For years, TJ (Tim) Cunningham (Commercial Art ’10) has embraced the habit of being the first one awake in his house. He makes breakfast for and spends time with his wife and three children, then heads to work. His destination, however, isn’t the typical office or business setting; instead, he drives to a field one day, to woods or a creek another. Other days, he finds himself standing in front of a New England barn, watching a cardinal, or working in his well-organized studio, which is attached to his house. As a professional artist, TJ is constantly creating, no matter his location.
“My desire to create goes back to my earliest memories and is one of the deepest parts of my personality,” TJ said.
Though TJ grew up in Vermont amid a family that appreciated art, his formal training started his freshman year at PCC. “PCC, particularly Brian Jekel [PCC artist-in-residence], gave me a process for creating art and, more importantly, continual growth,” he explained. “I have spent a dozen years growing and adding to what he taught me, but the core principles have not changed.”
Core principles—such as balance, emphasis, and harmony—can easily be seen in TJ’s work, much of which consists of landscape paintings, though his favorite thing to paint is sheep. Finding, as well as effectively representing, these compositions takes effort and diligence. Knowing that he must devote time to produce excellent work, he explained, “It’s my goal to spend at least six hours per day at my easel.”
However, the core principle that TJ specifically relates to Brian Jekel was that of learning from the masters. “When I was stuck or having trouble with a painting, he would always say, ‘Some artist has already solved this problem; go find out who and how they solved it,’” he said. “This way of reading all art through the lens of problem-solving is the greatest asset I have in teaching myself how to reach the next level.”
TJ’s discipline and drive helped him paint thirty-seven original paintings in 2020 as well as complete other tasks typical with small businesses. “My other responsibilities,” he said, “include maintaining my social media, all email correspondence, sales, [and] order fulfillment and updating the spreadsheets that keep me on track.” Additionally, TJ occasionally contributes to podcasts and participates in art exhibits.
Over the past twelve years, TJ Cunningham has sold numerous paintings and won various awards: some of these include recognition from Portrait Society of America, PleinAir Salon, and Oil Painters of America. Though these sales and awards are encouraging, they are not what motivate him to keep working so hard. “Since becoming a Christian, fine art has been one of the ways that I can pursue and enjoy the Lord,” he said. “I absolutely love working in my field. In fact, I cannot think of an aspect that I do not enjoy.”
One area of his work that TJ appreciates is the flexibility that comes with running his own small business. Since he sells his paintings through his online gallery and determines his own painting schedule, TJ explained that he is “free to spend time with my family [and] free to serve my local church.” Of course, he does have to answer to his customers, but he said, “They are a delight!”
Though being an entrepreneur has its challenges, TJ Cunningham has embraced the growth he has seen through it all, whether through work itself or through his other commitments as a Christian, a husband, and a father. “From the beginning of our marriage, my wife and I have prioritized serving [in] the church. This involvement is the primary way that God has taught and molded me,” he said. “However, the many struggles and stresses of self-employment have also been a tool in God’s hand. I have certainly learned to trust His goodness.”
Read more about how God is directing and working through PCC faculty and alumni.