Second Chances

Reconnecting with a master

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

William Cumming died in 2010 at the age of 93, but those enamored of the Northwest School painter known for his important contributions to modern art will have the unique opportunity to reconnect with his works at an exhibit and sale taking place June 9-July 8 at La Conner’s Forum Arts.

“William Cumming, Small Works, 1943-2009” will feature hundreds of original pieces priced between $350-$1,000, making it possible for art lovers of a variety of income levels to purchase one-of-kind works. The show promises to highlight nearly 60 years of the preserved collection of Cumming’s sketches, including both playful and moving images of the people and street scenes of Seattle.

The nationally acclaimed artist had a great love for the art of drawing and a skilled eye for the kinetics of the human form, and a recent missive sent by In the Valley of Mystic Light co-author Claire Swedberg pointed out the artist “once declared he could recognize a friend down the road, without ever seeing the face, simply by gait and posture; and those telling instants of a person’s movements or posture became key elements in his work.

“Cumming could capture a whimsical or highly poignant moment with a few strokes of the pen or pencil,” she adds. “At various points throughout the six decades of his career, he could be found sitting at a coffee house in the University District, with a pencil and sketchpad—or any other material on-hand, even newsprint—sketching those he saw and often selling the sketches or giving them away on the spot. Others he took home to develop into paintings.”

Cumming’s journey on his path to being included among other Northwest School artists such as Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Kenneth Callahan took him from his birthplace in Kalispell, Montana to Tukwila. Growing up in the small farming community south of Seattle, he took drawing courses by correspondence and spent weekends traveling to the big city and teaching himself art history at the Seattle Public Library.

In 1934, after graduating from Foster High School, Cumming briefly attended a private art school in Seattle before the effects of the Great Depression had him returning to the family home. He had trouble finding steady work, but eventually found himself doing odd jobs with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, where he met Graves and his circle of friends and artists.

By 1941, his figurative painting style had drawn attention, and the Seattle Art Museum gave him his first solo show—the next would come 20 years later. Teaching art, social justice issues and workers’ rights were important parts of Cumming’s life, and at an opening reception taking place Sat., June 9, those in attendance are welcome to share their memories or impressions of the man with the crowd at hand.

Dena Lee, Cumming’s widow and the co-host of the exhibit, will also be on hand at the event. Give her your thanks, because she’s the one making it possible to peruse and purchase previously unseen pieces by a master.

When asked why she chose to release these sketches now, Lee’s answer is simple. “These works need to be out of storage,” she says, “shared and displayed in the homes of those who love Bill’s art!”

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