Scott Community College alumnus turns passion into purpose

On any given day, Kenneth Cunningham can most likely be found with a paintbrush in hand blasting music in his art studio, his cat observing the paint strokes from a table, or even perched on his shoulder, while his dog lays happily at his feet.

The scene is a far cry from Cunningham’s days as an Army Ranger and Paratrooper, where free falling from airplanes and traveling the world was about as common as brushing his teeth. Even so, his adventures, the good and the bad, are never far from his mind.

“It’s something that’s going to be with me until the day I die,” he said. “The people I was with and the things I’ve done, it’s going to be influencing everything I paint.”

Cunningham has always loved art. According to his mother, he was coloring in the lines at the tender age of three, and an obsession with drawing shortly followed suit. However, it wasn’t until he retired from the Army after 14 years of service that his passion blossomed into so much more.

“I came back here and tried a bunch of stuff,” he said. “I found out I was sick from the chemicals I was exposed to during the Gulf War and then eventually decided to go back to school.”

In deciding what to study, he simply asked ‘what makes me happy?’

The answer? Art.

“I get lost in it, I get goofy,” Cunningham laughed. “My wife shakes her head because if we’re playing upbeat songs I start singing. If I’m standing up I just start to swing a little bit, dancing to the music while I am painting. It just lifts all negativity out.”

Cunningham was in a dark place when he first transitioned back to civilian life. Drawing and, eventually painting, became his outlet. After completing his Associate’s Degree at Scott Community College (SCC), he transferred to St. Ambrose University where he immersed himself in his work as a painting major, bringing to life his experiences. As his abilities and passion grew, so did a light from within, breaking up the darkness he’d been feeling.

“All my instructors pushed me to express myself and it just completely opened me up,” he said.

It was this experience that led Cunningham and his painting instructor, Chris Reno, to develop a non-profit called the Quad Cities Veterans Art Initiative. Knowing first-hand the effects of art therapy, Cunningham wanted to help other veterans who may be struggling.

“Besides my own painting and doing my own work, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Cunningham said of providing art therapy to veterans. “It helps people get out of that bad, bad head space.”

The two frequently host art workshops with various Quad City and Coralville, Iowa veteran organizations. Cunningham also displays his paintings at local galleries; he helped the SCC campus celebrate Veteran’s Day this November through a showcase at The Read Gallery in the Library. His hope is to one day operate a brick and mortar location where veterans, active duty and military families can come in and work with different types of artistic mediums including painting, drawing, sculpting and digital media.

“I know the low, and when people in our classes smile or they just start goofing off and making fun of each other, I just sit there and snicker and laugh. I’m bringing happiness to other veterans’ lives and that’s huge.”

Veteran Services at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges

For Cunningham, Scott Community College was the perfect choice to start his college career. The opportunity to complete all of his general education requirements first allowed him to focus solely on his art once he transferred.

”I loved being at Scott,” he said. “I met awesome people, including instructors.”

Eastern Iowa Community Colleges (EICC) offers a number of services for veteran and military students. EICC is a Military Friendly and Supportive school, a DOD MOU signatory establishment and signed the compliance to the President’s Principles of Excellence. In addition, EICC was named one of the Home Based Iowa Certified Higher Academic Military Partners (CHAMPs) in 2015.

Veteran’s Services:

  • Student Veteran’s Association
  • Joint Services Transcripts
  • Academic Advising
  • Campus Certifying Officials
  • Scholarship Opportunities
  • Career Placement Services
  • And MORE!

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