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The Skagit Valley’s real-life Dan Brown thriller

The story has all the elements of a Dan Brown thriller: a mural by famous Northwest painter William Cumming — now clearly a priceless masterpiece — forgotten in a Skagit Valley barn for decades and rescued from burn pile oblivion only by a cascade of coincidences. It would be almost as dramatic as finding Da Vinci's Last Supper rolled up and forgotten under the floorboards of a house slated for demolition.

Luckily, Skagit Valley farmer Tony Breckenridge didn't throw away the “tarp” that his father, Edward, a teacher in Edison, had kept folded and unseen, in the family barn. His nieces used to play hopscotch and practice their long jumps on it, and it survived several barn fires and stable cleanings. Breckenridge was going to use it to cover a stack of lumber, but when he saw that the “reverse” side was a painting, he folded it up and put it back in the basement.

Earlier this year, he told me, he had finally decided to throw it out, but he looked at the picture one more time and was reminded of the county's annual Junior Livestock Show. Rather than drag the damn thing to the burn pile, he called Brian Adams at the county parks department. Adams was the man in charge of the County Fair, and might want to use it in an exhibit. A week ago, he came by and loaded the “tarp” into his truck.

What neither man realized at the time was that the tarp was actually a mural depicting Skagit County agricultural life, painted in 1941 by William Cumming, a beloved Northwest artist who died four years ago. (His obituary on Crosscut is here.)

The 1940s-era mural by William Cumming, discovered in a Skagit Valley barn.

The next day, a picture of the mural was in the Skagit Valley Herald, and within hours the story began to ricochet around the Internet. An art collector who lives in the valley alerted a Seattle gallery owner, John Braseth, who had represented Cumming.

Braseth with another of Cumming's works, 'Street Corner'. Photo: Ronald Holden

Braseth asked for a higher-resolution picture of the signature and this weekend he made the trip to Mt. Vernon and confirmed the mural's authenticity.

“I know Cumming's handwriting better than I know my own,” he told me. “The way he would do his 'g,' gives it away.”

The story took a dramatic turn Wednesday afternoon when the City of Anacortes's website provided definitive proof of the mural's authenticity: it found a copy of the Burlington Journal from November 7th, 1941, which had printed a photo of the mural for a front-page story about the dedication of Burlington High School's new “Farm Shop.” The artist was a 24-year-old Seattle critic, photographer and fledgling painter under contract to the National Youth Administration named Bill Cumming.

“I believe that Burlington's new Farm Shop typifies America,” said Pearl Wannamaker, Washington's superintendant of public instruction in a speech dedicating the mural. By that time, in fact, there were three other murals from the New Deal era in Skagit County: Ambrose Patterson's “Local Pursuits” at the Mt. Vernon post office, Albert Runquist's “Loggers and Millworkers” in Sedro-Woolley, and “Fishing” by Kenneth Callahan at the post office in Anacortes.

All were executed in a style referred to as “social-realist” that did not find universal acceptance among the good folk of Skagit County. Many wrote vehement letters of protest; much of the art was neglected once the country recovered from the Depression. The Cumming mural ended up in boxes filled with paraphernalia from the county's Junior Livestock Show, and was taken home by Edward Breckenridge.

Unfolded, the mural was 28 feet long and 7 feet wide, divided into six panels, painted in egg tempera that has lost none of its vibrancy over three quarters of a century. The panels depict agricultural activity in the Skagit: felling timber, baling hay, milking cows, loading the milk wagon, picking berries, building fences.

Cumming never spoke of this particular piece and none of the agricultural themes show up in his later work. But the style is unmistakeably his, with expertly rendered human figures captured in his unique stop-motion technique, turning their faces away from the viewer's gaze, blending into their pastel-colored landscapes.

It's not actually canvas, but linen sailcloth, three horizontal bands sewn together, the whole thing surrounded by the original grommets. The girls had scuffed up one corner when they used the cloth as a mat to practice their long jumps, right where the artist had signed the piece.

Cumming, born in Montana, had come to Tukwila as a youngster. He won several art competitions, but disdained formal training. Still, he caught the eye of Dr. Richard Fuller, director of the Seattle Art Museum. Cumming was also a hotshot writer and critic; his particular favorites were a group of painters who came to be known as the Northwest School (or, by others, as the Seattle Mystics): Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson. Cumming seemed to have an intuitive sense of who they were and what they were doing and they, in turn, had immense respect for his writing. He was awestruck upon finally meeting them in person, in 1937, when he was all of 19 years old. Callahan's wife, Margaret, took young Cumming under her wing.

Within a couple of years, the Works Progress Administration had begun an ambitious program of commissioning work by American artists, writers, historians and photographers around the country. In the Northwest, the Seattle Mystics all got commissions that allowed them to ride out the worst years of the Depression. Cumming, too, got work from the WPA, but as a photographer, not as a painter.

“So whatever he did in Mt. Vernon, it wasn't technically a WPA commission,” says Braseth. Like everyone else, he didn't learn the details until Wednesday.

The story's not quite over, though. The immediate question: Who's going to pay to restore it? There is damage from the Breckenridge girls using it as a gym mat and in the places the linen has been folded and refolded over the decades. Fortunately, no water damage, no major abrasion. Braseth estimates that proper restoration will cost over $25,000. Already, several anonymous benefactors in Skagit County have told Braseth they'd contribute to a restoration fund.

When the story broke this past weekend, Braseth estimated the value of the piece at $100,000. Since then, having actually seen the the mural, he's raised his estimate to half a million. But whose property is it?

The irony: Cummings was a fervent communist who disdained the notion of private property. He saw himself as a teacher first and a painter second. He didn't believe in any distinction between “commercial art” and “fine art.”

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