Fern Cunningham-Terry was born in Jackson Heights, New York, to Dr. James F. Cunningham, a doctor who specialized in tuberculosis and then in psychiatry, and Mrs. Margaret B. Cunningham, an artist who worked with children. Fern and her older sister, Miki, enjoyed a home filled with art, song, and pride in Black culture. When Fern was four years old, her family moved to Sitka, Alaska, where they lived for four years in a mixed community populated by Tlinget Indians, Alaska Native people, Whites and other nationalities, returning regularly to visit family in New York. Fern loved living in Alaska, where the scenery was wild and beautiful and the days were long and the strawberries grew fat. Fern was eight years old when they returned from Alaska to live outside of Albany, New York, integrating the small town of Delmar. Fern excelled in art and knew she wanted to be an artist from a young age. She completed Linton High School in Schenectady, New York, before moving to Boston to attend college in the fine arts program at Boston University, where she was mentored by John Wilson. Fern traveled to France to study art, and to Kenya to visit her sister, Miki, and these were formative experiences for her.
Fern began teaching at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1970. Her commitment to teaching and creating art continued throughout her life. She taught in Boston Public Schools and then at the Park School in Brookline, where she taught art for over thirty years. Her students remember learning to draw live models, perspective drawings, and half-face drawings, making silver jewelry and sculpting clay heads, while Fern read Twilight Zone stories aloud to the class. She also founded and led the One World Club to help students learn about diverse cultures. She mentored countless students throughout the years.
Fern is best known for her public works of art, which beautify spaces throughout the City of Boston and honor Black history, experiences and communities while celebrating families and relationships. Her first public sculpture, Save the Children, was completed in 1973, and was installed in concrete. After it was destroyed by vandals, Fern determined that she could still create outdoor art if she used a stronger medium. Her subsequent public pieces, cast in bronze, include Family Circle, which depicts a man, woman and child embracing, The Value of a Life, depicting two children remembering loved ones lost to violence, The Sentinel, depicting an African woman overlooking Forest Hills Cemetery, Step on Board, a memorial to Harriet Tubman, and Rise, completed with her cousin, artist Karen Eutemy, a tribute at the entry to Mattapan Square which honors the legacy of the various communities that have lived there throughout history. To honor Fern’s “significant impact on Boston public art and the surrounding community,” Mayor Martin Walsh declared August 20, 2020, Fern Cunningham-Terry Day in the City of Boston.
Fern was a devoted mother. She struggled and sacrificed to ensure her children had every opportunity for success while she taught and built her career as an artist. In her roles as teacher, artist, parent, and wife, she continued the legacy of excellence established by her parents and forebears. Fern married and divorced twice before marrying her beloved husband of 18 years, Alvin Terry. Fern is survived by her husband, Alvin, her four children, Kumasi, Shandalea, Autumn, and Kahlil Allen, twelve grandchildren, one great-grandchild, her sister, Miki, two nieces, and a nephew. Fern left these parting words to be read at her homegoing: “I wish you all love and joy and the fulfillment of your dreams.”
The Boston arts community has planned a program for Friday, August 28, at 3pm.
Gestures of Gratitude: A Community Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Fern Cunningham-Terry
The program can be watched online at https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82600860802
The family asks supporters to send donations in memory of Fern to support art programming in Boston communities. The MassArt Foundation will collect donations at https://app.mobilecause.com/form/f2fnBQ?vid''''asxkx
Under the "Choose what to support" menu, select "In memory of Fern Cunningham-Terry," and the funds will support sparc!The Artmobile, and Community Partnerships.
We thank you for your support.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Fern L. Cunningham-Terry, please visit our floral store.