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Betty MacDonald and an outstanding artist

Northwest School painter Bill Cumming, 88, says, "Painting's the only thing I'm good at, so I keep doing it." Photo: PHIL H. WEBBER/P-I

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Bill Cumming: Outspoken artist, soft-spoken art

Published 10:00 pm, Monday, August 15, 2005

Hysterical barking preceded Bill Cumming on the way to his front door. Instead of greeting his guest, he glared at the geriatric Chihuahua at his feet.
"I'm going to kill this dog," he said. "It isn't even a dog. It's a miserable excuse for a life form."
The dog's small but no fool. Paying no attention to the muttered threats to its existence, it accompanied Cumming back to his studio.

As the dog knows, Cumming's bark is worse than his bite. If nobody's around, he might reach down to pat the dog's old gray head, but a fleeting moment of grudging affection doesn't mean the painter approves of the animal. Cumming likes what he calls real dogs: Great Danes and bouviers.
Technically, the miniature member of the canine family belongs to the artist's wife's mother and is in the house under protest, which both dog and artist's wife ignore.
Cumming maintains his reputation as a grouch with difficulty, because these days everything's going his way. At 88, he's the tail end of the 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.
Everything he paints sells, said his dealer, John Braseth of Woodside/Braseth Gallery. A medium-size painting, 3 feet high by 2 feet wide, may be priced in the $25,000 range.
"People ask me why I'm still painting," Cumming said. "The answer's simple: I'm in it for the money. Other artists talk about the spiritual pull of painting. That's a load of bull. Painting's the only thing I'm good at, so I keep doing it."
A 70-year retrospective of his work opens Saturday at the Frye Art Museum. Titled "William Cumming: The Image of Consequence," the show was organized by freelance critic Matthew Kangas, who also wrote the text for the accompanying catalog.
Cumming allowed that he thought Kangas had done a good job, although the artist continues to have reservations about the writer. "I find it hard to trust a man I suspect has never been in a fistfight," he said.
Nobody would suspect him of the same thing.
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.
Kangas' book doesn't tend to tell Northwest School tales, concentrating instead on Cumming's early politics and the motivations for his painting.
He 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 with no chance of going to college and outraged by what he saw as the blatant injustices of capitalism, Cumming became a Communist Party member and would have fought on the Loyalist side against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War had he not been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Several years in a sanitarium turned him into a reader. After he left the party in disgust at Stalin, Cumming gave up on politics altogether.
"The Communists were as bad as Republicans," he said. He remembered advocating forming a militia to shoot Republicans in Seattle. "My friends said, 'You're so funny, Bill.' I wasn't kidding."
His Communist Party membership put him at odds with many of his artist friends. His closest friend, Margaret Callahan, wife of painter Kenneth Callahan, tried to talk him out of his doctrinaire beliefs to no avail. She told him Mark Tobey would give him painting lessons, and he, in exchange, could clean Tobey's studio.
"I told her, 'Clean his studio? My mother didn't whelp a chattel slave. Besides, what does Mark Tobey have to teach me?' "
When Callahan was dying, he went to see her. "She said, 'Still conceited as ever, Bill?' I said, 'You bet.' Painters are arrogant. You have to be arrogant to do this job."
Politics wasn't the only thing that made Cumming odd man out in the Northwest School. Spirituality bored him and engaged most of the others. While they looked to the East for religious and aesthetic inspiration, he looked to Europe and America.
From Degas and George Herriman ("Krazy Kat"), he acquired his fondness for figures in motion. From Edouard Vuillard, he found the ability to use decorative patterning to potent effect.
The older artists in the Northwest School appreciated Cumming for his drawing ability. He liked them because they were what he wanted to be: artists. Friendships have been built on less.
Then there's sex.
"They chased boys, and I chased girls," he said. The difference in orientation still appears to bother him, but he remembers his friends with cranky fondness.
"Guy shocked me when he talked about his sex life, but that's not what I had against him. Guy was just too damn spiritual. Morris was too much like a Botticelli maiden. Kenneth was shy. We didn't talk much. Morris was a draftsman. Guy was a better painter. Mark was like God in a (Bertolt) Brecht play. He had a sense of humor, but because he didn't smile, people didn't realize he was joking."
Cumming walks around with a small notebook in his hip pocket. When he sees people who move him, maybe for the way they turn their heads, saunter down the street or pause to consider their options, he sketches them. At home, he projects the figures onto panels and draws the projection.
"I don't like to draw large," he said.
His notebooks in ink and color washes are a marvel, vivid moments of form carved out of empty space and filled in quickly. He has stacks of notebooks in his studio and won't let his dealer break them up to sell them. "I'm using them," he said.
He favors water-based media -- tempera or gouache -- and paints in layers: First the solid colors and then the patterning. He aims for some kind of orchestrated equivalence between figures and the space around them. When the entire scene is glowing with a sour light, he's satisfied.
"The people in my paintings aren't really from the present day," he said. "They're from the '30s, the ordinary people of that time. That was a good generation. They had a lot of fight in them. We had a president then (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) we didn't have to blush for. I remember when he died, those bastards at the Rainier Club celebrated."
Cumming continues to teach at the Art Institute of Seattle, where he's been on the faculty for almost 50 years. Naturally, he says he's doing it for the money but admits to enjoying the interaction with students. "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."
Since moving to a house in Lake Forest Park seven years ago, he doesn't like to go out as much. "I'm a country boy. I like to be on my own property, ready to secure my borders."
During his long lifetime, he often has said "I do."
"I've had seven wives and numerous other people's." At 17 years, his present marriage to Dena Cumming holds the record for longevity.
To please her, he accompanies her to church on Sundays. "I like the people. They babble, but everybody has the right to babble, at least in this country."
What bothers him about his prominence, he said, is that people tend to defer to him.
"Everybody kisses my ass," he said sadly. "Why do they? I've never kissed anybody's ass in my life. What does it amount to, all this deferring? 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."
The dog padded back into the studio, breathing like an asthmatic. At the sound, Cumming frowned and turned away to face the unfinished painting on an easel beside him. Looking at the blunt forms and solid colors, he brightened.
"I have a long way to go on this one," he said. "As long as I'm painting, I'm all right."

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