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Tapestries illustrate artist’s journey of faith

Shirley Cunningham was on her way to present at a conference in Birmingham, Ala., when, while crossing the road at a major intersection, she was hit by a vehicle and broke both of her legs.

The results of that accident, a collection of tapestries, clothing and displays, now hang in John Brown University’s Windgate Visual Arts gallery.

“God opens many, many doors,” Cunningham said. “It’s up to us as individuals to step through those doors even when we don’t really know what is on the other side. That’s what I did.”

Cunningham, through her accident, learned to paint with cloth. Her art exhibit emphasizes the theme of journey and alludes to the transitions she has undergone in her own life.

“I was impressed to share with the world my journey out of the art business work and into the art world,” Cunningham said.

She demonstrates this theme most fully in her piece titled “The Journey.” Comprised of two tapestries, the piece is created from a selection of dresses taken from the 1890s to the 2000s. The larger tapestry has 11 different layers, the backmost layer composed of dresses dating from the 1890s, and the foremost layer created from dresses dating to the 1990s.

Each layer of the tapestry represents the generation of women living in its respective decade. A smaller tapestry hangs in front, representing the 21st century woman.

“Unlike the other women, the modern woman is free,” Cunningham said. “She has that freedom because of the choices of those women who came before her.”

Cunningham’s exhibit goes on to include handmade clothes and tapestries, as well as pieces from her series, “Wonderful Words of Life: Visions from the Broadman Hymnal.”

Cunningham first learned to sew in her eighth grade home economics class. At age 13, Cunningham stretched to 5-foot-8-inches and struggled to find store-bought clothes that properly fit.

“There was nothing for me to wear,” Cunningham said.

From that point on, Cunningham sewed all of her own clothes.

“My father would not buy me all of the clothes that I wanted, but he bought me all the fabric I wanted,” Cunningham said. “I made everything I wore.”

In college, Cunningham majored in fashion design and minored in art. She and her husband later began a sewing school and eventually opened a fabric store. After operating in the business for 30 years, however, Cunningham and her husband closed their school and shop due to a declining market.

“Women just quit sewing,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham turned to traveling and teaching on the road until the day of her accident. No longer able to travel, Cunningham looked for a new occupation.

“The Lord closed those doors that I thought would be open for forever,” Cunningham said. “I asked God what I should do now, and the answer was my art.”

“A writer once said that in order to create, you must love the stuff you use,” Cunningham wrote on her website. “Although I use many elements in my art, the ‘stuff’ I truly love is fabric and fiber, so the art I create is filled with these elements. I use fabric in the same way many would use paint and a needle as a paint brush.”

Cunningham acquires her “paint” by combing antique stores, flea markets and second-hand stores all across America in search of vintage fabrics with which to create her cloth paintings.

JBU Professor Bobby Martin was struck by the uniqueness of Cunningham’s work.

“She doesn’t use your usual expected art materials,” Martin said. “She’s painting with fabric, and it’s definitely different than what we’re used to showing here. She puts a lot of spiritual thought and input into her pieces. I find it inspiring.”

As a Christian, Cunningham manifests her faith through her art.

“My love for the Lord is very deep,” Cunningham said. “It’s where my heart and soul are. My art reflects my heart visually to others.”

“I’m not a Christian artist,” Cunningham said. “I am a Christian who is an artist.”