When you think of forestry and art, you may not immediately make a connection between the two. However, Bruce Lyndon Cunningham ’72 & ’76, known as the “forester-artist,” made that connection more than 40 years ago and is helping others to do the same through his unique and intricate forestry artwork.
Cunningham’s detailed works include watercolor illustrations, woodcarvings, frames and notecards. Internationally known for his work, you’ll find his illustrations in textbooks and housed in the galleries of private and corporate collectors worldwide.
Born in San Angelo, Cunningham came to Nacogdoches in 1970 to study forestry at SFA after completing two years at Central Texas College in Killeen.
Today, his two-story home in Texas’ oldest town doubles as his studio and workshop, where the entryway showcases myriad examples of his talent, including more than 30 framed illustrations, various woodcarvings and notable awards. His workshop, a large open room located at the back of the home, warehouses several types of wooden planks and tables supporting sawdust and tools.
“I enjoy going back there and getting smothered in my artwork,” Cunningham said. “Whatever I can see with my eyes and hold in my hands, I can create.”
The journey to Cunningham’s niche expertise and unique career began at an early age when he was introduced to many of the world’s most recognizable works of art.
“My father died when I was only 2 and a half,” Cunningham said. “Later, my mother married my stepfather, who was in the U.S. Army. Because of his military career, we got to see the world.”
While his stepfather was stationed overseas, the family spent the majority of the late 1950s and early 1960s in Europe. While residing in Germany, they frequently traveled to nearby cities such as Rome and Amsterdam, exposing Cunningham to world-renowned masterworks of art at a very young age.
“Mom said, ‘On Sundays, we’re going to go places,’” Cunningham said. “We saw Rembrandt’s Night Watch in person. I saw the Sistine Chapel at age 6. It stuck with me.”
He also vividly recalls his awe at the intricate woodcarvings on buildings in Oberammergau, Germany.
“There I was — 7 years old. I remember seeing those carvings and thinking, ‘I’m going to do that.’”
Cunningham credits his stepfather, Command Sgt. Maj. Herman E. Shugart, with providing much of his professional and personal motivation. Shugart was the recipient of eight Purple Hearts, one Bronze and one Silver Star, which were pinned on him by Gen. George S. Patton Jr. for his service during World War II.
“My stepfather wanted me to do good things,” Cunningham said. “I remember him saying, ‘You are smart, you are intelligent, and you can get out there and do things yourself.’ He’s the reason I’ve been able to do my work.”
Cunningham recalls his interests in forestry and art first combining when he was required to draw many species of pine cones while enrolled in a dendrology forestry class at SFA under the instruction of Dr. Harry Wiant.
Later in Dr. Thomas McGrath’s forestry pathology class, he was required to complete more drawings.
“I already knew I had a natural talent for drawing, but my professors at SFA helped reinforce that.”
After indulging his artistic talent and graduating from SFA with two degrees, a Bachelor of Science in forestry and a Master of Arts in art, Cunningham remained in Nacogdoches and worked at Moore Business Forms for 11 years — 10 of those years as an artist. He retired from the company in 1984 to pursue his interest in art full time.
“I gained a lot of knowledge about the printing industry in that position, and that was a good thing,” he said.
When asked about his most famous works of art, Cunningham recalls two paintings that were commissioned for U.S. presidents.
The first painting is of the historic Wye Oak Tree, the largest white oak found in Wye Mills, Maryland, which he painted in 1990 as a commissioned piece for the Society of American Foresters’ national convention. The painting was presented to then-President George H. W. Bush, who gave it back to the society, and it now hangs in the Gifford Pinchot Building in Bethesda, Maryland, at Bush's request.
Cunningham’s second White House connection occurred in 2005 when he was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service to commemorate its 100th anniversary by creating a pen-and-ink watercolor displayed in a hand-carved chestnut frame to be presented as a gift to then-President George W. Bush on Arbor Day. As part of the ceremony, a chestnut tree was planted on the White House grounds by Bush.
Cunningham is especially proud of the signed thank you letter he received from Bush afterward. The letter was printed on official White House stationery.
Many of Cunningham’s other works of art have been recognized with honors and awards, including Gymnosperms of the United States and Canada, a book illustrated, published and designed by Cunningham with text written by Dr. Elray S. Nixon. The book won the Donovan Stewart Correll Memorial Award presented by the Native Plant Society of Texas in 2015.
This first-of-its-kind field manual includes 115 full-color illustrations of plant species. The book also was nominated for the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries’ annual award for outstanding literature in botany and horticulture in 2012.
Other works in which Cunningham takes pride are nine silkscreen paintings that were recently showcased in the Fredonia Hotel in Nacogdoches, as well as three original framed paintings currently displayed in the Old University Building in Nacogdoches. The paintings were donated to the city’s historic building after being purchased by Ed and the late Gwen Cole, who have made generous donations to SFA and Nacogdoches.
Although he still spends a majority of his time creating with his dogs and cats nearby, Cunningham said he also enjoys volunteering as a chaplain for two Nacogdoches-area nursing facilities where he leads Sunday worship services and Bible study. He also periodically sells his artwork at the Nacogdoches Farmers Market. Every year, he attends Society of American Foresters national conventions.
As far as future plans are concerned, nothing is set in stone. “The sky is the limit for future goals,” Cunningham said with a smile. “You’re never too old to learn new things. Maybe I’ll do some more paintings for presidents.”
While Cunningham is known to many as a legend in his field, he doesn’t look at it that way.
“What I have is a God-given talent, and I give God all the glory.” View more of Cunningham’s work at forester-artist.com.