Burning, healing merge in Washington woman’s art | TheUnion.com

Burning, healing merge in Washington woman’s art

Sharlene Cunningham had watched with fascination the lightning storm of June 21, and when the flames of the Scotchman Fire began to lick at the pines near Washington the next day, she tore off a piece of canvas and headed to the South Fork Yuba River.

In broad, expressive strokes of red, yellow, green, blue and purple, the self-taught painter captured the early stages of the fire that eventually would burn 1,230 acres between the South Fork and Canyon Creek.

“I was looking across the river from the town side on a dirt road,” Cunningham, 74, said. She “went back and forth a couple times, and when it got to that stage (where the trees were being consumed), I said, ‘I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.'”

Cunningham has painted natural themes since moving to Washington in 2000, the place and the painting a salve to her heart after the 1984 kidnapping and murder of her daughter, Kellie O’Sullivan, near Thousand Oaks.

O’Sullivan, then 33, left a 5-year-old son. At the time, Cunningham was receiving treatment for breast cancer. She followed the case through the trial and the death sentence for the killer, who remains in state prison at San Quentin, Cunningham said.

The crucible of pain and the prayers of many people brought surprising awakenings that later would fuel her art, Cunningham said.

“In the midst of this awful darkness, there was light,” Cunningham recalled. “The whole thing was miraculous. … I’m not afraid of any kind of emotion. I don’t restrict it and try to live by the rules. …

“Of course, the first few years, you just don’t know what to do,” Cunningham said. “I was longing for a quiet place.”

She found it in Washington, drawn by a family connection. She again experienced intensely the presence of nature the way she had as a child, when her native Los Angeles was a smaller place.

“I find a nook of trees, and the still, small voice is very easy to hear, because it’s not hectic,” Cunningham said. “It’s the thing that allowed me to heal.”

She has taught herself to play with acrylic on gessoed canvas, watering down the paint and spraying the canvas with water to convey the spirit of nature she feels.

A reunion with her grandson a week before the fire, after all these years, makes her “Washington Fire 2008” all the more meaningful to her, Cunningham said.

Together, they explored Scotchman Creek at the falls, near the place where the Fall Fire has burned 1,980 acres so far.

“It was absolutely magical,” she said. “That’s what kicked all this off.”

To contact City Editor Trina Kleist, e-mail tkleist@theunion.com or call 477-4230.

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