The late Bill Cumming: colorful art, colorful character | friends and students remember an outrageous free spirit
December 6, 2010 · Updated 5:09 PM
At a Seattle art gallery in the mid-'60s, a dapperly clad William Cumming dramatically pushed open the doors to his own exhibit, a vision of Dickens'"David Copperfield," with a formal cape and cane.
"It's all crap!" Cumming said at the top of his lungs, flourishing the cane in a circle at his paintings on display.
And just like that, he ran out the door again, much to the dismay of the patrons at the gallery.
The cape and cane symbolized only one of Cumming's countless personas. Throughout his life, Cumming emerged as a proud member of the feared Communist party, a chap-clad Cowboy-esque rancher and a lover to many different women ("I've had seven wives and numerous other people's," he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005). Up until his death of congestive heart failure just before Thanksgiving, he was also the last great artist of "The Northwest School" of painting and the teacher of several generations of local artists.
Although his 93 years took him throughout the Northwest, in and out of different clothing, lifestyles and relationships, the people who knew Cumming say that their beloved friend was as colorful in personality as the vivid paintings that made him a local legend.
"I wouldn't call him eccentric, just unusually bold and confident," said Tom Price, a former student and longtime friend of Cumming. "He was a cantankerous character and sharp as a tack.
Cumming was initially self-taught. He learned academic drawing through a correspondence school and art history education through his own wanderings in The Seattle Public Library.
Born in 1917, Cumming had the typical thriftiness and traits of someone raised in the depression era, but his sailor's mouth and wicked sense of humor were all his own. He would often tell people that he was just into painting for the money, and even told the Post-Intelligencer, "It's a load of bull" when artists talk about the spiritual pull of painting.
"He'd describe art on street-level when he taught, making it very tangible, very real and very fun," Price said. "You'd be in class and suddenly he'd start singing or he'd stop teaching because he wanted to draw in his sketchbook."
Despite Cumming's novel and varied life experiences, he was not an eccentric who simply donned costumes or obeyed fads, said John Braseth, close friend and director of the Woodside/Braseth Gallery which often exhibited Cumming's work. For example, when Cumming was known as a cowboy, he was really living that lifestyle, working as a rancher on the Eastside near Issaquah, he said.
Deborah Freng remembers Cumming's cowboy phase from when she was a 9-year-old student of his at the Kirkland Creative Arts League, one of numerous places he taught, in addition to Cornish College of the Arts and what would become Art Institute of Seattle. She also remembers the "groupies" of numerous adoring students – and of course, the ladies, who couldn't seem to get enough of the slender man with the luminous, expressive blue eyes.
"I never saw him as a womanizer, I think he was a gentleman who happened to marry many of the women he dated," Freng said. "I think that label detracts from him as a human being."
Cumming definitely had a sensitive and thoughtful side to him as well. After all, he was the sort of artist who used to paint peoples' auras. He was actually very soft-spoken, it's just what he said was so outrageous, said Gary Nelson, who taught with Cumming at the Burnley School of Professional Art.
Perhaps even more controversial than his reputation with women, was his decade or so of membership in the Communist Party and years of being blacklisted. He finally renounced his involvement with communism at age 40 to focus on his work once again, but social inequality and workers' rights were always important to him.
"He was courageous. He charged into things," Braseth said. "Life has a tendency to run people over, he wasn't going to succumb to that, even in his old age."
In fact, Cumming was even scheduled to teach the morning he died.
He taught all his life, into his 90s, because he never thought he'd be able to completely support himself through his art, even though nowadays, one of his small watercolors costs about $1,200, and one of his 4-by-4 pieces is roughly $50,000, Braseth said.
Braseth, who is scheduled to deliver part of Cumming's eulogy at a private memorial Saturday, Dec. 4, has had writers' block all week trying to think of the proper words to describe the colorful artist.
"With Bill, it was as if you had a genie in the bottle," Braseth said. "You rubbed the bottle, but you never knew who would come out. You only knew it was going to be a magnificent genie."
"At the Lake,"(2008) a painting by the late William Cumming. Tempera on board.
Courtesy of Woodside/Braseth Gallery and Richard Nicol