q&a with artist ryan cunningham

If you didn’t get enough of the artist/attorney Ryan Cunningham video, then check out some behind the scenes questions that we asked the renaissance man as well as some of his paintings from his Modern West Modern Life series.  Ryan Cunningham is an award winning painter and his work is part of the Oklahoma Judicial Center Collection, a permanent art collection. His artwork was also featured in the East Gallery at the Oklahoma State Capitol. You can buy Ryan Cunningham’s paintings from Michael Henington Fine Art or through Ryan Cunningham’s website at www.ryancunninghamart.com. Ryan also takes on commission type projects. You can reach him at ryan@ryancunninghamart.com with questions about his work on the website or with ideas for work on a commission basis.


MB.  Would you say that everything started coming together artistically for you in high school?

RC. Yes, I first noticed that I might be an artist when I was taking high school art classes. As I started doing pieces, I noticed how much I enjoyed it and it became a really important thing that I was doing. Even when I didn’t have class, I would go to the art room on my off hours and continue work. I wasn’t really doing that for history classes or anything else. Then, I started getting some awards and published pieces and wound up being named Young Talent in Oklahoma.  


MB. You are also an attorney. This “artist attorney” is a pretty incredible dynamic.

RC. Yes, most people think that is pretty mutually exclusive. If you’re an artist, you can’t be a lawyer and vice versa. But there is precedent for it in history. Henri Matisse was an attorney before he was an artist. Kandinsky was a lawyer.  It’s happened before. And it will happen again.

MB. Tell us more about this sleepy period when you were only practicing law.  What inspired you to get started again?

RC. I went to the University of Texas and I was going to major in art or at least to make it a minor. My parents weren’t too supportive with the idea of me putting all my eggs in one “art” basket and graduating with an art degree.  I wound up becoming a history major and as such could not get studio art classes due to space limitations.  Next, I went to law school at the University of Oklahoma. I graduated and started a law firm when I was 26 with a guy I met in school. Sooner or later, I realized that I had always missed it and it was always something I was going to do. When I was 34, my mom got involved and said, “Hey Bert Seabourn is at the Oklahoma Contemporary teaching classes and he is an internationally known artist.  If I signed us up for classes, would you go?” Sure enough, we wound up in his classroom. From the moment I got started again, I knew it was something I never wanted to stop doing again.  


MB. Tells us about this classroom at the Oklahoma Contemporary, why is this building so meaningful to you?

RC. What’s most important to me about this spot is that this is where I really learned how to paint. I hadn’t painted a painting before. I had worked in charcoal, graphite, pastels and colored pencils before, but I had never really learned to paint.  I really learned to paint with Bert. The work that I did at the Oklahoma Contemporary with Bert is what gave me the ability to be a painter. In a big way it all started in this space.

MB. Do you feel like you found yourself in these classes?

RC. I definitely found myself as an artist.  Early on Bert pulled me aside and wanted to know what all this meant to me. I knew it was a big question. And I told him the truth: It was my favorite thing that I had ever done. From that moment on, he told me that he thought I could make my living as a professional and that I needed to show. But, I wasn’t ready to show right away. I painted for another year and then, had this art show that was terrifying. I was 36 years old and everyone knew me as an attorney. I hadn’t talked about being an artist. But I jumped off the cliff and it was the right thing to do.  


MB. You came from such a humble place and mindset and to sell out your entire collection like that, that’s an amazing accomplishment.

RC. I didn’t have any aspirations to do anything like that when I started taking classes. It was just to stop neglecting that other part of myself.  Once I started art classes, I started this schedule painting 5-6 hours after work during the week and most of my weekends and I kept that schedule for years until our babies were born.  But it was really just something I loved to do.

MB. What’s the toughest thing about being an artist?

RC. I don’t want to let it go. It hurts me in a way when it sells.  You just put so much of yourself into this art and then it goes away and you never get to experience it again in person. I feel a really strong connection with these pieces.


MB. What would you suggest to others out there wanting to try something out or discover something new about themselves?

RC. It’s important to pursue your passions. For me, it’s difficult to find the time and make the commitment to be both a lawyer and an artist.  But nurturing my artistic side and making sure that I have time to create not only helps me be a happier person overall but it also makes me a better lawyer.  Having both careers in full swing helps me fight burn out and be fresher for both.  It may be a bit counter intuitive to think that taking on more work (pursuing art) rather than resting at the end of a long day makes me feel more refreshed the next day but that is the way it works for me.


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