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the works


The late Bill Cumming: Colorful art, colorful character | friends and students remember an outrageous free spirit BY GABRIELLE NOMURA | PHOTOS COURTESY OF WOODSIDE/BRASETH GALLERY


t a Seattle art gallery in the mid-’60s, a dapperly clad William Cumming dramatically pushed open the doors to his own exhibit, a vision of Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” with a formal cape and cane. “It’s all crap!” Cumming said at the top of his lungs, flourishing the cane in a circle at his paintings on display. And just like that, he ran out the door again, much to the dismay of the patrons at the gallery. The cape and cane symbolized only one of Cumming’s countless personas. Throughout his life, Cumming emerged as a proud member of the feared Communist party, a chaps-clad rancher and a lover to many different women (“I’ve had seven wives and numerous other people’s,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005). Up until his death of congestive heart failure just before Thanksgiving, he was also the last great artist of “The Northwest School” of painting and the teacher of several generations of local artists.

Bill Cumming, legendary local artist, teacher and longeststanding member of “The Northwest School” died Nov. 22, 2010.

Although his 93 years took him throughout the Northwest, in and out of different clothing, lifestyles and relationships, the people who knew Cumming say that their beloved friend was as colorful in personality as the vivid paintings that made him a local legend. “I wouldn’t call him eccentric, just unusually bold and confident,” says Tom Price, a former student and longtime friend of Cumming. “He was a cantankerous character and sharp as a tack.” Cumming was initially self-taught. He learned academic drawing through a correspondence school and art history education through his own wanderings in The Seattle Public Library. Born in 1917, Cumming had the typical thriftiness and traits of someone raised in the depression era, but his sailor’s mouth and wicked sense of humor were all his own. He would often tell people that he was just into painting for the money, and even told the PostIntelligencer, “It’s a load of bull” when artists talk about the spiritual pull of painting. “He’d describe art on street-level when he taught, making it very tangible, very real and very fun,” Price says. “You’d be in class and suddenly he’d start singing or he’d stop teaching because he wanted to draw in his sketchbook.” Despite Cumming’s novel and varied life experiences, he was not an eccentric who simply donned costumes or obeyed fads, says John Braseth, close friend and director of the Woodside/Braseth Gallery which often exhibited Cumming’s work. For example, when Cumming was known as a cowboy, he was really living

“Pike Street Market,” (2006), tempera on board, one of Cumming’s paintings. that lifestyle, working as a rancher on the Eastside near Issaquah, he says. Deborah Freng remembers Cumming’s cowboy phase from when she was a 9-year-old student of his at the Kirkland Creative Arts League, one of numerous places he taught, in addition to Cornish College of the Arts and what would become Art Institute of Seattle. She also remembers the “groupies” of numerous adoring students – and of course, the ladies, who couldn’t seem to get enough of the slender man with the luminous, expressive blue eyes. “I never saw him as a womanizer, I think he was a gentleman who happened to marry many of the women he dated,” Freng says. “I think that label detracts from

“At the Lake,” (2008), tempera on board, one of Cumming’s paintings. him as a human being.” Cumming definitely had a sensitive and thoughtful side to him as well. After all, he was the sort of artist who used to paint peoples’ auras. He was actually very soft[ more CUMMING on page 15 ]

THE scene

january 2011 | | 15 In fact, Cumming was even scheduled to teach the morning he died.

[ CUMMING from page 14 ]

spoken, it’s just what he said was so outrageous, says Gary Nelson, who taught with Cumming at the Burnley School of Professional Art. Perhaps even more controversial than his reputation with women was his decade or so of membership in the Communist Party and years of being blacklisted. He finally renounced his involvement with communism at age 40 to focus on his work once again, but social inequality and workers’ rights were always important to him. “He was courageous. He charged into things,” Braseth says. “Life has a tendency to run people over, he wasn’t going to succumb to that, even in his old age.”

“Cumming was a proud member of the feared Communist party, a chaps-clad cowboy-esque rancher and lover to many different women.”

He taught all his life, into his 90s, because he never thought he’d be able to completely support himself through his art, even though nowadays, one of his small watercolors costs about $1,200, and one of his 4-by-4 pieces is roughly $50,000, Braseth says. Braseth, who delivered part of Cumming’s eulogy at a private memorial in early December had writers’ block the entire week before trying to find the proper words to describe the colorful artist. “With Bill, it was as if you had a genie in the bottle,” Braseth says. “You rubbed the bottle, but you never knew who would come out. You only knew it was going to be a magnificent genie.”

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Remembrance of Northwest School artist, Bill Cumming  

First Place: Best Personality Profile – Short, 2010. Washington Newspaper Publisher's Association.

Remembrance of Northwest School artist, Bill Cumming  

First Place: Best Personality Profile – Short, 2010. Washington Newspaper Publisher's Association.