Famous Artists And Sculptor Profiles: Jim Cunningham

Jim Cunningham is creating his visions and leaving them for all of Lansing to see. He sculpts in stainless steel, creating large monuments to such concepts as encompassing as neighborhoods and as intimate as a cup of morning coffee.

Sculptors through the ages have made use of all available materials to create their artistic vision. The art takes its own life, no matter what the physical material used.

An East Lansing, Michigan sculptor, Jim Cunningham is creating his visions and leaving them for all of Lansing to see. He sculpts in stainless steel, creating large monuments to such concepts as encompassing as neighborhoods and as intimate as a cup of morning coffee.

The sculptor, Cunningham, a professor of veterinary physiology and African studies at Michigan State University, said that he tries to make all of his public art meet two criteria:

1. It has to be site-specific. "It has to somehow relate to the setting. The Beaner's sculpture is symbolism about the profession," Cunningham said.

2. It has to be understandable. "I want the art to be understandable-either through the piece itself or through the plaque. Sometimes abstract art is pretty inscrutable. I always tried to make pieces that are abstract but also can be understood by the average person."

Beaner's in East Lansing is home to a piece of abstract sculpture that is sure to inspire java-lovers. It is a full-scale silhouette in concrete with an abstract coffee table with the sun coming up over an abstract coffee cup.



The sculpture is called Buna Bet, an Amharic word for a shop where people gather to drink coffee, relax, talk, and study-much like Beaner's itself. Amharic is the major language spoken in Ethiopia.

More of Cunningham's work can be found in the heart of Lansing-in a neighborhood called Fabulous Acres. In the middle of the community, on Garden Street near Mt. Hope and Washington is a park called Barb Dean's Tot Lot that rose from a former parking lot of the Diamond Rio factory.

Cunningham heard about the revitalization of this neighborhood that once was overrun with crime, but had been turned around through the efforts of the neighborhood association. He created for the park a 13-foot sculpture out of stainless steel and bronze.

The sculpture consists of five shapes-one black, one white, one yellow, one red, and one bronze. Each represents one of the five ethnic groups that are represented in this neighborhood. The title of the sculpture? Community.

Why stainless steel and bronze? Cunningham began sculpting when he was a member of the Peace Corps; a sculptor in Nigeria took him on as an apprentice. Cunningham went from wood to stone to welded steel. He'd use the same type of steel that cars were made out of and paint them. "That material was subject to the same problems as cars, so I switched to stainless steel and bronze-they don't rust and are more permanent.

His most recent piece is "Veternarians""Caring for the Animals' and the Public Health" and is on display at Michigan State University's Veterinary Medical Center. It is 2,200 pounds and depicts a pair of abstract hands rising from the base and encompassing three abstract figures. The abstract figures represent companion animals, food animals, and wild animals. They are a dog, a zebu cow, and an eagle.

"The zebu cow is also a tribute to the international dimension of our profession, as well as the food-animal side," he said.

Cunningham sculpts for himself and his friends as well as for his community. Some of the work he is most proud of can be seen only in his backyard""including a sculpture he created for his sons after they graduated from high school.

Cunningham's process is a complicated one. After determining the concept, he creates a smaller model using plywood and sheet metal. He then creates a plywood pattern which is later digitized The digital pattern is used to drive a plasma cutter that cuts the pattern in stainless steel. He then takes the pieces to a welding company to have them bent. He then finishes the sculpture in his driveway where he does the final welding and applies patina and paste wax.

"Sculptors try to get a satisfactory color on bronze by applying heat and chemicals to produce a patina, and that's more of an art than a science," he said.

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