Born in 1983, Spencer Keeton Cunningham grew up in Portland skateboarding and painting from a very young age. Cunningham graduated from the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute. After leaving San Francisco in 2014, the prolific artist began working from the road on a self proclaimed permanent painting tour which took him all over the world including the North and South Island of New Zealand, Tasmania, Melbourne, Sydney, and the outback of Australia. Other countries Cunningham has exhibited and painted in include China, Japan, Ontario, British Columbia, the Yukon, Mexico, The Netherlands, Cuba, Tasmania, Hong Kong, Alaska, The United States, and Hawaii. Coming back to San Francisco to exhibit frequently, Cunningham has remained on tour for over 29 months and is now forced to pack his things and go. – Heron Arts

This is Cunningham’s first ever solo exhibition in San Francisco. Along with his solo works, there will be paintings for sale from his close friends, painting collaborators and roommates: Erlin Geffrard aka Kid Kreyola, Daisy Ortiz, and their son Daylin Geffrard. The four lived together in their house in San Francisco for numerous years and exhibited frequently in San Francisco and abroad, notably in 2013 at the Wenying Highland Art Museum in Guangzhou, China.


Our friend Spencer Keeton Cunningham is once again exhibiting a large collection of art works, this time in San Francisco at Heron Arts. This particular show titled ‘Farewell San Francisco’ is a Retrospective exhibit covering a time span of 12 years of the artists career. This show is an anthology of works by the artist who has been wrongfully evicted after residing for 12 years in his San Francisco apartment. The show will feature a collection of works from 2004-2016 with some works even dating back as far as 1995.

Cunningham has been on the road for the last two years straight, while maintaining his permanent residence in SF, and has come to say hello to those not familiar with his work goodbye to the city with a farewell exhibition. Farewell San Francisco opens on Saturday October 28th, 2016 with an opening reception from 5-10 PM. It is free and open to the public.


Cunningham has also stated that 50% of the sales from paintings at his exhibit will go to help fund the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. A fight going on right now in the United States between large scale corporate energy companies that want to put an oil pipeline under a river that would threaten the water supply of the First Nations people in the area and 17 million people downstream from it.


VNA: Tell us a little about how this show came to be…What happened?

SKC: Well, I was traveling on the road and decided to finally come home to San Francisco after being on the road for over 29 months straight. I was feeling the urge to take bit of a break from the road for the first time in 2 years. I had just finished a couple murals in Massachusetts regarding the issue at Standing Rock with the oil pipeline being built.

But sadly upon returning to San Francisco, my friends and I discovered severe black mold situation in our house that our landlord did would not remedy. It dated back all the way to 2014. Long story short we were forced from our home. A place I called home for 12 years. I decided to try to gather quite a bit of art together that had built up over a decade and create this retrospective art exhibit in a matter of a few days while I was moving out of my place for good. I met with Noah Antineu, Tova Lobatz, and Mark Slee and we just went from there.


VNA: Can you explain the Standing Rock movement and what you are attempting to fund with your exhibit?

SKC: Well right now the Standing Rock movement represents a huge gathering of Native Americans all across the United States. First Nations people have gathered to join forces with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to stop a huge corporate take over of their water supply, land and rights as human beings on this planet. The native people there at standing rock, unified and are protecting the water in the area for future generations.

I decided as I was moving out in SF that I wanted this art show to be something more then just a show about an artist. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to help give something back to the tribes that are out there putting their lives on the lines to protect our water and land from corrupt corporations. The same corporations attempting the exploit the environment at any cost with no regard for native lives. It’s history repeating. Its manifest destiny. It’s the same greed system that has existed for quite some time here in the US. I’d like to quote my good friend Jaque Fragua and say it once more “Native Lives Matter”


VNA: What’s next?

SKC: Im setting up a few surprises for the closing reception of the Farewell SF art exhibit that closes this Friday, the 28th. Basically there is going to be a large interactive sculptural element added to the exhibit just for the closing that will give the audience a chance to participate in the show itself. Its going to be a fun show. Then after the exhibit comes down its back on the road for me. I’m trying to raise funds with my exhibit to help some people in need. And eventually travel out to Standing Rock to donate my time and help with what I can.


VNA: Around how many art works are in this Retrospective?

SKC: To tell the truth I kind of lost track. It’s 12 years of art with some pieces included that date back to when I was just a young teen creating art in the mid 1990’s. I think theres around 400 or so pieces in the show total of all sizes. Large canvases to small paper pieces. There are also some works from my friends and extended art family Erlin Geffrard, Daisy Ortiz, and their son Daylin who is 4 now. My life is basically hanging on the walls of this gallery right now.

It’s been a test for sure putting this all together under the circumstance but I think its worth it regardless. I just wanted to turn a really tumultuous situation into something that could sprout change and potentially benefit others in need in the Native American community.


VNA: What else have you been up to since you have been back in SF?

SKC: I just had a few paintings up in a museum exhibit at San Francisco State University with some of the greatest artists in the contemporary Native American art including Fritz Schoulder, Frank La pena, Jaque Fragua, Rye Purvis, Richard Bluecloud Castaned, James Luna and others. It was an honor to share the walls of a museum with such historic artists some of whom have passed away. I created one painting that was a native american Mickey Mouse for that show. That was probably my favorite.


VNA: Tell us about the World Congress of Art History and your Art…

SKC: Well, I just recently got news that my art was added into the 34th World Congress of Art history in Bejing China. I didn’t really know what it really was till I did some research. I feel humbled and honored to be included. I honestly feel like I don’t deserve it. I feel like my art career is just beginning really. Below is an excerpt from one of the papers being published and written into art history in a sense. It was written by Art Historian Elaine O Brian: There exists an alternative global art network: the “world wide web” of Indigenous artists, cosmopolitans rooted in tribal traditions and routed on global art circuits that intersect with but are separate from the mainstream network of global art shows. The paper draws upon the post-Europe remapping of culture flows and world systems– and is inspired by James Clifford’s important 2013 Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century.

To present the world reach of Indigenous artists in the information age, it maps the exhibitions of two cosmopolitan Native Americans, Frank La Pena (1938, Nomtipom Wintu) and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (1940, Salish and Kootenai), who were politicized by the Pan-Indian Red Power movement of the late ‘sixties and ‘seventies. It then moves forward two generations to the world-spanning art of video and street mural artist, Spencer Keeton Cunningham (1983, Colville), whose social and environmental activist art appears online and public walls worldwide. La Pena, Smith, and Cunningham, like many outstanding Native artists of the Americas and the Pacific Islands and Rim – translate pre-colonial Indigenous traditions and values for twenty-first century global audiences. They speak for re-emerging peoples who have never specifically located themselves ideologically, culturally, or geographically on any Eurocentric world system. Not of the “West” nor of the “East,”–This paper counters and complicates the notion that there is today one global art network, one homogenous and “commonly shared visual world.” – Elaine O Brian (Professor of modern and contemporary art history)


VNA: What about your recent mural in SF?

SKC: I just painted my third painting that has to do with issues regarding Standing Rock. I painted it in the Mission district in San Francisco. The mural is actually located on Mission street itself in between 20th and 21st street. It was an honor to paint a wall in the mission. The piece is simply titled “Standing Rock.” There are different patterns and symbols on the all the represent a clash of two cultures, the western Manifest Destiny Oil Profit driven United States and North American Native Tribes fighting to protect their sacred water source.


VNA: Have you been out to Standing Rock?

SKC: Not yet I have been waiting on my time to go. Its coming soon. I have a couple friends out there on the front lines right now fighting for the cause. We just got Mark Ruffalo out there helping out along with close native artist friend of mine Richard Bluecloud Castaneda and Marvin Tsinnijinne along with countless others. Tonight I just got word from Castaneda that the Oil companies were raiding native people in the middle of the night while they were peacefully protesting. A gathering of nations joining together in peace are met with violence from their opposers. This is the United States of America we know all too well.

Right now as I write this, all the native men on horseback have rode out. Right now its unknown what will happen to my friends on the front lines of the battle. Earlier tonight all the children and women were brought back from the front lines. I was just told by my friend who is relaying this information to me right now in real time that the mercenaries responsible for the raid on the natives in the middle of the night right now are the same ones responsible for the use of dog attacks on natives peacefully protesting early in this story that has unfolded. I painted a mural about the use of the dogs when that violence first erupted on our native brothers and sisters out there in Massachusetts.


VNA: Can you describe that painting?

SKC: There is a black dog figure surrounded by a chaotic environment. Dynamite about to go off at his feet. Bombs flying overhead. In the distressed figure’s hands lie to arrows, but it is ambiguous whether the figure is holding the arrows or if these arrows have pierced the hands of the black dog/wolf figure. An oil pipeline spews black gold in the distance. I created another painting that worked more like a quilt work to tell the story of the fight against the pipeline in a more abstract way with the use of symbolic patterns and vibrant colors.


VNA: Can you tell us a little more about your show?

SKC: The gallery is quite large. Its more like a warehouse then a gallery really. Lots of wallspace. Filled to the ceiling. The show works as a sort of over-stimulation of visuals. Its hard to take it in really. My hope is that people come to the gallery and spend a bit of time trying to analyze the works. There is usually a pretty solid meaning in each work I create. There are a lot of works that deal with native american issues dating back to 2006 til 2016. So it is a very relevant show in regards to subject matter I guess in regards to the current issues happening in Native America Right now.


VNA: Last words?

SKC: In regards to leaving SF, It honestly saddens me a bit to leave and not return to this place I have called home for so long. But its definitely a time for change. There are works on the gallery walls in this show that I created that critique the tech take over of this city. I never knew when I was painting them that I would fall victim (along with my art family) to the same fate. And to be totally honest, the heart and culture of this city has been removed in a big way.

The issues of gentrification will be overlooked as bigger luxury condos go up. The news will continue the media blackout on the Standing Rock movement but in the end we will still be here. People of the United States and abroad please stop distracting yourself. Please stop being greedy with no end in site. Please stop perpetuating your ego with nothing to show but sad pictures of your face on Instagram. Turn off your televisions, tune out your professional sports games, your entertainment, your white washed politics and everything else that makes you complacent and comfortable. Open your eyes.

In the United States you are living on native land. Quit stripping the earth of its resources and stop and think of the future generations for once. Injustice is happening now and it will happen in the future but its our job to educate the youth and unify. Because together as one unified people we have the power to stop the entities that have been exploiting the lower classes since day one.


Click below to view Spencer’s works from the exhibit and help donate to the Standing Rock Movement:


Movie by Blake Bogosian / SKC

Photos : River Castaneda and Mike Day