Artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham on Ocean Awareness, PangeaSeed and his Collaboration with Volcom

Artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham on Ocean Awareness, PangeaSeed and his Collaboration with Volcom

Spencer shares his passion for ocean awareness, inspirations as an artist, his collaborations with PangeaSeed and Volcom, and more.

Spencer Keeton Cunningham is an American-born painter and artist originally from the Northwest and has been exhibiting works in museums and galleries for 15 Years. Using environmental and social issues, including Native American rights, as a means for his themed works, Cunningham works within large-scale mural projects as a medium, as well as film and sculpture. He is a member of the Colville Tribe with a reservation based in Northeastern Washington, where he draws much inspiration from.

Mexico City

Cunningham has been traveling on the road for the past three years on a self-proclaimed permanent painting adventure that has taken him all across North America, Alaska, Mexico, Tasmania, Canada, and New Zealand, along with a few other places. But this isn't his first rodeo. He's exhibited works across the globe that has taken him far and wide. From museums in Southern China, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan, and San Francisco.

During a stay in Argentina in 2008 while making a film with his 16mm camera, he ran into a man by the name of Aaron Glasson, who is the creative director of PangeaSeed, a non-profit ocean conservation project. With their shared passion for ocean convservation, they instantly connected, eventually leading to Spencer participating in the "Sink or Swim" exhibit in Tokyo in 2011, where he met Tre Packard, the founder PangeaSeed. This revealed to be a long-lasting, mutual benefit for the two parties as Spencer would use his art as activism pieces for various PangeaSeed campaigns.

In 2016, alongside a group of 30 artists from across the globe, Spencer was apart of PangeaSeed's Seawalls: Artists for Oceans program to help spread awareness about pressing ocean environmental issues, such as shark finning, a serious issue plaguing our sea. What Spencer created on a wall in New Zealand made a very strong impact to the campaign and caught the attention of people worldwide:

Shark Fin Soup mural in New Zealand by Spencer Keeton Cunningham

Spencer's "Shark Fin Soup" mural highlights the immoral practice of shark finning where he's painted two sharks holding traditional Maori weapons behind their backs in attemps to trick the other into taking the bait.

"I wanted to create a world where the sharks have actually taken on human characteristics and have come to land to take revenge for being finned and stand their ground."

As part of Volcom's ongoing sustainability efforts, and in collaboration with PangeaSeed, we have featured Spencer's "Shark Fin Soup" graphic tee in our sustainability collection:

Using art as activism at times, Cunningham's main goals are to: spread awareness concerning the environmental impact on the ocean in New Zealand, coral reef restoration and preservation in the Mexican Caribbean, supporting aboriginal rights in Australia, helping to paint in juvenile detention centers for imprisoned youth, and helping to raise funds for a Miami middle school’s arts and music program. Learn more about Spencer in our interview below.

Interview by Michael Sieben

You grew up in the Northwest, correct? Were you near the ocean?
I was born in Washington state, actually. Not too close to the ocean but the ocean has always felt like a home to me. When I was young, I actually grew up on the road, traveling from one place to the next year round. Before I was nine I think I probably went to about ten schools and I lived in Canada, Texas, Washington, Oregon, and a few other places up and down the West Coast. I spent time on my reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. I am a member of the Colville tribe there, and I learned how to swim in a lake there early on. I always need to be around bodies of water, be it an ocean or river. The bodies of water that were around my reservation area are more of ther river and lake type. I did live close to the ocean in British Columbia as a child and I've always had an appreciation sea creatures.
How did mankind's environmental impact on the ocean become such an important theme for your work?
The all menacing mankind—I've always had a respect for the ocean but as I grew older—like we all do—you start to see what we, as humans, do to our environment and try to make conscious changes to make your impact less detrimental to the natural world. Some people never actually analyze their impact, but it's a good habit to start. It’s never too late. When I create art in regards to ocean life, or anything for that matter, I sometimes put the negative aspect of mankind right on display for the public to see. Some of my murals maybe aren’t as PG as they should be in that way, but there's always a reason for doing so. In a sense, I like to create a positive from the negative. Sometimes it works and sometimes it gets misinterpreted. You can’t win them all. For example, I was in Mexico a couple years back—traveling on the road for 200 days there—and I painted a sliced-up vaquita dolphin with the small caption “Salva a la vaquita,” which translates to “Save the vaquita.” The vaquita is one of the most endangered species in the world and is almost completely extinct due to net fishing in their natural habitat in Mexico. But instead of painting a happy smiling vaquita with a rainbow above it, I cut it into pieces and put it on display for the public to analyze. For me, this gets the message out to educate people about what is happening in a more authentic way. The impact humans were having on the vaquita’s environment was right there on display for the Mexican people to see. Everyone who came across the mural in Zihuatanejo was very happy and understood that the vaquita was in danger and really enjoyed what I was trying to do. In the US it can be a bit different with interpretations of art, and I have found in general that the US population of art supporters are less generous and less happy.
Skull in Mexico City
Why do you think so many people seem ambivalent about global climate change and other ecological issues facing our planet?
I think people may be clueless to what is happening because they want to be. It’s their conscious choice, but also maybe they are a bit too caught up in their sense of self worth, or lack thereof, or the idea that their ego holds some type of significance in the greater scheme of it all. Which in my opinion is questionable. Climate change is real; shark finning is real; people just like to disregard it all together and turn on the sports game that is playing that night. It’s the same ignorance to issues regarding Native issues in North America and abroad, which are wholly tied and one in the same with environmental struggles in this world. People just choose to turn a blind eye. In New Zealand and Japan, for example, people seem to be more conscious, in my opinion. I created an installation in an exhibit with PangeaSeed in Tokyo in 2011 during PangeaSeed’s beginnings. I created a large shark fin cut off with about 40 framed artworks inside of it. The exhibit was called "Sink or Swim" and was part of an initiative to raise awareness about shark finning. The public there was very conscious of what was happening and genuinely interested but coming back to the US people still have no clue or as much interest in the issues at hand. In Napier, New Zealand, I painted a mural of two sharks holding traditional Māori weapons behind their backs, holding a bowl of shark-fin soup, sort of tempting the humans to come try some so they can then club them over the head. But once you make something the public can decide what it means in their own way. You can still get shark fin soup in New Zealand, and while I was painting the mural quite a few shipments of dead sharks came in off the docks. It seemed that the Māori people were much more conscious of the issues in New Zealand. I reached out to some of the Māori community before painting to get their feedback and knowledge and permission to use sacred weapons within my mural. There was a big battle that happened historically between the Māori and white settlers right in the spot where I painted, so I felt this subject matter was suitable for that wall. In general, I think the native people within a region can be much more knowledgable than the general population. This doesn’t apply in all cases, but I think it's important to tap into that ancient knowledge. History repeats and there's a lot to be learned by just sitting down and listening to an older native Māori Elder or a North American Native Elder.
Spencer working on a piece in Canada
How did the collaboration with Volcom come about?
The shirt is in collaboration with PangeaSeed, promoting ocean conservation. I have never done any commercial work and I guess would consider myself more of an outsider fine artist, but I’m pretty sure Tre' of PangeaSeed contacted Volcom and was, like, “Hey, check this artist out.” I am not profiting from the collaboration financially, but proceeds from the shirt go to raise money for ocean conservation and awareness.
So your design is originally from a mural design you executed in New Zealand, correct? Can you explain the significance of the imagery?
I painted the sharks towering above the humans. They kind of resemble a half-human half-shark, like the sharks have come onto the land now to cultivate the human population for their own soup. The pattern work on the garments of the sharks was appropriated from traditional Māori patterns and has significant meanings. The placement of the patterns on their clothing was also a comment on appropriation of native pattern work on clothing in mainstream culture. It’s actually slightly ironic that this very image has now ended up on a mass-produced shirt in the US. I guess it was fate. The older Māori man I was influenced by in New Zealand while I was painting this mural was a great wood carver and quite a comedian. He said he was so happy with the mural that he was going to smash a bottle of champagne on the wall after I left. He educated me on the traditional Māori weapons used in times of battle on the island. The shark on the right holds the traditional shark jawbone, which was used like a club in battle. The shark on the right holds a whale bone club. Both are real weapons used by the Māori people. The sharks are kind of saying, “Come get some,” in regards to their shark-fin-soup bowl that they both hold up to tempt their next victim. The people of Napier, NZ, were very happy to have a group of international artists in New Zealand representing sea life like that. It was quite a memorable experience to be welcomed by the city and the Māori people with open arms.
What was your first introduction to art? What got your started down this path?
To be honest, I’m not sure. I guess I’ve been doing this my while life. I’ve been exhibiting professionally in museums and galleries for 15 years. I moved to SF in 2004 and lived there for over a decade creating art. I must say that maybe the origins of it all were from skateboarding. The two activities feel like the same thing to me, really: skateboarding and painting. Using your muscles to move things around, being creative. As far as the path I’ve been on now, of being on the road, I couldn’t exactly say what started me down that path, but I guess I wanted to continue to paint murals in abandoned places outside of the big who’s who in the realm of mural painting. I like being a little bit more hidden. And I guess what started it was just my friends. You meet friends and they inspire you. Music, too—that inspires art. Hip-hop, jazz, all that stuff. Painting is a part of hip-hop, historically, so maybe that's it. I guess I always affiliated myself with that generation early on as a kid being born in 1983. Maybe it was painting on abandoned train cars as a child, or maybe it was high school art class in Oregon, or the time I saw a Paula Abdul video when I was 4, or Mickey Mouse. Who knows? It will forever remain a mystery. But I definitely have art to thank for taking me around the world from Hong Kong, China, Australia, the island of Tasmania and everywhere inbetween. It’s been a trip and I think that initially just going out on that trip and taking that first step even without a solid plan of exactly what is going to happen can be the first step to making things happen with art.
Dog Attacks mural
I read that you're on an indefinite art vacation. How are you able to fund this trip?
I wouldn’t call it a vacation but more of an adventure. To most people that know me, I'm not good at taking breaks, so vacation maybe isn’t the word that would describe my trip. I kind of tell people that “I'm on a long tour and I've been doing a lot of writing about it. Release date of the novel TBA.” I’m not sure if I’ve never had one of those vacation things. I think life itself is just meant to be a creative journey and somewhere along the way due to circumstance or programming, people lose that inside of them. Funding comes from those who support the arts. I don’t do commercial work, unless Volcom wants to give me some type of big-time contract to produce things, I’m still in the outsider realm of the art world, making funds from the people who support the fine arts. I kind of look at art like the rap game, I guess. I’m just looking for the right label to sign me so I can make a platinum album and retire. A good friend of mine and fellow art colleague, Erlin Geffrard, once called me “The Rick Rubin of the art game,” so I guess we'll see if that sticks. But as far as how I survive and generate funds, I’m a bit of the old fashioned type of artist from the old days before computers, I guess. I show up in towns unannounced and paint big walls and show art in galleries and museums to get funds and thats it. I have been known to travel long distances—in a single bound—without having enough money to get back, but there's fun it that as well. For instance, driving to Alaska from Miami in the middle of the winter to paint walls in the Yukon and three walls in Alaska without enough money to even afford gas to drive back would be considered quite risky to some. But when times get hard, you make art and send it to Amsterdam, wait for something to sell, and eventually get gas money to drive back to the States. Same thing with Mexico. I entered with 200 dollars in my pocket, 200 days later I walked out with quite a few more pesos than I had first arrived with. But like I said, the people of Mexico are much more generous to the arts, in my opinion, than in the States. You just have to get out there and do it, basically. That's how I survive.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists that want to get more involved and participate in the world of art?
Just give up while you’re ahead if you’re only in it for the money. It’s a confusing mess, this full-time artist life, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Im thinking of retiring soon, writing a book, and just leaving the game open for the younger generation. I’m 33 but I feel 63 sometimes. But really, seriously, just get out there. Don’t waste your life on someone else’s plan for it. “That’s like removing your own backbone,” according to my friend Moka Only. Wait, how about this one, “Just do it.” I promise I don’t work for Nike.
What are you currently working on and what are you most excited about in 2018?
I'm currently working on a bit of writing and having a moment of down time from the road. I just painted a mural for Kalief Browder who passed away a couple years ago. He was a man wrongfully convicted for a crime and sentenced to three years in prison at age 16. Eight-hundred days of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement. When he was released, he couldn’t take it anymore and took his own life. The psychological effects of prison drove him to that point. So I just finished a mural for him. I like to create art that, for me, has significance. This story was one I felt I needed to create in art form for the public. Other than that I'm focusing on one painting at a time, one film at a time, working on releasing a few feature-length film projects I’ve put on the back burner for awhile and releasing some old sound projects and film scores Ive been working on. As far as 2018, who knows? I can only stay in this one moment. I wish I could predict the future or control it a bit but whenever I try that I’m only left wishing I stayed in the moment more.
Spencer Keeton Cunningham