One of Cranbrook School’s earliest art teachers, John Cunningham (1904-2004), was a man of many talents. Born in New Jersey to a literary and artistic family, Cunningham attended a Manhattan prep school but spent summers working on ships that sailed the globe. After receiving both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in art from the University of California, he studied painting with Hans Hoffman in Munich, and sculpture and painting with André Lhote in Paris.
Cunningham landed back in New York during the depression where he picked up odd jobs painting murals in the Catskills and set design for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra before he landed a position as the Head of the Fine Arts Department at Cranbrook School for Boys in 1931. By December, Cunningham had created a large transparency in imitation of a stained glass window. It was placed in the Cranbrook School dining hall during the Christmas pageant and was illuminated from behind with floodlights.
Wildly popular with the students and the faculty, Cunningham formed an Art Club. One of the major projects of the club students was to transform an unfinished room (now home to the Robotics Club) under the Senior Study Hall into a “very elaborate club room.” The highlight of the room was a series of hand-set glass mosaics by Cunningham that represented great men of antiquity. (Originally, his plan was to have one wall of panels representing ancient figures and a second wall which featured more modern figures including Sun Yat Sen, Ghandi and Lenin. This was never realized.) Additional changes to the room included the addition of a fireplace and ceiling stencils created by the boys that portrayed the history of transportation.
Cunningham was also known for the work of his students – particularly wood sculptures created by the Lower School boys. These were featured in an exhibition at the Kalamazoo Art Institute in 1932, and were so well received that additional museums across the state featured the exhibition as well before being displayed in the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.
While it is not clear exactly why Cunningham left Cranbrook, his view of modern art did not mesh with that of headmaster William O. Stevens. The Cranbrook School paper The Crane reported that Cunningham was leaving to pursue work in Czechoslovakia. At the end of the 1932-1933 school year (during the time of the national Bank Holiday), Cunningham resigned. He and his wife ultimately returned to California where they purchased the Carmel Art Institute where Cunningham taught until it closed in 1992.
~ Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist