Cathy Cunningham: Challenging Viewers’ Perception

Arecent Luminaria exhibit at the Mexican Cultural Institute included a separate room for artist Cathy Cunningham’s glass and light sculptures, appropriately called Radiant Reflections. There were only three of them, but their brilliantly colored shapes sprawled across the walls in the darkened space like a visual feast.

You couldn’t help being dazzled. Just right of the entrance, the multihued piece looked like a giant glowing insect, while the other two brought to mind bursting stars, shooting out gold, purple, green and red flames edged or speckled by still other shapes and hues.

Cunningham creates this fire — that one reviewer called “optical euphoria” — by positioning groupings of coated glass tiles on the walls and illuminating them from above with white light. The shape of the tiles and the configuration of each grouping, as well as the coating, determine the spectrum of reflections-refractions produced by the light. Pull the plug, and all that’s left are pieces of glass fastened to the wall.

What the artist is doing is playing with the viewers’ perception. “What you are looking at has no physical form, it’s transient, so in some ways, it’s not really there,” she explains. “When the conditions are right, it becomes something. By using color interactions and minimal physical form, I am inviting the viewer to contemplate how the relationships between light and color inform and shape our lives. I want to expand the viewer’s state of consciousness and perception and, ultimately, to create a deep sense of wonder.”

March was a busy month for Cunningham. In addition to the Luminaria show, which continued into April, she also shared gallery space with Kathy Sosa in an exhibit celebrating Women’s History Month at Northwest Vista College and worked on a number of commissions for both far-away and local buyers. Among the latter are art printer Janet Flohr and collectors Bill and Margaret Kanyusik. San Antonians can also see Cunningham’s handiwork in public places such as the San Antonio Children’s Museum, along Presa Street between the River Walk and Houston Street, and most notably in the lobby of the Robert B. Green Clinical Pavilion downtown. Here, she created a ceiling sculpture consisting of 4,000 glass tiles dancing in the light while suspended from cables across 48 feet of length. Titled Life in Light, the work was inspired by the twisted spirals of DNA molecules that make up our genetic material. Her work has also been exhibited in other cities and countries, including Austin, Los Angeles, Oakland and Columbus, Ohio, as well as in Florence, Italy; Seto, Japan; and in Taiwan.

Glass became Cunningham’s medium of choice after she used it for the first time in a UTSA class in the 1970s. “The design instructor asked us (the students) to visually describe space and time,” she recalls. “I used glass and fell in love with it. I like the ephemeral qualities of it. It always changes, depending on the light. I am trying to catch the wonder of those different colors.”

To learn more about how to use light creatively, the artist traveled to Unna, Germany, in 2011 to visit The Museum of Light Art, the only such institution in the world. It was “a life-changing experience” made possible by a grant from Artpace. “I can’t thank Artpace enough,” she says. “Everything I did before was so time-consuming. There, I saw such simple things that had terrific effects. One artist combines sheets of water with light, for instance. I saw a piece by James Turrel that you could walk into; a room transformed by light, you couldn’t tell where the floor or the ceiling was. It was like you were inside the emanating life force. Gorgeous!” When she got back, she was ready to move in a new direction.

From neon signs To contemporary art

Born to an American father and a Japanese mother, Cunningham grew up in San Antonio with an interest in both art and science. Though she took classes in both areas, she ended up dropping out of college to start her own business making neon signage and stained glass panels for doors and windows. “It was a way to continue doing what I loved. I never had an office job,” she notes. At the same time she was “always doing art projects” on the side.

When the San Antonio Women’s Caucus for Art gave her a scholarship to return to school in 1992, she enrolled at UTSA, studying with such artists as Hills Snyder, Riley Robinson and her future husband, Ken Little. But once again, she left before earning a degree. Her goal was simply to learn as much as she could and to get to know other artists in town. “It’s a fabulous community,” she asserts sincerely. “I met a very supportive group of artists.”

But she didn’t marry Little until 16 years later. The two reconnected when Cunningham rented a studio from him, but it was against her principles to date the landlord. Luckily, she eventually vacated that space, and the two were finally married in 2008 by fellow artist Nate Cassie, who is authorized to officiate at weddings. The quick and unplanned ceremony took place at the McNay Museum right in the middle of a reception marking the opening of the new Stieren Center. “I was so surprised and happy, I didn’t have a chance to get nervous,” admits Cunningham. Southwest School of Art president Paula Owen and her husband — who happened to be at the reception — served as witnesses.

Marrying Little was another “life-changing experience.” The couple now share living quarters and abundant studio space in a sprawling downtown building, where they are surrounded by the artwork of colleagues such as Katie Pell, Snyder, Robinson, Richard Martinez and others. Both are active and respected members of the local arts scene.

Though glass has been a part of her life for decades, Cunningham’s early work was more narrative and representational, she says. It was only after her father lost his vision but was able to describe vivid visual memories, and following her own brush with cataracts, that she became interested in the theme of perception. Before her visit to Unna, however, her pieces were laboriously constructed heavy light boxes that dealt effectively with visual illusion but were a nightmare to pack and transport. Post-Unna, the artist started experimenting with her current abstract light “sculptures” that now sell for about $3,000 each, though some go as high as $8,000. For a woman who wouldn’t even call herself an artist for a long time, Cunningham is excited to be on a professional growth path.

In the fall, she will be returning to Germany — with three other local artists — this time for a residency program at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanian, an international cultural center in Berlin, where she will be interacting with artists from around the world. “I hope to come back with a lot of new ideas, even beyond glass. I’ll be exposed to another culture; will have the opportunity to meet the gallerists and curators who will come to see the residents’ work, to get feedback that I cannot get here. I don’t really know yet what exactly will happen. There’s so much I don’t yet know out there. I can’t wait to come across it.”

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