He continued his art training at the Detroit Center for Creative Studies and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center. Cunningham went on to complete a bachelor's degree from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master's degree from Wayne State University.
When he wasn't working as a marketing executive for Detroit Edison, DeVon was painting. Over his long career, DeVon's paintings have appeared in many galleries including eleven one-man shows, and his work hangs in many private and public art collections--the most notable being the Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute.
In 1969, DeVon Cunningham achieved national recognition when he painted the mural of the Black Christ on the dome of St. Cecelia Catholic church at Livernois and Burlingame in Detroit. This work featured a twenty-four-foot, brown-skinned image of Jesus with six multiethnic angels beside him serving high mass. The church's parishioners were mostly African Americans from the neighborhood. The mural was a welcomed addition to this French Romanesque church built in 1930 before the ethnicity of the neighborhood changed.
A national controversy erupted when the mural appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine in March 1969. Twenty-five years later on December 25th, 1994, the mural once again became the topic of controversy when the New York Times featured the church mural on Christmas Day. Reverend Raymond Ellis, rector of St. Cecelia's, responded to the criticism in a Detroit Free Press interview.
"Black parishioners have a legitmate complaint when they walk into a church to worship and everything is white. Christianity forces people to accept Western European culture.
"The historical Christ was Hebrew, a Jew from the Middle East. He might have had dark skin; he might have been fair. But Christ is the head of the church, he is God, and he is any color people want him to be."
Cunningham's commissioned portraits of prominent Detroit community leaders include Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, a WCHB radio personality active in Detroit's African American community; Coleman Young, the city's first black mayor; Abe Burnstein, Detroit's reputed Purple Gang boss during Prohibition; and many others.
The most mysterious portrait Cunningham has painted is of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. It was unveiled at Gordy's Boston-Edison mansion as a birthday present from his sister Anna Gordy Gaye--the wife of singer Marvin Gaye. Berry was quite moved and lauded the painting of him dressed up like Napoleon. Somewhere along the line, someone suggested that it might not be a compliment to be compared to Napoleon, and the painting disappeared. (More on that story appears in the link at the end of this post.)
Cunningham's portraits gave way to what he calls docu-art that informs, instructs, and involves the viewer. His work combines symbolism with cultural iconography that leaves the viewer with a montage of images to ponder. DeVon's art not only appeals to the eye but also to the mind.
|Billie Holiday docu-art|
With over fifty years of artistic achievement, ask people in the contemporary Detroit art world who DeVon Cunningham is and the likely response will be "Who?" What a shame.
Berry Gordy's Lost Portrait