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Is there such a thing as a born artist?
If you're talking about Marylhurst art professor Dennis Cunningham – the master of black and white linoleum block prints – you have to answer "yes."
He started drawing in grade school, teaching himself the skills that eventually made him renowned in the Northwest for intricate prints – heavily focused on fish and outdoor scenes – that tell wordless stories about "the character of who we are and the place that we live."
"I was aware as a child that I wanted to be an artist. I continue to hold that childhood desire: it nourishes me every day I work," Dennis said, in commentary about one of his exhibits at the Oregon State University Library. "I believe in the value and the power of art to move us towards a better existence. I want my work to be meaningful to other people."
An artist doubling as teacher
His formal art education began when he won a four-year scholarship to the Museum Art School (now known as the Pacific Northwest College of Art).
During his career, he's been affiliated with several galleries in Portland and Seattle, earned fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Oregon Arts Commission, and been commissioned for many public and private works. And early in his career Dennis was approached to take on a whole new role: teaching.
The job clearly suited him; he's been teaching art at Marylhurst since 1986.
"I didn't seek it out. But it's a great gig," Dennis said. "I get to meet all these young artists. A lot of life lessons are learned in the pursuit of making art."
Dennis coordinates the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, a job he particularly enjoys because he's able to follow students' progress.
"I love the thesis experience. It's one of the things that's kept me fresh," Dennis said. "People change in four years. Sometimes they grow up. They're getting so much from the experience of making art that their life and their work often develop together."
And students love learning from an artist who is so versatile and driven. A recent project saw Dennis working with poet Kim Stafford to commemorate the centennial birthday of Stafford's father, poet William Stafford, in 2014. He created 24 block illustrations for a book featuring Stafford's short story "The Osage Orange Tree," a rare piece of Stafford's prose.
"It's kind of a memoir of Stafford's senior year in high school," Dennis explained. "It's different than anything I've ever done, so that's kind of fun. It's quite compelling, a very evocative piece of writing, and it has a little twist at the end. It's not about fishing!"
Educating artists and art lovers
While best known for his block prints, Dennis is a multi-talented artist. He started his career as a painter, and he regularly teaches classes in metal sculpture, two-dimensional design and pastel drawing.
He refers to Marylhurst's art program as a "sleeping giant."
"Our BFA is equivalent to a great many other schools' master's programs, it's that rigorous," Dennis commented.
He loves the range of students he sees go through the program every year – some seeking to be professional artists, and some simply desiring the well-rounded experience of a liberal arts university.
"Our program is designed in a way that allows students to graduate with the tools they need to create their next body of work," Dennis explained. "We do very well in graduating artists.
"However, some students make and study art because it's an important aside to the rest of their lives. People who don't have any thought of being a professional artist get tremendous benefit out of exposure to art. It can be a life-changing experience."
Dennis has won acclaim for his highly personal art, but he says not all artists choose that route.
"It's up to each artist to decide how much of himself he wants to give up," Dennis commented. "Some land somewhere in the middle, and some don't give anything at all.
"I've always thought my work was a little cold and intellectual – I don't like treating subjects with great emotional weight. Great joy occasionally, perhaps. But my work is largely autobiographical. It's about who I am, where I am, in the time I'm in, and to some extent what's going on around me."
Not surprisingly, Dennis is a huge advocate for the arts at all levels, and is exploring public attitudes about art as part of his studies in Marylhurst's Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program. He bristles at the "starving artist" stereotype.
"Artists in American society today work hard, have a high degree of wellbeing in their lives, and many of them have financial security and middle-class values," Dennis said. "Artistic capacities are more important economically than they have ever been before.
"We need more art in our culture. There are a couple of things we can't outsource in this country, and creativity is one of them."