There’s a list of TV shows and movies and sounds that trigger Ken Cunningham.

He has learned to steer clear of the ones that remind him of the war, because there are moments from his 14 years of service he doesn’t want to remember.

Other memories — joking around with his fellow soldiers, the boring nights filled with long talks and gazing up at the stars — are ones he doesn’t mind going back to. Those are the ones that Cunningham paints.

“It’s helped me deal with things,” he said of his artwork. “It’s almost like a therapy.”

Cunningham, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has found a sort of therapy in studying art at St. Ambrose University. And he’s found a new direction for his life.

At age 45, Cunningham will graduate this weekend.

“Art is my life now,” he said. “It’s the thing it makes me happy.”

Cunningham didn’t go to college when many of his classmates did. He enlisted when he was 18 and grew up with the background of battle.

After retiring from military service, the demons of war stayed with him. In the civilian sector, he found shelter in his art classes, even with classmates who are at least 20 years younger. He says teachers and classmates helped him transform from a hard-core introvert to more of a chatterbox.

“They helped me to paint what I needed to paint,” he said, “to get it all out there.”

The haunting figures in Cunningham’s artwork are not made up or copied from video games. They’re his friends.

Many of his paintings show bright, star-filled skies in the background, which Cunningham calls an “inside joke.”

“We would always lay on the ground and look at the sky, and it would get us talking about big things like astronomy and philosophy and what we were all doing there,” he said. “I wanted to capture that.”

Much of his work is on display at the Catich Gallery, 518 W. Locust St., Davenport, on St. Ambrose University’s campus through May 28.

He said having so many eyes on his work has been “weird to get used to.” And it’s been a long time coming.

Although he always dreamed of being a painter, he spent his teenage years doing the “typical American boy thing,” which included baseball and other sporting events that his parents suggested.

Decades later, he wants to make a new life as a painter. He also plans to get his master’s degree and teach art for college students.

“I’ve been in a shell for a lot of my life, and I closed myself off to everybody,” he said. “But professors broke me out of that and tore the walls down. And I’m finally doing what makes me happy.”


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).