Cumming, William (1917-2010)

  • By Deloris Tarzan Ament
  • Posted 2/16/2003
  • Essay 5221
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William Cumming, a leading artist in the Pacific Northwest School, called himself "The Willie Nelson of Northwest Painting." His brilliant career as a painter was interwined with politics and interrupted by tuberculosis, only to re-emerge into a mainstream of recognition and renewed productivity. This biography of William Cumming is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). (All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Deloris Tarzan Ament's interview with William Cumming on December 8, 1999.) William Cumming died on November 22, 2010.

Bill Cumming: The Wayward One

No one has been more eloquent about light as the origin of Northwest art than William Cumming. In his memoir, Sketchbook, he writes: "The mist in our air does even in summer lay a slight wash over local color, so that the color-field shows up as grayed or muted. Within that muted field, splashes or shapes or calligraphs of pure color sing out with astonishing brilliance. All of the Northwest School painters have made use of this at one time or another" (Sketchbook, 135-136).

Cumming was born in Montana on March 24, 1917. His difficult birth, he writes, "was bonded into the family mythology. Forever I would be the strange one, the wayward one, the marked child, lad touched by the finger of Faery, touched by the wee ones. Lad marked for greatness, marked for strangeness. Of all this my grandfather was certain. It came with our blood" (Sketchbook, 218). Cumming's grandfather, William Kendall Cumming, a Highlander, worked as a janitor in a Scottish Presbyterian church. He'd migrated to Montana from Cumming Mountain, an 800-acre farm in Nova Scotia. In Scotland, his Calvinist family had been followers of John Knox.

His father, James Rutherford Cumming, sold chinaware for a mercantile company. His mother, Helen "Missy" Edmiston, was a Christian Scientist whose family moved into Kentucky at the time of Daniel Boone, owned slaves, and eventually migrated to Missouri, where the Jayhawk militia (known to the family as Federal "bluebellies") burned out the family when his grandmother was a child.

An Oregon Boyhood

When Bill was still a toddler, the family moved to Portland, Oregon. A story in Sketchbook from that period illustrates how a traumatic event in early life can permanently imprint the psyche. An unknown woman receding down the sidewalk a block away appeared to him to be his mother, leaving him. The tear-clouded vision that burned itself into his memory was transformed in later life into a prominent motif in his paintings: shadow-clad, light-spangled backs forever leaving the observer.

His Oregon memories include hunting rattlesnakes in creek bottoms, digging up arrowheads, picking pears, and swimming in the Rogue River. His mother recalled him as a child of sunny disposition.

In 1924, when Bill was seven, the family moved to Tukwila, a community 15 miles south of Seattle. Tukwila's present shopping malls, warehouses, and light industry were, in those days, a patchwork of farms. His father designed and built a gazebo that still stands in the Tukwila City Park.

Student of Art

Cumming had already decided that he would be an artistor -- more precisely -- that he was an artist. A family friend bought him an art course in the International Correspondence Schools. He got no further than the section on drawing the human figure. He recalled spending hours sitting in front of plaster casts furnished by the school, charcoal in hand, drawing and toning, and hating the process of academic drawing. "I was mediocre at it. But then, academic drawing is mediocre," he proclaimed.

He learned art history during hours spent at the Seattle Public Library in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He mowed the lawn of a dour elderly couple in exchange for a weekly ride into town.

When he graduated from Foster High School in 1934, the Great Depression was in full swing. Without a job or money for college, he stayed home and drew, listened to music, read poetry, and dreamed of a studio in Paris with a skylight and a mistress. When The Seattle Times carried a picture of Morris Graves holding Moor Swan, the painting that had won that year's Northwest Annual Exhibition, Cumming pasted the picture into his scrapbook between a print of Rembrandt's Portrait of His Son Titus, and a drawing by Western artist Charles Russell.

Cumming won a scholarship to the short-lived Northwest Academy of Art, housed in the Textile Tower, in Seattle. He worked as a kitchen drudge in a boarding house in Wallingford in order to live in town. The school was a disappointment, since Cumming felt he was already more accomplished at drawing the figure than his teacher, Ernest Norling. "Ernest was a good painter and an expert on perspective, but not comfortable with the figure," he said. He dropped out and returned home in 1935, taking out the remainder of his scholarship in weekly life-drawing sessions. (He has recalled that in his first life-drawing class, the model collapsed from hunger after the first five minutes.)

Making Connections

He wrote a fan letter to Stuart Morris, head of The Seattle Times art department, who invited Cumming to visit the newspaper, and gave him an original editorial cartoon. He also gave Cumming a letter of introduction to George Hager, an illustrator at the Strang and Prosser Advertising Agency in the Smith Tower. Hager, who played cello in an amateur string quartet and shared Cumming's dreams of being a painter, took him to countless lunches. Hager was Cumming's introduction to the world of commercial art.

Cumming played classical piano tolerably well. In 1936, Herbert Malloy, a piano teacher, took him to the White-Henry-Stuart Building to meet Alaskan painter Eustace Ziegler. Ziegler was a pictorial painter esteemed for his heavily impastoed oils of Alaskan panoramas and Indian scenes. The "Indian" model posing in costume for Ziegler that day was aspiring artist Guy Anderson.

Ziegler looked through Cumming's sketchbooks, calling his work "damn good," marveling that he had done it without formal instruction, and dismissed him with the admonition to "Keep it up!" Cumming observed, "He didn't understand how I drew people in rapid movement."

At about the same time, he met Lancaster Pollard, publisher and editor of the weekly Town Crier, who invited him to write art and music reviews. The pleasure of seeing his words in print was assumed to be sufficient pay. He wrote a lengthy review of the Northwest Annual Exhibition in the Town Crier (June 23, 1937 -- an issue in which he also wrote about music), declaring Callahan "one of the finest artists in the Northwest," and defending the work of Graves and Anderson as the avant-garde in the Northwest. "I didn't know much but I sure had opinions," he later said.

Graves had come under fire from Ziegler for poor craftsmanship. The criticism was well founded. Graves was painting on newsprint -- sometimes on both sides of it -- and on unsized burlap bags.

Cumming did artwork for his former high school under the auspices of the National Youth Administration -- "mostly signs and drawings for the school paper, The Growler." After a few months of such work, he was transferred into the N.Y.A. Photographic Project, to document people employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) In cities around the nation, artists working under the WPA. Federal Art Project taught free art classes and created murals for post offices and other federal buildings.

It was during an assignment to photograph WPA artists that he met Morrris Graves. "We were done for the day and almost everyone had left. I glanced into a room and saw a guy drawing at a desk. I recognized him from the newspaper clipping. I introduced myself to Morris, and he said, ‘You wrote that article in the Town Crier.' " Through Graves, Cumming met the circle of artist friends that included Guy Anderson, Kenneth and Margaret Callahan, Mark Tobey, and Lubin Petric, who was at that time the domestic partner of Graves's sister, Celia.

Guy Anderson recalled:

“My first exposure to Bill Cumming was at some little gathering. Bill had brought some paintings to look at -- nude females in brilliant color, like the French school. He was also composing music and writing poetry. He was very alive, very bright, very interested in the whole art scene. I remember going to recitals when young composers' pieces were played; Bill was one of them.”

In Sketchbook, Cumming recounts an evening in which Morris and Lubin, in grotesque makeup, angered him as he played Beethoven's Appassionata by doing a burlesque imitation of Martha Graham, howling with laughter, until he stalked out (Sketchbook, 67). They were far kinder about his art. "They treated my adolescent [art] efforts with kindly solicitude, overlooking my small-town romanticism with its grotesque excesses and its garish color. They praised extravagantly my drawing, in which they saw the roots of my borning style" (Sketchbook, 227).

Margaret Callahan was more direct. She chastised him for filling his sketchbooks with Skid Road figures filled with life and energy while devoting his paintings to "trivial little nudes with shoe-button eyes trying to look like Parisian chippies" (Sketchbook, 185). On this occasion, Kenneth sat mutely by, nodding affirmation. She advised Cumming to abandon plagiarism of Modigliani and Pascin and focus on his genuine gift for transcribing bodies in motion. Her effect on him was so strong that Cumming calls the Northwest School the Margaret Callahan Circle. "Margaret empowered me to be here, be now, and create my art out of that power of being" (Sketchbook, 140, 227). (Her criticism may also have contributed to the fact that for the rest of his career the faces of figures in his paintings were obscured in shadow.)

With Margaret Callahan's encouragement, Cumming forged his distinctive kinetic style of drawing, taking inspiration for single-line contour of the human form rendered in flat planes of color from the Japanese master Hokusai. His introduction to Hokusai was not, as one might imagine, via the Japanese collection of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Rather, it came through his reading about the life and work of James McNeill Whistler, and the influence on Whistler's work of the Japanese masters of ukiyo-e woodblock prints -- Hokusai, Utamaro, and Sharaku. "The Floating World [ukiyo-e] was exactly the world I was drawing: world of illusion, world of gesture and transience, world that vanishes as it appears," Cumming wrote in Sketchbook (p. 229).

To capture that transience, he developed a kinetic style of contour drawing, with sequences of moving gestures while the movement was still in progress. He was particularly adept at depicting children, with their peculiar combination of lightness and awkwardness while they are learning to refine their coordination.

Another important change in his work occurred when Kenneth Callahan pointed out that Cumming used both oil and transparent watercolor clumsily. He suggested tempera, in which the yolk of egg is frothed with water as a medium for pigment. Kenneth gave Cumming his formula for mixing egg-oil emulsion tempera. Cumming adopted it with such success that not long after, Callahan took him and his paintings to meet Dr. Richard Fuller at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Dr. Fuller chose three pictures for the museum's collection, paying Cumming a total of $100. "No money ever seemed sweeter," Cumming recalled (Sketchbook, 186).

In 1940, when Mark Tobey won First Prize in the 26th Northwest Annual Exhibition, and Hilda Deutsch won the prize for sculpture, Cumming won the top watercolor prize for a large tempera painting, Worker Lifting a Rock. It became part of the museum collection. Cumming had married Ginny Hoyt, a teenage worker on the N.Y.A. project, who became the mother of his first child, Kevin James. The $75 award more than doubled their combined $50 per month income. Despite his youth, it was Cumming's second marriage. His first, in 1938, to Dorothy Wurst, lasted only three months, ending when Dorothy moved to San Francisco.

Margaret Callahan introduced him to Betty MacDonald, who in a few years would publish the best-seller The Egg and I. In 1940, she headed the N.Y.A. Division of Information in Seattle. Margaret proposed that Cumming become MacDonald's assistant. He did so, continuing his regular salary of $25 per month.

The pay was modest, but it was a job without real duties. He used the time to paint glum pictures of youth workers on various projects, in black, blue, umber, and white. Their gloominess, attributed to his antisocial radicalism, in fact arose from his self-confessed lack of knowledge of how to use color. The dull colors, his use of tempera, and his reliance on draftsmanship had much in common with Graves' paintings of that period. He relied on light and shadow for effect. He wrote:

"I was passionately aware of the ambiance of Northwest color, how the moist air creates a field of grayed color in which pure colors are allowed to shine out brilliantly. What I didn't know was how to paint this effect. Eventually I worked it out by mortising pure color with activating colors (generally called complementaries) to sour the color" (Sketchbook, 233).

Tom Robbins later called it the Technicolor effect in his painting.

His first solo show was in 1941, at SAM. He is probably the only Northwest artist in history ever to have a solo show at the museum before having had one at a commercial gallery. "There were no commercial galleries," he reminds us.

Cumming's Plague

The shining promise that show implied soon lost its luster. In 1942, his health collapsed. He entered Firland Sanatorium with tuberculosis, manifested by a hole in his right lung. Betty MacDonald, who had served her own time in Firland (depicted in her memoir, The Plague and I), drove him there.

Tuberculosis was a Cumming family bane. His older brother had died of it in 1934; his mother had died of it in 1942. He came to believe in retrospect that his mother might have carried the disease in latent form since his birth, spreading it to others in the family.

He spent most of World War II in Firland, with hemorrhaging lungs. Ginny ended their marriage with a "Dear John" letter while he was there. He was initially released after a year and a half, but was unable to work. His lung had been collapsed in a medical procedure in which gas was injected to exert pressure on the lung and act as a splint.

Cumming became active in the Communist Party in 1945, collecting dues and raising funds, moved by John Reed's book on the Russian revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. He went to Spokane, where he was working on Russian war relief when he met Dorothy Loft, a Danish woman who was to become his third wife. Their nine-year marriage produced three children: Philip, Claudia, and Karen. They divorced in 1955. His health continued to fail. Two bouts of chest surgery followed further hemorrhages.

Art Politics

In 1948, Cumming reviewed another Northwest Annual, this time for the Stalinist People's World. Cumming had entered a painting titled The Party Organizer, marking it "Not For Sale." It was not among the prize winners. He considered his review to be nonpolitical, saying it could as easily have appeared in The Seattle Times. However, it included news leaked through a museum employee concerning the shelving of a show of anticlerical wood engravings by artist Leopoldo Méndez in Mexico City.

Dr. Fuller responded to the review with a letter saying that Cumming had violated his trust by writing in a publication "dedicated to the destruction of the American way of life." Cumming published Dr. Fuller's letter along with his own reply: that the ability to write checks would appear in the eyes of history to be less socially useful than the ability to paint pictures. He later labeled his own reply "foolish." Callahan, too, wrote a bitter letter decrying Cumming's article, to which Cumming replied with vitriol, effectively ending their friendship.

Cumming ceased painting as he became a Trotsky baiter, harrying anyone with Trotskyist tendencies, until, he says, he recognized that he himself was "that type." Trotskyism, he says, hinged more on questions of internal party democracy and formulating long-term policies in relation to the working class than on spreading revolution throughout the world, as outsiders typically understood it.

For six years, during the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunts, Cumming was blacklisted. His marriage to Dorothy Loft disintegrated. He lived in fear of being charged with violation of the Smith Act, which outlawed membership in the Communist Party.

Quitting and Deciding to Quit

In 1957, on his 40th birthday, he broke with Stalinism and resigned from the radical movement. "I became a Communist to shoot off my mouth, and probably to defy my father," he said ruefully:

“I had just been to a party with old Stalinist friends at Lofty's house on Yesler Terrace. Dago Red wine poisoned me, and I went into an oration, haranguing them about how I hated their stupidity around art. I went on for an hour, ending by saying "Fuck Stalin and Fuck Khrushchev too, the opportunistic, lying S.O.B.'s." A few days after that, Eric Sevareid broke the story which was the beginning of the end of Stalin's reputation.”

He began to paint again, and "decided" to quit having pulmonary hemorrhages, and being sick. "I was reared as a Christian Scientist, and it had a big effect on me. I got used to not paying attention to doctors. I had been on disability for years, but I called the State and told them to discontinue my disability grant, and give it to someone who needed it." He subsequently enjoyed robust health for 37 years, until he had a mild stroke and seizure in 1994.

His life was turning around. "It wasn't easy finding a job. I'd been blacklisted because of my affiliation as a Communist. I went to Aberdeen thinking I might get a job as a choker setter in a logging camp." A friend dissuaded him from that dangerous occupation.

Marrying and Marrying

"I decided the only way for me to earn a living was to go with my only skill. I had to be a painter famous enough to make a living at it." For a while he did portrait sketches at the Cafe Encore, selling them for $4 and $5. He says, "They weren't good likenesses. I've never been good at doing faces." Briefly, he worked as a medical illustrator for photographer Bernie Flageolle. He had been taking classes at the Burnley School of Professional Art, and accepted an offer to teach there part time. "Ed Burnley paid me $5 a class, cash under the table," he recalled.

His fourth marriage, in 1957, to Clyde (he no longer remembers her last name at the time they met), who came from an African American family in Virginia, lasted three years. "Her alcoholism was impossible," he recalled. "I had to get away from it, and from her politics."

After their divorce, he married Roxanne Johnston, whom he met at a concert at Meany Hall. His principal memory of that marriage, which lasted "four or five years," was that during the course of their arguments, she threw dishes at him, destroying a set of stoneware made by his friends Ralph and Lorene Spencer. He taunted her for throwing "like a girl," since no dish ever hit him. They had one child, a son, Hugh, nicknamed "Boo." After their divorce, Roxanne went on to become a physician.

Returning to the Mainstream

During his years of poor health, Cumming had fallen out of the art mainstream. He returned in style. In 1958, he won First Prize in a competition at the PANACA Gallery in Bellevue, followed by First Prize in an annual competition at the Frye Art Museum. In 1960, he won the Purchase Prize in SAM's Northwest Annual Exhibition, by a rare unanimous vote of the jury, for a painting titled Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines, painted with quick-drying white oil on five-ply board in the last three days before the entry deadline. "I was on a roll! I was famous in a one fish town," he chortled. "It's all I ever wanted. I never wanted national fame."

Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines depicts an elderly woman hunched over as if she has osteoporosis. She approaches, face obscured by a small-brimmed hat, toes turned in, wearing sagging, wrinkled dark hose, clutching a bouquet of small flowers whose brightness and central location make them seem the painting's real subject. An orderly procession of black-clad nuns, seen from the side and back, retreat into the background.

The painting, bought for SAM's permanent collection, is an eloquent symbol of the brevity and fragility of life, symbolized by the plucked flowers and the seemingly frail health of the old woman. It was a far cry from the athletes and children who were Cumming's usual subjects.

Shortly after that show, Dr. Fuller sent museum employees Neil Meitzler and Millard Rogers to Cumming's studio to talk to him about a one-man show at the museum, 20 years after his first one-man show there. "It showed me that Dr. Fuller was a real gentleman," he said. "He overlooked my abominable rudeness."

In those days, paintings were offered for sale from SAM shows. Cumming's show sold out almost immediately. Afterward, his paintings, and especially his drawings, began to sell through small shows in coffee houses. "I sold drawings to people who'd never purchased art before, or even thought about it," he said. Dr. Fuller so thoroughly forgave their differences that he bought one of Cumming's paintings at the next PONCHO auction, held annually to benefit arts organizations.

Cumming has often been chided for having been married seven times. (Cumming met his present wife, Dena, a dancer and professional chef, when she was a model for another art instructor) particularly since many of his wives were significantly younger than himself. "Women have been what my life was about," he said. "Women have insights men never have. Women and men have never understood each other, and never will. They just need to respect each other."

His longest marriage -- 17 -- was to Sue Kruger, a student at Burnley when he first approached her with the question, "Do you believe in Strawberry Fields?" Together they built a log house in Upper Preston, and raised horses. As always, the subjects of his art mirrored his life. During that time, he focused his attention equally on the human figure and horses. The lines in his paintings were charged with energy as an Appaloosa with a broadly speckled rump rolled back in a pivot or a cutting horse leaned into a quick turn after a calf.

His style made use of a caricaturist's broad impression of line. The stripes of a shirt became a rider's dominant feature. The slats of a fence overwhelmed the background. As was usual in his paintings, the faces were obscured, this time by Western hats.

Hidden faces in his paintings through the years have carried the suggestion of something sinister to the most innocently employed figures. As a child jumps rope or a basketball player leaps for the hoop, one could almost be seeing the angel of death in curious disguise. A red-helmeted girl helping a blind man cross a street, a hand firmly around his arm, could be guiding him to the underworld.

Cumming's understanding of space has always been a critical factor in his work. He explained, "The space between alleged objects is the space which defines or creates the objects. Miscalled negative space, it is the space of relationship, whether in a painting or in people's lives. That is where living shows up, and that is the decisive space in my paintings. It is often defined with a colored aura" (Sketchbook, 233-234).

He returned to teaching at the Burnley School of Professional Art in 1963, continuing on the faculty after it became the Art Institute of Seattle in the 1980s. Throughout his life, he resisted any suggestion of retiring from teaching:

“Nothing is more central to my painting than my time as a teacher, and nothing is more central to my teaching than the Burnley School and its successor The Art Institute of Seattle. From what Tom Robbins once identified as my blue-collar leanings, it has formed the ground of the chiefest qualities of my work. In its simplest form this is expressed by the direct physical impact of my colleagues and my students. "Teaching in the environment of what the mandarins of "fine art" disparagingly call 'commercial art' has exposed me constantly to the restless and innovative currents of something which is more deserving of the word "creative" than the latest local imitations of Artforum's favorites. Perhaps more important is the constant search of our faculty and students for paths of communication to a tangible and demanding audience. Without teaching in this format I would shrivel up as a painter, and not painting would end the energies of my life” (Unpublished Statement).

There is Only Art

He called the distinction between professional art and fine art "poppycock." He said, "There is only art. Every single human being is born containing an artist, and this being invents art for itself at around the age of three when, without any teaching or coaching or indoctrination, it invents shape."

He believed firmly that training in "so-called commercial art" is superior to university art schools because students develop skills that allow them to survive in the world, to understand how the art world operates, and to handle the financial end of working as an artist. "Fine art is a war," he said. "I hate fine art with all its fuss and crap. Fine art students are brought up in a spirit of contempt for people. Of course I paint for the market. So did Rembrandt. So did Titian. It's high time we quit compartmentalizing art, and leave graduating students thinking they need a grant to make a living."

He taught his students, "You have a right to make money out of art. To make money out of art, you have to create art which someone wants to buy. It's okay if your drawing is crude. That's how nature meant it to be. The question is how do you turn crude into a marketable commodity."

The painter he most admired was Eustace Ziegler: "He was a real painter. The Northwest School mostly painted drawings. I try not to draw so much, and let the paint do it. The subject of a painting isn't the image, it's the paint. That's the difference between an illustration and a painting. In an illustration, the image dictates to the paint. In a painting, the paint dictates to the image."

His work over the years has been represented by a succession of art galleries, beginning with the Gordon Woodside Gallery, and ending with that gallery in its present incarnation, the Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery.

Cumming said that his work:

“bears no resemblance to good drawing, governed by the academic sense. That form of drawing called objective drawing, governed by standards of photographic realism, represents for me the furthest extreme of abstraction away from direct comprehension of reality. It is a triumph of skill, which has little or nothing to do with creation. I don't think we really create a damn thing. We fool around and something comes of it. We are not creators -- we are created. I hold the brush, but what holds me? These are troubling thoughts for me as a practicing atheist."

William Cumming died of congestive heart failure on the morning of November 22, 2010. He was 93 years old.


William Cumming, Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984); Betty MacDonald, The Plague and I (New York: Lippincott, 1948); William Cumming, Unpublished statement, April 10, 2000; Deloris Tarzan Ament interview with William Cumming, December 8, 1999.
Note: This essay was updated on November 23, 2010.

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