Fern Cunningham is a Boston artist who studied sculpture at Boston University, earning a BFA in 1971. Since 1983, she has taught at the Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside of Boston. Her body of work falls into two groups: small-scale sculpture and public monuments. Major influences on her work include the sculptors Michelangelo (1475-1564), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Augusta Savage (1892-1962), Henry Moore (1898-1986), and Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012).
Cunningham aspires to teach history through her sculpture. “I was enthralled with the famous Greek sculpture, Nike or The Winged Samothrace and Michaelangelo’s Pieta. I wanted to work like that, only I wanted to do it from a black cultural standpoint. . . . I see myself as an educator through my sculpture and I am always trying to bring forth what is missing in American sculpture and to pay homage to the people who have not been acknowledged.” Several of her works inhabit the Boston area landscape including Earth Challengers (ca. 1990s), Family Circle (1996), The Sentinel (2003), and Rise (2005).
The Harriet Tubman Memorial Committee did not run a national search for an artist. In 1996, they selected Cunningham based on their familiarity with her work. She was told that she was free to design whatever she chose in regard to representing Tubman. She writes, “I was able to work and work and work with small models, until I came up with something I really liked. I also worked around a lot of other sculptors and got a lot of input from people.” Cunningham read every biography she could find on Tubman and looked at numerous historical photographs of Tubman before conceptualizing her statue, choosing to depict Tubman as a young woman leading freedom seekers on their journey north.
“Fern Cunningham,” To Work as A Sculptor: A Studio Journal, accessed February 22, 2019, https://wirthsculpture.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/fern-cunningham/.