Radical art: 'Northwest School' artist paints the human condition

When heralded painter William Cumming sees something wrong, he just has to fix it.

This was true of his painting that had been displayed at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Madison Valley for more than 40 years, unsigned and unsatisfactory to the artist.

The piece now has his signature and some new brushstrokes.

Cumming hopes that it and others will spark some thought about the human condition and how we fit in the world.

Multicultural appreciation

Cumming , 87, is the youngest of the "Northwest School" of artists that included Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and, a strong influence of his, Kenneth Callahan.

Before moving to Tukwila when he was 7, he lived in Kalispell, Mont., where the work of Charlie Russell depicting cowboys and Native Americans made a big impression on him, along with Rembrant, one of his favorite painters.

"In that area where I grew up it was part of the Blackfoot Nation, and I began to appreciate their culture," Cumming said. "The Blackfoots were very tough and refused to sign many peace treaties."

The artist brought his multicultural appreciation with him to Seattle's Central Area, where he resided in the late 1930s. There, he immersed himself with people of different cultures and the realities of racial persecution.

"Most of my friends during that time were refugees from the South," Cumming said. "One of the women I was closest to came from a parish near New Orleans, where she had seen members of her family lynched by the [Ku Klux] Klan."

'Other things to do'

Early in his career, during the late '30s and early '40s, Cumming began working for the Works Progress Admini-stration's federal art project.

In 1941, he had his work displayed at the Seattle Art Museum, but it seemed as though his career would be cut short when he was sent to a sanitarium with tuberculosis .

"I was expected to kick the bucket," the oil-and-egg painter said. "But I had other things to do."

This, however, did not involve painting: He had lost passion for that - at least for the time being. His new interest was in politics and helping to end racism in the United States.

As part of a leftist faction, he thought radical ideals could help create greater equality in America; what he got was a disconcerted view of politics, but mostly of politicians.

"It seems as though in politics, the more people you kill, the more right you are," Cumming disgustingly chided. "The rank-and-file people I worked with in those movements were OK. It was the leaders that were a bunch of (expletive) heads.

"So in the late 1950s, when I decided that political action of any kind wasn't going to solve the questions that bothered me," he continued, "I thought the one thing I could do was paint."

Cumming has been painting ever since.

During this time, he lived in Wallingford and the Issaquah River Valley areas, where he raised horses from 1972 to '84.

Today, living in a quaint Lake Forest Park home, he teaches at the Seattle Art Institute and at Cornish College of the Arts, both on Capitol Hill.

And, of course, he still paints - prolifically. "I turn out about 100 paintings a year," Cumming said.

And, fitting with his persistent character, he added, "If they don't sell after a couple of years, I paint them over. I have no room for them in my basement."

A community asset

His painting at the King school depicts two school-age African-American children running amongst trees, with swirling brushstrokes and an Impressionistic-style tinge.

"We feel that the painting is a community asset and not just a great asset to the school," school principal Barry Dorsey said. "We're just very proud to host the painting at the school."

"The painting used to hang over the drinking fountain right here," said King fourth-grade teacher Marylin Mears. "I looked at it one day and thought, 'Do you know what we have here? This is a Cumming.'

"It had a couple of scratches from kids because they didn't really know what it was," she said, "but it held together fairly well."

And so has Cumming. He had a few ups and downs in his lifetime, but he seems at peace with himself and life today.

After six attempts at marriage, he now lives with his wife of 15 years, Dena. "The first six were just practice," Cumming joked.

He added "[Dena] is the perfect wife. Now, hopefully, I can be with her for a while and won't kick the bucket any time soon."

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