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Skagit County’s Mural Mysteries

By Bret Lunsford

Burlington Journal Photo Courtesy Skagit Publishing                                                        Burlington Journal photograph courtesy of Skagit Publishing

News of Skagit County’s mural mystery has gone national, and television crews have been thick at the fairgrounds, reporting on the signed 1941 William Cumming painting, that was recently found in a Breckenridge barn  and is now valued at half a million dollars. No one was sure whether the painting was originally commissioned for display in Skagit County – possibly as part of the WPA or other New Deal program from the Great Depression era – or where it was exhibited. Charlotte Breckenridge – whose family’s barns stored the mural for decades – wondered if her late husband, Edward, may have salvaged it from the old Edison School, where he was once a teacher of science, math and art. “It may have been cluttering up the art room, and so (Principal) Costani told him to ‘take that thing home.’” It moved from barn to barn in the Breckenridge family until Tony Breckenridge brought it to this year’s Skagit County Fair, where Parks Director Brian Adams immediately recognized it for something special.

Mrs. Breckenridge’s school clue led to research of old newspapers in the Skagit Valley Herald’s archives and the “discovery” that the William Cumming mural was painted – as part of the National Youth Administration (NYA) program – for Burlington High School’s new “Farm Shop” which was dedicated in a public ceremony on October 29, 1941. “This mural was planned last year and criticized for detail by the high school art class. This original miniature was then sent to Seattle where Bill Cummings (sic), a young NYA artist, has been diligently working for six months,” the Burlington Journal reported:

The mural will be a long canvas painting six feet high by 32 feet long briefly depicting Burlington community history. It starts on the extreme left with early logging scenes, and advances into the era when the railroads were built, and then going farther right carries us into the present period of farming, berry growing and dairying.

Multiple stories appeared in the county’s newspapers of the day, covering the dedication festivities which included “an explanatory talk by William Cumming,” performances by the high school band, tours of the new facility, and a speech by Pearl Wannamaker, State School Superintendent, who stated: “I believe that Burlington’s new farm shop typifies America.” The Mount Vernon Argus reported that “very fortunate and advantageous state and federal grants together with Burlington contributions have made the Farm Shop possible without increased cost to local taxpayers;” part of these funds included $4,956 from the N.Y.A.

The mural’s existence came as a surprise to Cumming’s friend and art representative, John Braseth, who suggested that Cumming wouldn’t have taken on a painting of this size – 6 feet by 27 feet - speculatively. Cumming was part of Federal Art Project in Seattle in that era – where he worked alongside Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. While Cumming was working on the Burlington mural, he was also preparing for his 1941 solo exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. An oral history interview with Cumming was conducted in 1965 about “getting on the Federal Art Project; meeting Morris Graves; problems with the way the project was administered and supervised; destruction of some of the art work produced by the project; his feelings about federal support for the arts; his existential philosophy on life; and his views on current trends in painting.” The full transcript of this interview may provide more detail about this newly discovered mural.

There are three New Deal era murals currently exhibited in Skagit County, and the 1938 “Local Pursuits” mural by Ambrose Patterson at the old Mount Vernon post office bears a thematic resemblance to the Cumming mural. The social-realist style is also present in the Albert Runquist mural of “Loggers and Millworkers” in Sedro-Woolley. Perhaps the most valuable of all of these is the “Fishing” mural painted for the Anacortes Post Office by Kenneth Callahan in 1940. Both Kenneth Callahan and his wife Margaret were friends and mentors of the young William Cumming, offering support, criticism, and connections to the art world; it is conceivable that the Callahans had a hand in advising Cumming on mural work. “What (Margaret) was to me was my sensei,” Cumming wrote in his Sketchbook memoir, “who gave me a hand-up or a box on the ear or a handclasp or a kick in the ass.”

Through the nurturing of Ken and Margaret, their joyous conjoining of the spectrum of world-art with the direct experiential awareness of the here and now of our Northwest, I was brought to the edge of what would be my art.

How was the art from these now-famous painters received by people in Skagit County in the late thirties? The Kenneth Callahan mural of a salmon purse-seine boat was controversial at the time of its installation, at least with the local postmaster, Gus Dalstead, who wrote to the federal administrators to complain that “The community is very much opposed to some of the types of murals installed in this county.” The Anacortes mural might also have ended up in a barn or in shreds when 1960s renovation work threatened to destroy it, were it not for a “Save the Callahan” community effort led by artist Max Benjamin, newsman Wallie Funk, and many others.

The route to saving the Cumming was long-delayed and fraught with numerous threats, trod on by dog paws and used as a firewood tarp. “Between me and my brothers, we tried everything in the world to throw it out,” Tony Breckenridge told the Skagit Valley Herald.

Is it fair to wonder: did the painting have a will to live? While the world speculates on the twists and turns of this story, Skagitonians can take a trip to visit the other local murals of the era. The Anacortes Museum’s new exhibit “All in the Same Boat: The Great Depression in Anacortes” provides more information on how our parents and grandparents weathered these difficult years.

Pearl Wannamaker’s speech about the Burlington Farm Shop is also applicable to the mural being dedicated: “It represents working with one’s hands, an element that has been so important to this country, as the pioneers carved out the destiny of the land in its wilderness.” This point is amplified by Eleanor Mahoney, New Deal historian at the University of Washington: “These American Scene-inspired works valorized local history, folklore and industry, presenting a relatable, if at-times romanticized, view of life in the United States.” But we should leave the last word to Cumming himself:

“Unbeknownst to us in the late thirties, as we stealthily stole silly down streets we thought to be secret, other minds than ours were readying the typewriters and the fonts of type and the reams of creamy book paper for the day when someone would announce the advent of the Northwest School, discover the Mystic Four, pontificate on the influence of the Japan Current and our soggy weather. And it’s all true. It’s also all untrue.”



SKETCHBOOK: A Memoir of the 1930s and the Northwest School by William Cumming