Foster High School students relish time they spent with acclaimed artist and Foster alum William Cumming

It takes quite a lot to capture the attention of teenagers these days. With so many distractions competing for their attention, it is a wonder that anything will leave an impression for more than a fleeting moment, unless of course you are a teenager trapped in an old person's body. That's how three Foster High School sophomores described the late William Cumming, noted 20th century and Northwest artist.

Foster High School students from left

It takes quite a lot to capture the attention of teenagers these days. With so many distractions competing for their attention, it is a wonder that anything will leave an impression for more than a fleeting moment, unless of course you are a teenager trapped in an old person’s body.

That’s how three Foster High School sophomores described the late William Cumming, noted 20th century and Northwest artist.

Cumming died on Nov. 22, 2010, but before he left this world, he captured the students’ attention in an interview that they won’t soon forget.

Last fall, Charanpreet Samra, Emina Dacic and Huan Nguyen all traveled from Tukwila to Cumming’s home in Lake Forest Park, north of Seattle, to induct him into the Foster High School Alumni Hall of Fame for the 2010-2011 school year. Cumming was a 1934 graduate of Foster High School.

In the interview, he disarmed and surprised the students with his bold and open personality.

Dacic said, “he was so full of life and he was so funny and there was just something about him that made you comfortable around him and…”

“Made you want to listen,” Samra finished.

Students last year nominated Cumming for the Alumni Hall of Fame because they were impressed by his paintings that hang in the school’s office lobby and felt, given his age, they wanted to honor him while he was still alive, said Cynthia Chesak. She is a teacher at Foster and National Honor Society Advisor. She drove the students to Cumming’s house last fall to interview and videotape him because he was not well enough to attend the induction ceremony in October.

“He was quite a character and a fun interview,” said Chesak.

The artist surprised the students by his reaction to his nomination.

“He mentioned it a few times that he didn’t think he was like worthy of being inducted into the Hall of Fame at Foster High School,” said Samra. “He was like ‘I don’t understand why you picked me of all people.'” “And we were a little surprised by that, but because we really thought that he was a great person and he accomplished a lot in his life.”

Indeed. Cumming is hailed as one of the leading artists in the Northwest School, an art movement that brought prominence to the region in the 1940s and 1950s.

He was born in Montana on March 24, 1917. When he was seven the family moved from Portland, Oregon to Tukwila, Washington in 1924.

According to Washington State’s HistoryLink.org, he did artwork for his former his high school under the auspices of the National Youth Administration. He did signs and drawings for The Growler, the school paper. Cumming came to know the renowned artists of the Northwest School Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan. Cumming, although he had some classes, was mostly a self-taught artist. He went on to exhibit his work in the Seattle Art Museum, Frye Art Museum and the Woodside/Braseth Gallery. Cumming taught at the Burnley School of Professional Art, which later became the Seattle Art Institute for many years.

When the students met up with him for the interview he was still painting at age 93.

Samra remembers a huge table with paints and a million paint brushes and the painting Cumming was working on at the time. He looked like he was half way finished with it. It was the first thing she thought of when she found out he had died, whether or not he ever finished that painting.

Dacic’s favorite part of the interview was when Cumming’s wife, Dena, asked him what his favorite painting was and it ended up being a nude painting of his wife.

“I really liked how he drew things he loved and it showed how passionate he was about doing what he did,” she said.

One idea that Cumming conveyed to the students was that a person from humble beginnings and from a small unknown school like Foster can go on and do great things, Chesak said.

“I think he had like the Foster spirit in him,” said Samra. “And he was really talented and I think he had a lot to say about Foster and he was really glad that he got inducted.”

That spirit she went on to describe as someone who is proud of going to Foster, someone who is open to revealing who they are to the world and not afraid.

“You know how typical old people are just quiet and stuff, he was really open – someone you can connect to and talk to,” said Nguyen.

Cumming shared with them what it was like for him at Foster, saying he got picked on for being one of the smart kids. He told them his regrets and dislikes about high school, but also encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

As he is so often said to be, he was also very frank and candid with them about his motivations in the art world.

“I think he would really fit into today’s society because he was like a teenager almost,” Samra said. “He was like ‘I want to make money and that’s a good profession, it’s not the best profession, but it’s a good profession.'”

Cumming was known for preaching to his students their right to make money out of art.

He was real with them and they appreciated that.

“After the interview I felt so good and happy just interviewing him and then to see everything he has accomplished in his life just makes you want to do better for yourself,” Dacic said.

The students presented Cumming’s videotaped acceptance of his induction at a ceremony on Oct. 20, 2010. Two of his portraits hang in the school’s office lobby and his Hall of Fame plaque also resides across from the office.

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