat while I’m over there.
1x: Any big shows or events coming up that you’d like to share?
Cunningham: Just the Road. It’s a pretty big event. It constantly moves…only joking… I have a potential NYC exhibit, A German solo show, maybe a London show, a solo exhibit at Good Mother Gallery coming up, a future book and job solo show to be booked, a potential show at Parlor Gallery (Juicy Jen if your reading this, let’s do it soon) but to be honest I’m a bit tired of exhibits lately. It would be nice to take a little break. After 15 years it gets a bit old. But I bet I’ll wake up tomorrow and change my mind. I just want to hide away in the forrest and paint with no humans around. That’s my ideal scenario like the movie Maudie. (Good film by the way about a painter in Nova Scotia.)
1x: Anything we’ve left out that you want to share?
Cunningham: My brother just got locked up in Florida for smoking marijuana on a 9,000 dollar bail. I would just like to say to the state, city, police and counties in Florida — Putting people in prison for Marijuana is the real crime. To my brother keep your head up. Nothing else to add. Just wanted to say thanks to Jesse, Pietro, Dan, Mike Popso and everyone else at 1xRUN. You guys are family.