Spencer Keeton Cunningham’s Art Helps Native American Causes

The artist has had a busy 2020, including a trip to Canada to protest fracking.

The first month of 2020 has been a fantastic one for San Francisco artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham. 

His work is in the Crocker Art Museum’s major exhibit called “When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California,” which will travel from Sacramento to other U.S. venues. BAMPFA has been featuring Cunningham’s painting, “me and my _____,” on a prominent entry-level wall of the downtown Berkeley arts space. And Cunningham’s new exhibit of large-scale works, “Displaced,” opened at San Francisco’s Midway, where it continues for several weeks. 

So why is Cunningham on the road to British Columbia, driving away from Northern California and his new art successes?

Because Cunningham, 36, is also an activist who uses his time for the cause of Native American rights — whether it’s in the United States or Canada. Right now, Cunningham thinks he can do the greatest work in Canada, where he planned to join the Wetsuweten, a First Nations people, in documenting their concerns over a major Canadian pipeline and fracking project.

“It’s being advertised as a ‘natural gas clean pipeline’ but what they’re really doing is hydraulic fracking that’s horrible for the environment,” Cunningham tells SF Weekly by telephone from Washington State, hours before he was to cross the Canadian border into British Columbia.

“They’re going to pollute the water,” he says. “They’re putting this pipeline in and displacing people who are protesting — they’re being arrested and pushed further back into their property.”

Cunningham plans to return to San Francisco for the Feb. 9, 6 p.m. closing party of “Displaced,” an exhibit of vertical, wall-sized paintings that use dark humor, bright colors, and potent symbols to address issues around displaced people, including Native Americans. “Future Apocalypse 7 Generations Later” is the embodiment of Cunningham’s art approach. Amid a series of spilled oil (one blotch looks like Mickey Mouse’s head), tree stumps, and burning fires, a skeleton with a head feather lies on the ground, looking skyward. Fire burning is a longtime Native American ritual, and Cunningham’s most artistically abstract work is Smoke Clouds, whose swirls of dark acrylic paint are reminiscent of Richard Serra’s paint-stick works or even some works by Robert Motherwell.

Sales from Cunningham’s exhibit benefit the Wetsuweten’s challenge of Canada’s pipeline and fracking project. Cunningham wants visitors to the Midway Gallery to leave with more than an appreciation on his artistry. Cunningham doesn’t make art for art’s sake. He says he can’t. And he says the exhibit’s title, “Displaced,” references global developments and Native American history but is also a personal lament — applicable, he says, to Native American artists who’ve been exiled from San Francisco because of high rents and other rising costs.

“All my native friends are gone — everybody is gone,” Cunningham says, “and I feel like I’m the last of a few people who are artists who are still in the city.”

“Spencer Keeton Cunningham: The Displaced” Through Feb. 9 at Midway, 900 Marin St., Free; themidwaysf.com.

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