Spencer Keeton Cunningham has created murals on the streets of the Bay Area and shown his art in local galleries before we began following street art. This past year he has been on an epic adventure that crisscrossed Northern America down to Mexico. He recently returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to create a body of work that is currently at Empire Seven Studios in San Jose in a group show titled Archetype$ with artworks by Erlin Geffrard, Jaque Fragua, and Daisy Ortiz. This show is open until Dec 1st.
We asked Spencer to share his experiences with us.
You have been on the road now well over a year now where have you been?
well it’s been officially almost 19 months now. I’ve been all over North America on this stretch. The goal would be to explore it all. I’ve been to the southern most tip of Mexico to Alaska, from the shores of Cuba to the empty plains of the United States of America, from the muddy banks of the Mississippi River to the dry cactus growth of New Mexico, from the warm humid climate of the Yucatan to the snowy landscape of the Yukon.
The road has been treating me well although at times like Woody Guthrie once said “I’ve been hitting some hard traveling ” as well here and there. It’s part of living your life on your own in a sense. Painting one town to the next traveling around on wheels made of rubber.
Did you have an itinerary when you started?
I can’t say I’ve ever had one of those. I’m not much for planning. Although I must at times plan one area I’m going to paint ahead of time to the next. In the end my plans change quite often. And regardless of where I am I’m always moving into the next location soon after my arrival.
How did you end up in certain places?
The main factor that determines where I end up at on this long adventure I’ve been on is mostly determined by weather, food, and expenses. Meaning how much money I’ve made from painting (whether it’s a commission work in a home in Seattle) or a large wall in Vancouver BC, I have to gauge how much money I have for gas to get to the next location.
I drove to Alaska (originally starting in Miami) with not enough money to drive back from Alaska once I arrived. Not the scenario that most people find “comfortable” but one I happen to be fine with and quite used to.
Soon after I arrived in Alaska I had to create a body of work that I was shipping to Amsterdam for a solo show I had there. After the show opened, my pieces that sold at the show (which I didn’t attend) generated enough money to drive back down through the Yukon and Northern BC from the great northern territories.
Most people are unaware but when they purchase an art piece from me they are in a sense fueling the adventure I’ve been on. I do zero commercial work as an artist and only make income from painting large walls and paintings. I make films as well as write quite a bit but thus far I have yet to make much money from those endeavors.
Do you paint everywhere you visit?
Yes I have painted in every location I’ve stopped in. Whether it was an abandoned ghost town or a large urban city like Mexico City. I haven’t taken too many days off painting since I started 19 months ago.
Have you collaborated with artists on this trip?
I honestly don’t care too much for collaborations for the most part. I’ll do a select few collaborations with close friends but in general I’m not very good at collaborating. Whether it’s in a film project or painting, I have a solid vision and it’s hard to find people that I want to blend my vision with.
I painted a juvenile prison (detention center as they call it) in Portland Oregon with my friend Jaque Fragua. We also painted a large mural in Portland this past August.
Other then Jaque Fragua the only other artists and close friends of mine I have collaborated with at the moment are Erlin Geffrard, Aaron Glasson, and Skinner.
You stay in some countries for quite awhile do you meet other artists?
Sometimes I do yes. Other times I am the only person doing the type of art I am doing in a smaller town. I met quite a few great mural and sign painters in Mexico while I was recently traveling down there on the road for 6 months.
How do you find the different art communities?
I find them everywhere. (Just kidding) In Mexico I found that the many art communities, including the Mayan community in the Yucatan, was rich and full of history and a visual language that I was not familiar with. It’s an older art tradition and in a sense that is what I like to observe and get immersed in. The native art communities are where I feel most at home on the road.
How does what you make fall into the category of street art?
It doesn’t, at least not to me. In a lot of the places I paint there aren’t even paved streets. I do paint large walls but I don’t consider it to be what most people think of when it comes to street art. I don’t affiliate myself with the street art culture I guess. I appreciate graffiti and grew up in it’s origins so I am a part of many cultures by default. But I also paint. I’m museums and galleries.
I actually have an exhibit up now at Empire Seven Studios in San Jose where I created a large installation with friends there. With Erlin Geffrard, Jaque Fragua, Daisy Ortiz we crated a show called ARCHETYPE$. ARCHETYPE$ [ahr-ki-tahypz] is noun with the defintion: 1. The original pattern or model. From which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form; prototype.
It’s a comment on the current state of Silicon Valley. When you enter the gallery a giant cardboard computer you can enter inside confronts you. Next to the computer is a monitoring device that records the viewers image in the shape of a face and 2 cameras resembling eyes. It’s kind of a comment on computers being used to monitor the public and simultaneously inflate our egos to epic proportions.
Do you use computers much?
I didn’t have a computer for well over a year while I’ve been traveling. It’s great. I honestly don’t use them for much. But I do on occasion upload photos and films I make to the pool of content temporarily floating around on the Internet
I don’t consider the Internet an archival place. Nor do I trust the life of hard drives and in the future I think they will be looked back at as a faulty way to store information and imagery. I’m a big believer in the printed word and film documentation of art. Physical documentation and not solely digital is very important to me.
How has your art Impacted communities you’ve painted in?
I can think of one example where I was painting in Miami a year ago and ended up meeting a young artist named Shawn. I was painting on a middle school in a low-income neighborhood in Wynwood Miami to raise money for the schools arts and music program.
Shawn lived across the street from the school. He approached me one day to show me his drawings and ask if he could paint with me? I said yea grab a brush.
He had never painted before but when we were done I had him sign the wall with me for his help with painting the ground part of the mural. While we were painting there was a shooting on the street where we were painting and a young kid Shawn’s age was killed in the gunfire. It really made an impact on me because I was watching Shawn develop rapidly into wanting to paint more and get away from the violence of his Wynwood neighborhood.
During art Basel everyone sees one side of Wynwood but after it’s over it goes back to the way it always is. Which isn’t safe and the kids and families there have to live with that. Something the wealthy visitors don’t see when they visit for Miami art Basel.
After we painted the first wall, Shawn and I got another wall to paint in Wynwood. While we were painting Shawn’s good friend Bryce was shot in the head in a drive by shooting. Bryce survived but was in the hospital and had to wear a helmet. Shawn painted a helmet with a b on it and continued to paint and send Bryce pictures of our wall until we finished the piece.
That year police killed another graffiti writer so we did a small rip part of the mural with a large tombstone. It read RIP DEMZ REEFA (two graffiti writers killed by cops in the neighborhood) I asked Shawn if he had anyone else we should put on there. He said “Trayvon Martin, he was my cousin.”
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