December 30, 2005: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: COS - Sri Lanka: Art: Sculpture: Lansing State Journal: Nigeria RPCV Jim Cunningham's donates sculpture to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nigeria: Peace Corps Nigeria : The Peace Corps in Nigeria: December 30, 2005: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: COS - Sri Lanka: Art: Sculpture: Lansing State Journal: Nigeria RPCV Jim Cunningham's donates sculpture to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka

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Nigeria RPCV Jim Cunningham's donates sculpture to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka

Nigeria RPCV Jim Cunningham's donates sculpture to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka

The 4-foot-high, 160-pound sculpture represents the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated coastal areas in Southeast Asia and killed more than 216,000 people. It is Jim Cunningham's gift to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka.

Nigeria RPCV Jim Cunningham's donates sculpture to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka

E.L. sculptor donates work to area ravaged by tsunami

By Kathleen Lavey
Lansing State Journal

Caption: Gift to Sri Lanka: Sculptor Jim Cunningham (right) and Father Bennett Constantine of Eaton Rapids look over his sculpture commemorating the Asian tsunami. Photo by ROD SANFORD/Lansing State Journal

By Kathleen Lavey
Lansing State Journal

Perched on a stylized stainless steel teardrop, the bronze woman holds her face in her hands as her hair streams out behind her.

Before her is a mighty steel wave, its surface ground to reflect light in irregular patterns, as rolling water might.

The 4-foot-high, 160-pound sculpture represents the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated coastal areas in Southeast Asia and killed more than 216,000 people.

And it is Jim Cunningham's gift to the people of Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka.

It's not the East Lansing man's first international sculpture. He has created an arch in Egypt's Sinai desert, a memorial to international peacekeepers killed in clashes there. One of his sculptures is in Balad, Iraq. A pair of sculptures depicting a two-state solution to Middle East peace are destined for Tel Aviv and Ramallah.

"He does all these things out of the emotions in his heart," said Cunningham's wife, Judy, who served as a model for the woman in the sculpture. "This is a symbol of the tragedy."

Cunningham, 65, is retired from a career as a Michigan State University professor; he taught in the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Human Medicine. Now he works in a spotless studio behind his home.

Because he welds in the shop, everything there is fireproof. Floors are polished concrete. Rafters are steel, the desk is granite. Two large windows look out over the yard, planted with a variety of pine trees and dotted with sculptures he created as he fine-tuned his craft.

"I've got a spot right there for another one," he said, pointing out the window at an ailing tree that will have to be removed.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Cunningham learned some carpentry, mostly to build cages for the frogs, birds and animals he would capture. He studied veterinary medicine at Purdue University, and when he graduated, he signed up for two years in the Peace Corps.

Assigned to Nigeria, he befriended a Yoruba woodcarver named Lamidi Fakaye and became his apprentice.

"Someone gave me some chisels I didn't know how to sharpen, so I went to him," Cunningham said.

After earning a doctorate in physiology at the University of California at Davis, Cunningham came to Michigan State University in 1972.

Along the way, he kept carving as a hobby. He got serious at it again while he and his three sons were living in Zimbabwe. Cunningham wanted to make outdoor sculptures, and wood won't hold up against the onslaught of sun, rain and snow.

So he learned to carve in stone.

Then came metal. His first pieces were in steel, but it rusts. So he moved on to stainless steel and bronze.

He starts by sketching a sculpture, then making a smaller-scale model of it to fine-tune the details. He sends his plans to Alro Steel in Lansing, where flat sheets of stainless steel are precision-cut to his specifications.

Because he could not find a machine to help him bend the steel the way he wanted to bend it, Cunningham built his own, with design and construction help from Bannasch Welding in Lansing. It uses huge rollers to press the metal into curves and waves.

Then Cunningham fits the pieces together, welding them into place and grinding down the rough edges. He finishes the sculptures by using grinding wheels to produce different effects on the surface.

Cunningham, like others worldwide, watched in shock as the story of the deadly tsunami unfolded. Then he learned about the efforts of Eaton Rapids priest Bennett Constantine to raise money to rebuild a church and two schools in Mullaittivu, Sri Lanka. He found out that his friends Ed Brown and Judith Taylor intended to go to Sri Lanka with Constantine in January to help build.

A rekindled civil war in Sri Lanka thwarted their plans, but the sculpture is ready. It will be shipped out today and arrive in Colombo by the time Constantine returns on Jan. 17. Constantine will work with a local priest to get the sculpture to Mullaittivu.

Cunningham does many of his sculptures - including the tsunami memorial - for free, recouping only the cost of the materials. Steel bronze and precision cutting for the tsunami sculpture cost about $2,100, paid for by a private donor.

"I'm doing something I have a passion for," Cunningham said. "It's a whole new adventure in life, and I can give them away. My preference is that the sculptures will be enjoyed by ordinary people."

Cunningham showed Constantine how the tsunami sculpture could be uncrated and carried in the back seat of a car for the 300-mile trip from Colombo to Mullaittivu, if needed.

"This is a beautiful thing he has done," said Constantine, viewing the finished sculpture bolted to a temporary plywood base in Cunningham's studio. The model will be given to St. Peter Catholic Church in Eaton Rapids.

"It will help remind people of what they've done," Constantine said.

Contact Kathleen Lavey at 377-1251 or

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Story Source: Lansing State Journal

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