Last of the Northwest School goes to “the gods’ private Blue Moon”

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Pacific Northwest artist William Cumming (1917-2010), 1967 – Courtesy Seattle Magazine

Artist William (Bill) Cumming – a survivor of TB and other ails – faced death many times in his 93 years, but finally surrendered to heart failure on November 22.  He took with him memories of his contemporaries, the Northwest School of artists. He was last of an iconic group that included Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson.

Cumming didn’t go quietly into that good night. He was perhaps more vigorous in his final years than he was in his teens when he joined the Northwest School during a stint with the National Youth Administration, one of the federal art projects of Depression years.

Born in Montana and raised in Portland and Tukwila, Cumming favored the Northwest for its climate and its tolerance for individualism. Unable to pay for a formal education, he was mostly self-taught. He crammed at the Seattle Public Library and adopted techniques from his compatriots. As he wrote in his autobiography, “Sketchbook: A memoir of the 30s and the Northwest School,” “Seattle was my Paris.”

I heard him reminisce about his career a few years ago when he spoke after being honored by the Museum of History and Industry. He accepted his award, but then sent the distinguished guests at the Rainier Club into nervous laughter with his earthy and profane memories.  Seldom has the Rainier Club echoed with that many variations on the “f” word.

At the time, Cumming was still a popular teacher at the Art Institute of Seattle, a successor to Burnley Art School where, coincidentally, my late husband Bob Godden once trained in commercial art and where, like Cumming, he learned to sketch with a drawing pad and pencil stub in his pocket at the Pike Place Market.

Cummings said, “Every human being is born containing an artist, and this being invents art for itself around the age of three.” He believed his job as a teacher was to empower students to get back into contact with the artist they left before they were seated in a schoolroom and told,“Sit there and don’t chew gum.”

Cumming had no use for those who separated “fine” art and commercial art.  He famously said, ”I’m in it for the money. It’s the only thing I’m good at, so I keep doing it.” He did well indeed, especially in his later years. His dealer, John Braseth of the Woodside/Braseth Galleries said that everything Cumming painted sold. A panel, say 3 by 2 feet, might fetch $25,000.

Cumming’s works are famous for their use of color. He used an egg-wash tempura that masked his subjects but allowed pure color to shine out vividly, what Author Tom Robbins, a chronicler of Cumming, once referred to as “the Technicolor effect.”

In a forward describing Cumming’s one-man show at the Woodside/Braseth Gallery in 2007, Robins wrote, “We should feel privileged that he has traveled among us and remained so long.”

Cummings paintings depict figures with their backs to the artist, faceless, mysterious, and always seemingly in motion. He told art reviewer Regina Hackett, “The people in my paintings aren’t really from the present day. They’re from the 30s, the ordinary people of that time. They had a lot of fight in them.”

At the 2007 exhibit, a celebration of Cumming’s 90th year, I was privileged to sit down with the artist and some of his admirers and acolytes. He spoke affectionately of the companions that he had outlived – artists and writers such as Betty MacDonald (“The Egg and I”) and Margaret Callahan, a journalist married to painter Kenneth Callahan.

He commented candidly on his active intimate life, noting the differences, saying that, while some of the Northwest painters “chased boys,” he “chased girls.” He said, “I had seven wives and numerous of other peoples.”

At the conclusion of his reminisces that evening, I had the nerve to ask the artist to sign my invitation. He wrote, simply, “Arise” and added the signature: “Bill.”

In his book, Cumming said that, when he died, he hoped no one should speak of him. In fact, he added that he would include such a codicil in his will. Whether he did or not, it seems unlikely that his wishes will be honored. He has left too many compelling paintings, too many dedicated students and too colorful a long and fascinating life.