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Carol Cunningham was a painter and printmaker. She is most known for her contributions to the book arts, specifically miniature books, and through the volumes she published via her at-home printing press, Sunflower Press (1959-2013). Carol’s still life paintings (some of which she signed “Blair”) and nature-centric printmaking encapsulate the best of the mid century aesthetic- period colors, a structured composition, and stylish charm.
Carol Cunningham was born in 1925 in La Grange, Illinois. The eldest of three children, Carol’s childhood was filled with creativity and rich cultural experiences, which opened her up to the arts and travel at an early age. Carol and her siblings, Suzanne and Stuart, often visited museums, concerts, plays, and sporting events, which instilled an innate value of the arts which Carol held her entire life. Being a shy child, Carol spent much time alone reading or working on small creative projects. Her first notable foray into the arts was with etching- her father would bring her scrap metal and etching acids, which she fashioned into bracelets. As a teenager, Carol began carving and painting wood, recreating the Native American masks she was fascinated by.
Carol attended the University of Illinois, graduating in the late 1940s with a degree in English Literature. She loved French studies and would later visit France many times. Carol joined the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, through which she met her husband of nearly 60 years, Bruce Cunningham, an Air Force Pilot. Carol and Bruce married in December 1946, during Carol’s Winter break from her senior year of college. After Carol’s graduation, the Cunninghams moved to Washington DC, where their son Charles was born in 1948.
The Cunninghams moved around a lot while Bruce served in the Air Force. In 1951, their second son Doug was born, and in 1953 the family settled in Montgomery, Alabama. For the first time, they were able to spend time together as a family, and remain in one place for more than a year. Carol continued to sing in local church choirs, and pursued arts and crafts in her free time- especially mosaic and enameled jewelry. She signed up for the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course in oil painting. Carol won first prize for a still life painting, and was later awarded for a greeting card design and children’s book illustration. These early inspirations lent themselves to Carol’s work throughout her career, and she came to develop her own unique style within these themes. She loved her courses, and practiced painting by working alongside friends and neighbors.
In 1959, Bruce was sent on a tour to Japan, and the Cunninghams moved to a small, remote village in Northern Japan. Carol continued painting, and to avoid being involved with the Officer’s Wives Club, decided to create her first book of woodcuts. Unable to leave the base for supplies, she ended up using Alpha-Bits cereal as stamps for her lettering. This project provided a welcome diversion from the isolation of the base, and Carol loved the challenge and process. Though she later came to laugh at her first book, it provided a much-needed introduction into the worlds of printmaking and the book arts, and was the very first creation published under Carol’s Sunflower Press.
After returning from Japan, Bruce retired from the Air Force and the Cunninghams relocated to La Jolla, California. Carol enrolled in a Graphic Arts class, and immediately purchased a printing press for her home studio. She learned silk screening through her class, and taught herself how to do letterpress. Carol was inspired by the Japanese printmaker Kiyoshi Saito, and her earlier work was informed by his style of composition and color palette.
Carol dedicated herself to being an art student and took many classes. She joined an arts league, took watercolor classes with Robert Landry, and later an acrylic painting class taught by John Baldessari. She also enrolled in a woodcut printmaking class at La Jolla Art Institute. In 1960, Carol received first prize from the Famous Artist School for a still life painting.
Though the Cunninghams enjoyed life in San Diego, Carol and Bruce took many trips to San Francisco and began to feel increasingly attached to the Bay Area. On one such family trip, they decided to drive through Marin just to see if there was any available property. They found two adjacent lots on a steep hill, with only a dirt road leading up the them. The Cunninghams made an offer, and by November 1963 were living down the road in a rented home while Bruce built what would become Toad Hall- named for the house where Mr. Toad lived in Kenneth Grahame’s book “Wind in the Willows.“ High building costs led Bruce to decide that he would build the entire house by himself, beginning with Carol’s studio, which would be a smaller version of the main house. Carol and Bruce scouted local salvage yards for materials, and much of Toad Hall is made up of these- doors, furniture, reclaimed wood, chandeliers, windows, floors, etc. Bruce finished building the house in 1968.
Carol loved her new studio. She immediately began working- illustrating books and printing the text. Through printmaking friend Mary Minton, Carol met Dianne Weiss, with whom she would collaborate and be close friends with for forty years. The Cunninghams had a rich social life, including friends Carol had met through printmaking and the books arts, and they often attended musical performances, art exhibits and fairs, and traveled extensively. The Cunninghams loved to entertain, and guests were often invited via an original, handmade invitation printed by Sunflower Press.
By the late 1960s, Carol had joined the British Printing Society with a friend. Eventually it became too costly to ship her books, but Carol’s work had become very popular and she was deemed a Master Printer.
Through her correspondence with other printmakers, Carol was given the challenge of creating a miniature book- one that could not exceed more than three inches in either direction. With the help of Marcie and Harold Collin, Carol completed her first volume. Her involvement with miniature books would eventually lead her to create the Miniature Book Society in 1983. The Society still meets each year to share work, give awards, and sell books.
In the 1970s, Carol was asked to become a Companion of the Moxon Chappel, a Bay Area printmaking club. She was the second female member in the club’s history. Carol’s involvement kept her working until the end of her life - as members met each month to share their work for comments and criticisms. As with so many of her artistic connections, Carol became close friends with the other Moxon members and really valued those friendships.
Carol and her close friend Dianne Weiss started the Fine Print Fair, along with the members of the Small Press Club of Marin. The Fair was first held at local schools and eventually moved to San Francisco, where it is still held, though it is now run by Pacific Center for the Book Arts.
Although Carol never spoke of a preference between painting and printmaking, she eventually came to focus more on the latter. She continued to take watercolor classes into the 1990s, but her artistic output was mainly printmaking and book arts for Sunflower Press. Carol’s oil paintings in the Lost Art Collection are from the 1960s-1970s.
Carol remained active and continued printmaking until the end of her life, publishing her work under the auspices of Sunflower Press. Her work is featured in many miniature book collections and libraries. Lost Art Salon would like to thank her “daughter-in-love,” Jacquie Phelan, for introducing us to Carol’s art collection.