Franklin College art professor’s painting wins award at prestigious exhibition

A simple stone has untold stories to tell.

David Cunningham feels it every time he goes out into nature, traversing over creek beds and along shorelines. The more he has encountered common formations or jumbles of stone, the better his understanding of the enormity of the universe and people’s place in it.

“There’s something about those images of rocks that have been powerful for me,” he said. “When you spend what’s now been thousands of hours staring at rocks, your mind goes to weird places.

For 17 years, Cunningham has been capturing the mystery, the grandeur and the beauty of everyday rocks. One of those pieces has been chosen for a prestigious and unique art experience in Indianapolis.

He was one of 18 artists selected for the Clowes Collaborative 2024 Invitational Exhibition, a showcase bringing some of the state’s best artists together with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Not only was he chosen for the show, but on Friday, he won honorable mention for his painting, “Ascension.”

The opportunity has been a way for Cunningham, a Franklin College artist-in-residence and professor of art, to show his work in an entirely new way.

“I love art being in a different venue combined with other great artists in other mediums. I love the joining of those things,” he said. “It’s like exposing art to non-typical art people, and it’s fun to be in a different environment than a gallery or a museum.”

The exhibition opened Friday, where the work of Cunningham and the other 17 artists were unveiled inside the Hilbert Circle Theater, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Attendees to the opening reception heard the symphony perform works by Aaron Copland and Sergei Prokofiev, while also enjoying an opportunity to meet Clowes Collaborative artists.

“The exhibit highlights the talented artists who contribute to our vibrant community and further enhances the (symphony orchestra’s) commitment to connecting our patrons with life-changing experiences. Music and art share a wonderful synergy that I hope our audience will enjoy,” said James M. Johnson, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra CEO when the exhibition was announced in 2023.

The Clowes Collaborative brings together three of Indiana’s most enduring arts organizations. To create the event, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has teamed with the Hoosier Salon, a statewide artist organization, and the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, which supports charitable organizations that promote or preserve the arts and humanities.

Opening 2023, the Clowes Collaborative featured one current work from each of 18 Indiana artists who have won either Best of Show or other significant awards in the Hoosier Salon Annual Exhibition in the past 30 years.

Organizers have brought the event back this year, which coincides with the 100th iteration of the Hoosier Salon Annual Exhibition.

“As we planned events to lead up to the celebration of Hoosier Art Salon’s 100th annual exhibition in 2024, we decided to create a special invitation-only exhibition to celebrate Hoosier Salon’s current top artists,” said Michael Quinn, Hoosier Art Salon’s board president, when the exhibition was announced in 2023.

Cunningham has been closely involved with the Hoosier Salon for the past decade. His artistic journey started when he was a child — a time when everyone is filled with a creative spirit, he said.

“I feel like all human beings are creative,” he said. “All little kids do arts and crafts at some point. I just never stopped.”

For Cunningham, the act of painting is closely aligned with his spiritual practice. He has meditated daily for the past 25 years, and has turned to art as a way to understand himself and the world around him.

He’s found it to be a connection to a creative force in the universe.

“The images I paint are images that I’m led to make, not necessarily ones I want to make,” he said. “It’s more like I’m led to meditate and contemplate on this thing so that I can grow, develop, learn something about myself and something about the world. I don’t know what that is before I start.”

Cunningham’s approach helped him carve out a niche with his paintings of stones.

His first painting of stones came after a trip with his oldest daughter to an area creek.

“She was 3 at the time to throw stones in the creek. I brought my camera, and took photos of her, but then I started taking photos of these rocks,” he said. “When I pulled them up into Photoshop, there was something about these images of rocks I felt drawn to paint.”

What Cunningham figured would be a one-off experience has turned into a significant portion of his artistic work over the years.

His paintings have been shown in Ruschman Art Gallery, Edington Gallery, IU Museum, Swope Museum and Luxe Magazine. His work is found in both public and corporate collections including St. Meinrad Monastery in Spencer County, the University of Evansville and Fifth Third Bank.

Cunningham joined the faculty at Franklin College in 2003 and has helped shape local art students for more than 20 years.

Over the past 10 years, he has showcased his work in nine exhibitions and has maintained a status as a top award winner, including winning best of show in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Contemporary Realism Biennial and in the Swope Museum’s Wabash Valley exhibit.

The Clowes Collaborative Invitational adds to Cunningham’s list of major accomplishments.

The painting he entered, “Ascension,” is one of his latest in a series of long, narrow paintings — reminiscent of Japanese and Chinese artwork.

“It’s dark and moody. I love it. I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve made,” he said. “For something like this, I just wanted to put my best foot forward.”

Four Clowes Collaborative prizes were presented on Friday, including two honorable mention awards at $2,000 each, a runner-up award at $4,000 and a grand prize award of $5,000. Cunningham was one four winning artists recognized on stage before the start of the concert. Afterward, the piece was sold to a collector.

Cunningham’s work will be on display in the exhibition for the duration of the symphony orchestra’s performances at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, from March 1 to June 9, and for 30 days after the close of the exhibit on the Hoosier Art Salon website. All of the art is available for purchase.

“I’m so grateful. This organization (the Hoosier Salon) is super old and prestigious. That I get to be part of this 100-year celebration is incredible,” he said.