William Cumming, the last lion of a pride of artists who formed what critics called the "Northwest School," died Tuesday morning (11/23) of congestive heart failure. He was 93.
Cumming, whose contemporaries included Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson, was best known for his paintings of children or childlike figures, almost always in motion, almost always seen from the back or side. Faces were not Cumming's strong suit; vivid colors and a bold line were.
A native of Kalispell, Mont., Cumming grew up in Portland and Tukwila. Largely self-taught, he caught the attention of Dr. Richard Fuller at the Seattle Art Museum, who gave him his first one-man show. He also worked on the WPA's Federal Art Project in Seattle in the late 1930s.
His last retrospective show, four years ago, was at the Woodside Braseth Gallery, which describes his work in these terms: "The figurative paintings by renowned Northwest Master William Cumming are a fantastic celebration of color and life here in the great Northwest. He continues to capture people and animals in motion. His loose brush strokes of vibrant color define forms in light and shadow, coaxing the viewer into a conversation of invigorating life."
His biographer, Deloris Tarzan Ament, quotes Cumming as resolutely populist. "I hate fine art with all its fuss and crap," Cumming wrote in his highly opinionated and outspoken autobiography, Sketchbook. "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."
"Hidden faces in his paintings through the years have carried the suggestion of something sinister to the most innocently employed figures," Ament writes in her profile of Cumming on HistoryLink.org. "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."
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