CUMMING MURAL RESTORATION PROVES MONA’S PURPOSE – Brian Adams, left, director of Skagit County Parks and Recreation, is as pleased as Bruce Miller, conservator. Adams was instrumental in getting the 1941 William Cumming mural from the Breckenridge family’s farm to the Museum of Northwest Art. The 2014 rescue began a five year-plus odyssey including the year Miller spent preserving the mural. See it through March 15 in the second floor gallery. Admission is free. – Photo courtesy of Betsy Humphrey
There was a lot of speculation at the Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA) Saturday night over how artist William Cumming’s mural ended up folded on a shelf in a Breckenridge family barn. Farmers, donors and art-enthusiasts exchanged stories at a celebration of the $500,000 valued mural that is now on exhibit in the museum.
Those who knew Cumming – a renowned Seattle painter – could agree that the artist himself would be pleased. In fact, his old friend and former MoNA board member Bruce Bradburn commented “Cumming would have thought it was ‘a damn fine evening.’” Cumming’s 1941 social-realism mural depicts Skagit Valley industry in action: logging, dairy farming, berry picking and railroad building. And the piece itself has had more than one life. The painting on canvas – about the size of Michelangelo’s Last Supper – has in fact served as a tool for the kind of work it depicts: moving equipment around a farm, for instance. Now, 70 years after Cumming painted it, it will again grace the walls of public places in the valley it depicts. MoNA’s Saturday celebration honored the painting itself as well as those who helped salvage it, and raise the $55,000 that paid for the restoration by Seattle painting conservator Bruce Miller. Cumming painted the 28-foot-by-7-foot scene as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project for Burlington High School’s new agriculture wing. It was photographed on display at the school by the Skagit Valley Herald shortly after it was hung. No one recalls seeing it after that. Decades later the Breckenridge family noticed something interesting about the large canvas they were using to cover their woodpile, haul stuff and amuse the kids as a slip-and-slide. Tony Breckenridge had planned to dispose of the utility tarp when he noticed some interesting images on one side. He contacted Brian Adams, Skagit County’s parks and recreation director to take a look. Adams has known many of the local artists and art history and he recognized it as a WPA painting. He secured the help of a team of committed locals that included Bret Lunsford, Anacortes Museum director. They decided to hang it on a stage at the 2014 county fair and the Skagit Valley Herald publicized it with a story and photograph. John Braseth, of Woodside Gallery in Seattle, was sent a photo. Braseth contacted Adams. Braseth knew Cumming personally and was well acquainted with his work and his signature. Adams recalled that Braseth had some choice words for him about the wisdom of hanging such a mural at the county fair. In the meantime, with new information about the origins and value of the mural, Charlotte Breckenridge, Ed’s wife, sat her sons down for a talk, Mark Breckenridge remembered. She said that piece of art must not leave the Skagit Valley. Charlotte Breckenridge was instrumental in ensuring the piece was donated to MoNA, and the museum and community have taken it from there. So Saturday night was about celebrating, but also speculation of the mural’s more mysterious history. Why did the mural vanish from the Burlington High School wall and how did it end up in the Breckenridge barn? Miller thinks Cumming’s status as a Communist in the 1950s, during blacklists, probably led someone, such as the high school principal, to take the painting down, with little fanfare, perhaps after a Cumming letter was in a Seattle newspaper. Others say it ended up at the Edison Elementary School because the Edison community had a greater role and interest in agriculture than its neighbor city of Burlington. In any case, the Breckenridges are certain their father, Ed, Edison schoolteacher of math and science as well as art, chose to bring the piece home in the early-to-mid-1960s when the school closed down an art-related storage area. With his death in 1990 the history of the canvas was lost. In 2005 Cumming mentioned the mural to Braseth. Bradburn retold that conversation Saturday to the MoNA audience. At the time, Bradburn said, the Frye Art Museum was displaying a Cumming retrospective. Braseth and Cumming had walked into the museum entrance, where they faced a long wall, and Cumming said, “Way back when, I painted a big mural that would look great on that wall but I have no idea where that damn thing is.” To restore the mural, MoNA oversaw two fundraisers, said Gretchen McCauley, former MoNA board member. One was held at Woodside Gallery in Seattle, the second at the home of Skagit Valley residents. The donations paid for the restoration. The members of the mural committee were: Bradburn, McCauley, CJ Ebert, Steve Klein, Betsy Humphrey, Phil Serka and Dunlop-Rice, chair. Painting conservationist Miller restored the piece in three-foot wide sections. When he regarded it hanging on the MoNA wall Saturday, he said, it was the first time he saw the full results of his work. Miller left some of the wear and tear that eludes to the tarp’s life as a utilitarian farm tool, for those who look closely. That’s appropriate for a painting that seems to have started yet another life. “I’m just glad it’s in the right hands, it stayed in the Valley,” noted Adams. “The mural is a beautiful tribute to the rich agricultural history of the area,” MoNA board member Meghan Dunlap Rice commented, “a reminder of the beauty that surrounds us, and a symbol of the deeply talented artists that have been inspired by the Pacific Northwest.” The work will always be a part of the permanent collection at MoNA says Executive Director Joanna Sikes. The mural is on exhibit in the second floor gallery through March 15. The museum is seeking new public places to display the piece locally. In the meantime, said Bradburn, Cumming would be delighted.