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Bill Cumming: 1917-2010

I think people will forget me when I’m dead. I’m going to add
a codicil to my will, to forbid anybody from speaking my name.

Bill Cumming, from profile in the PI, 2005

When died of heart failure at 93 Nov. 23, he was the last member of the original
Northwest School, a group of painters who brought national prominence to
the region in the 1940s and 1950s. Cumming was a teenager in the circle
of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan.

Although for reasons of health and politics Cumming didn’t paint much
in the 1950s, he was back by 1961 with a retrospective at the Seattle
Art Museum. By 1980, he’d moved from black and gray to color, favoring
what he calls sour tonalities.

More than 60 years ago, he went to a John Cage concert at Cornish
College of the Arts with Morris Graves, who proceeded to heckle Cage
from the audience. Because Cumming was seated next to the troublemaker,
he also was given the bum’s rush by ushers.

As they hustled him up the aisle, ignoring his protests that he
didn’t do anything, he lost his temper and decked one. Cumming was told
never to return and waited for Graves in a nearby tavern.

Graves never showed up. In the lobby, he had gone limp. A Cornish
trustee and doting admirer happened by and stopped the ushers from
throwing him out. Graves stood up, took her arm and rejoined the concert
on his best behavior.

“Graves got away with everything,” said Cumming in 2005, still enjoying of the old animosities.

In her brief note marking his passing, Jen Graves made the following remarkable statement:

He was one of the last remaining links to artists like Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Mark Tobey.
I think it’s safe to say that Cumming had more personality than all those guys put together.

More personality? Is that because he was the one she met? I’d say he was the least interesting, certainly the one with the least depth. What he had was painting. Whether he was written off or, later, celebrated as the region’s sentimental favorite, he stuck with what he knew and declined to enlarge upon it.

Although a lot of his work failed to rise beyond the illustrative, he has his moments. His 40-year-old formula opened up for him, allowing him to shake the stars out of the sky and light the ground under the feet of the ordinary people who populate his work – a liquid light stream filled with people.

Cumming, 2003


I’d say he was an influence on Thomas Lawson, as the link between Cumming and Lawson’s recent work is so striking. But Cumming’s painting rarely showed up outside the region, and never in a major venue. It’s unlikely Lawson saw it.

Lawson, 2009


Cumming was born in Montana in 1917 and moved to the Northwest as a child.
His father was Scottish and his mother Southern with Confederate roots.
She named him William Lee, the Lee in honor of an uncle, who was in
turn named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

During the Depression he was a member of the Communist Party, which he left in the 1950s, noting that the Communists were as bad as Republicans. From an extreme of a collective ideal he later moved into rugged individualism, attending EST and the Forum, the master of his own ship, the captain of his soul. His ideology at that point matched core Republicanism fantasy, and then he moved beyond it. By the 1990s, he was back in love with the Confederacy, telling James Washington Jr. (of all people) that Abraham Lincoln was the country’s worst president.

Washington could be chilly to those he suspected of racism, but he only laughed. Like others who knew Cumming well, Washington didn’t take his wild swings of opinion seriously. Instead, Washington trusted what he saw in the paintings, a deep and abiding good will toward all who walk the earth.

From Degas and George Herriman, he acquired his
fondness for figures in motion. From Edouard Vuillard, he found the
ability to use decorative patterning to potent effect.

He favored water-based media — tempera or gouache — and painted in
layers: First the solid colors and then the patterning. He aimed for some
kind of orchestrated equivalence between figures and the space around
them. When the entire scene is glowing with a sour light, he was

Cumming taught at the Art Institute of Seattle, which turns out primarily commercial artists,  for more than 50 years. What he demonstrated was resilience.

I teach them to stand on their own feet and find their own
style. Everybody is born with the power to draw. It’s taken away from
them. I try to give it back.

Cumming is represented in Seattle by the Woodside/Braseth Gallery.


  1. Regina, Your panegyric discourse here lays the compliment at your own doorstep. Your generous eulogistic composition has given honor where an honor was due. Thank you.

  2. My own eulogistic declaration towards Mr. Cumming didn’t make it past the first cut of Regina’s article and this second attempt represents my own fear that this now deceased Artist will be forced to simply fade away. Although Regina’s original piece has now slipped quietly from the top of the queue, I find it to be a personal necessity to repeat my original offering.
    I am, after all has been said, the admitted fool who rushes in where the wise wouldn’t dare.
    This is my way and the only way I know.
    My lack of knowledge is cultivated and acted upon. To do otherwise would be tantamount to doing nothing, so I plod ahead hoping to find refuge in the bliss of ignorance.
    Believe it or not, , lacking the sensibilities of forethought and knowledge, there can be a purity waiting to be achieved when a person navigates through unchartered waters. As it is with the eyes of a child, every new moment contains within it the possibility of enthusiasm and wonderment.
    So it was when I first discovered the art of William Cumming. As I felt the moment, I imagined that here before me was the work of an Octogenarian who, after more than eight decades of life, had somehow managed to keep the spirit of his youth alive in his art. My sensory memory still contains the feeling of spontaneity that I felt while viewing his work upon my very first visit to the Woodside/Braseth Gallery.
    I admired his mastered approach and the way he reconciled his art to his own personality and experiences. How much more can an aspiring artist ask for? There is an honesty and yes, even a purity of sorts, when an artist reaches this point in life. Accolades pale in comparison when considering the artist’s creative inner psyche and the gift of achievement that can only be bestowed from self, to self.
    Crazy as it may seem, I read William Cumming’s autobiography ‘Sketchbook’ twice. The attendant at the Woodside/Braseth Gallery had given me a copy for free after I had uttered many effusives over the artist’s work. I hadn’t known very much about the Northwest School and the so-called Mystics and through this book I was afforded a privileged insight into one artist’s foray during Seattle’s creative past.
    To be sure, local creative effort is a smaller version of something larger than itself but in no way does that diminish its importance nor diminish its contribution to our national culture. Mr. Cumming was and still is, an integral ingredient in the history and fabric and lore of a time in Seattle that no longer exists.
    I first came here (Seattle) in 1976 and permanently settled here in 1979. I’m glad I got to experience the civility of its people and the small town politeness that existed before the powers-that-be deemed it an appropriate moment to transform this once tranquil metropolis into a world class city.
    The vestiges of that time gone by are rapidly being trampled under and paved over by that juggernaut called progress. Massive shopping malls and crazy 4AM bargain hunters with their tinted windows of anonymity screech at the senses and threaten to run over any of the unwary who dare to interrupt their lurid consumerism. Simply take a trip north to the Skagit Valley and look at what has happened to that former Mystic stomping ground. If you’re an old-timer and you haven’t been up there for a while then have someone drive you up with a blindfold on. Have them plop you down and remove your blindfold somewhere between Marysville and the Burlington cut-off. I swear, you’ll think that you’ve been driving in circles and you hadn’t yet left Lynnwood/Alderwood. Old Mt. Vernon reminds me of the very unsure and frightened deer I saw recently down on Burke Gillman trail. Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
    The good thing about civilization is that it is comprised of the accumulated artifacts of our collective memory. Without that archival record of the good things we have done, then we are nothing at all except sheep, whose only consolation is the credit card so warmly tucked into our wallets as we are induced through herded instinct to descend upon the super mall of subliminal dreams.
    I am thankful for William Cumming. I am thankful for his art, and I am thankful for his book, and I am thankful that he and his like ever lived and walked upon this earth. Muchas gracias, Senior Cumming. Rest in peace.

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