In 2004, Spencer Keeton Cunningham moved to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, and he called the city home for 12 years — even as he traveled the last two years on a painting tour that took him to New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and across the United States.
Cunningham always planned to come back to San Francisco, and he did — but a few months ago, he and his roommates were evicted from their North of the Panhandle apartment. The landlord used a severe mold problem in the apartment to force them out, Cunningham says, and There is a war going on/Standing Rock part 4 may be his last public work here. It’s a piece about the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota, led by members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which began in April.
Cunningham, a member of the Colville Tribe native to the Pacific Northwest, has actively participated in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. And his October exhibit at Heron Arts, “Farewell San Francisco: A Retrospective by Spencer Keeton Cunningham,” raised money that he gave to support Dakota Access activists who provide food and water to other protesters in the frigid North Dakota winter. Cunningham had gone there Nov. 1, stayed for a week and a half, and returned to San Francisco before heading back to North Dakota for another two weeks on Dec. 1. He’s put up other public Standing Rock murals, including in Portland, Oregon, and Worcester, Massachusetts.
“If it starts a dialogue about the issue, that’s what I’m trying to do,” Cunningham tells SF Weekly by phone, while driving to the East Coast. “When Standing Rock came up, I thought, ‘This is like history here. We have to get out there and stop them.’ ”
In There is a war going on/Standing Rock part 4, Cunningham painted powerful symbols of the Dakota Access protests, including an oil well spurting petroleum and a dollar sign, which together represent the corporate interests and profits that activists say have taken precedence over the tribal lands’ environmental health. Profiteering is also why Cunningham and his roommates — artist Erlin Geffrard and his girlfriend, artist Daizy Ortiz, plus the couple’s 4-year-old son — were evicted, he says.
Cunningham has always used his art to spotlight important issues. SF Weekly first profiled him in 2012, when he was part of the “N.D.N.: Native Diaspora Now” exhibit at Galería de la Raza. Cunningham also made SF Weekly‘s pages in 2014, for his American Indian Occupation work at 106 Austin St., near Polk and Pine streets. But American Indian Occupation was torn down in that neighborhood’s real-estate transformation. And earlier this year, when Cunningham returned to his residence at Hayes and Broderick after a nearly two-year absence, he was shocked at the changes in the area.
“I didn’t recognize my neighborhood,” says Cunningham, who’s 33. “I didn’t recognize San Francisco. I believe it was my time to go. But I would have liked to stay if I could. I didn’t want to leave. I was sad to go. I’d love to be living in San Francisco five, 10 years from now. … My friends and I did a show about gentrification a year ago [which Cunningham briefly came back for], and I never thought I’d be a victim of it.”
Cunningham, who is tying to take some action against the landlord, says he may return to San Francisco to paint another mural, but it’s unlikely he’d return to live. Erlin Geffrard, Daisy Ortiz, and their son moved to Philadelphia. So San Francisco has lost more artists in the exodus, one that continues to dilute the city’s ranks. Cunningham is trying to stay flexible. He might also return to North Dakota, to join the remaining protestors, whose cause has gotten worldwide attention.
“There are people there preparing for the winter,” he says. “If I’m called to come back, and they need people to come back, I will.”