Fern Cunningham has a mission and it is to sculpt the story of her people. Back in 1999, when the city of Boston unveiled the Harriet Tubman Memorial that it commissioned her to create; she made a point to punctuate the fact that the monument told the story of the liberated, and not the liberator. Up until then, Boston had no memorials that honored an African American woman, nor was there one that honored any woman. Titled “Step On Board,” the memorial is a testament to Fern’s will to make the presence of the black experience known throughout the city of Boston.
“The victims have a different story to tell than the people who may have opened the door. Especially in the case of Harriet Tubman,” she said.
Amongst her bronze repertoire, her favorite piece is “The Sentinel” which sits at guard in the 275-acre, historic Forest Hills Cemetery in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. This work is just as stunning as the woman that it depicts. She is a black woman, clad in bronze and sitting cross-legged on a block of Roxbury puddingstone.
“I like her because she reminds me so much of myself,” Fern added.
Raised in Alaska and Upstate New York, it was her mother’s influence that brought her to sculpting in the first place. Her mom was an art teacher and saw to it that her children were always involved in some kind of art-making too.
After graduating from Boston University, Fern made Boston her permanent home. She worked for the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts as an art teacher until its doors closed in the late 80s. She has since been teaching art at The Park School in Brookline, which is home to “Time Enough” a monument that depicts her daughter reading a book.
Teaching at the Lewis School helped to shape the content of her work. Citing a list of influences like Paul Goodnight, Momadou Ceesay, Dana Chandler and the other artists that worked for the “movement” of the late 1960s, she described her work as “decidedly figurative” and stressed that it is really important for her to provide images of black people.
It took a leap of faith for Fern to get the commissioned work that she desired though.
“I would apply to a lot of commissions and find myself a finalist. I would get my thousand dollars and be told to go home,” she joked.
“After a while, I thought, am I just a convenient finalist? Because then people could say, ‘Well, we had a black finalist and we had a female finalist,’ when, really, female and black people are not expected to be sculptors.”
At that point she stopped competing and relied on individuals who would ask her to sculpt a statue of their children, full figures of their loved ones, heads, and portrait heads.
Nearly ten years later, The Browne Fund, which supports art projects that improve public space in the city of Boston, contacted her with a request to sculpt a monument for the Joseph E. Lee School in Dorchester. That project became “Earth Challengers”, a playful depiction of three school-aged children holding up an orb of the globe.
She has since been commissioned by the city to do a number of projects, including the “Rise” memorial, which she created with her cousin, Karen Eutemey. In 2005, the city installed the 20 foot granite and bronze monument at what some call the “Gateway to Mattapan” if one were heading north from the suburb of Milton on Route 138 or Blue Hill Avenue. She also sculpted “Family Circle”, a statue that portrays a father, mother, and child embraced together in a ball. This masterpiece is located in the cozy, tree-lined c