Evening Entertainment

Ryan Cunningham

b. January 5, 1970, Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Rodeo has a long, colorful tradition in Oklahoma; the state has long been home to the world’s largest producers of rodeos. The Beutler Brothers, Elra, Jake and Lynn, grew up cowboys on the family ranch near Elk City. The trio produced their first rodeo show in Clinton, Oklahoma, in 1928. The business grew and in the 1950s, the Beutlers entered the national arena, providing stock for America’s top rodeos including those in Cheyenne, Denver and Tucson, as well as the National Finals Rodeo. Oklahoma City hosted the National Finals for two decades, from 1964 until 1984.

The next generation of the ranching family includes Randy Beutler, current president of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. After a decade of teaching social sciences, he was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1992. During his eight-year tenure, Randy Beutler rose to the position of Majority Whip and played an instrumental role in approving appropriations for the construction of the Oklahoma Judicial Center.

Artist Ryan Cunningham has always loved rodeos and attended the National Finals during his youth. The painting depicts a saddle bronc rider struggling to stay atop a bucking horse. The competitive rodeo event owes its existence to the horse breaking skills required of working cowboys. Today’s competition horses are specially bred by producers like the Beutlers for their strength, agility, and bucking ability. During the competition, riders attempt to stay in the saddle for eight seconds without their free hand touching the horse.

In addition to painting, Cunningham is also a third-generation graduate of the University of Oklahoma School of Law. His grandfather, Stanley Ryan Cunningham graduated in 1930, and engaged in private practice in Tishomingo as well as serving as Johnson County attorney. His father, Stanley Lloyd Cunningham graduated in 1963 and also practiced in Oklahoma. Ryan earned his juris doctorate in 1996. Later that year, he founded the Oklahoma City law firm, Cunningham and Mears.

During high school, Cunningham excelled in art classes, with his work garnering high praise. He was selected for Young Talent in Oklahoma, an honor given to the 50 best high school artists in the state. He considered pursuing art in college, but felt compelled to follow in the family footsteps. For a dozen years, he focused his energy on law school and establishing a practice.

Yet the desire to create and communicate through painting never left. In 2004, Cunningham missed art so much, he decided to take a class with Bert Seabourn at the City Arts Center. See page 169. Like returning to a lost love, he immersed himself in the experience. “I would stay up late painting all night, then go to work, then I’d race back home so I could paint.” Cunningham looked forward to his weekly classes with Seabourn and when one session of classes ended, he would sign up for the next. The two became friends and after six months, the instructor pulled his student aside to ask, “How much do you like this?” The question gave him pause, but Cunningham felt sure of his answer: “It’s my favorite thing to do.” Seabourn told him he could be a professional artist and encouraged him to start showing and selling his work.

“I think I was born an artist,” Cunningham said, “but I haven’t always nurtured it.” Once he started devoting time to creating art, success followed. Almost every piece sold at his debut one-man show in 2006. Since then Cunningham’s work has been winning awards, exhibited by galleries across the Southwest, and acquired by private collections from coast to coast. The Oklahoma Arts Council featured his work in a Spring 2010 show in the East Gallery of the State Capitol.

Evening Entertainment is part of Cunningham’s Modern West series. “Rather than approach this Western work in a traditional way, I attempt to present my work with innovative choices of color and composition.” He sees this piece as a reinterpretation of one of America’s most iconic images. The rider bears a resemblance to Oklahoma singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, who gave us This Land is Your Land. Cunningham donated Evening Entertainment to the Oklahoma Judicial Center Collection.

Source: Personal interview, June 2013.