The Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner has been closed due to COVID-19, but one of its most prized possessions, a once-lost, now-restored 1941 mural by Northwest master painter William Cumming, has been on exhibit in Seattle.
Cumming’s “Lost and Found: Skagit Valley Mural” is on loan to the Woodside/Braseth Gallery through Sept. 20. The 28-by-7-foot mural is featured in the gallery’s “Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair” exhibition, which includes a retrospective of Cumming’s work.
“When we knew that we were going to be closed, rather than have the mural here where no one could see it, we offered to let it be part of the art fair in Seattle,” said Joanna Sikes, Museum of Northwest Art executive director.
The mural is an important artifact of Northwest history.
Cumming painted the mural on linen sailcloth for Burlington High School’s new Farm Shop in 1941, as part of a National Youth Administration program. He was just 24 years old at the time.
The mural shows scenes of working life in the Skagit Valley in the social-realism style: felling timber, baling hay, milking cows, loading a milk wagon, picking berries, and building railroads.
“It’s major-league historic because it represents a time in the Skagit Valley when they were promoting the industries to the kids,” said John Braseth, owner of the Woodside/Braseth Gallery in Seattle. “That’s why Bill Cumming was hired to do that. These were the jobs that were available in the Skagit Valley.”
Cumming, on his way to becoming one of the Northwest’s most important artists, never again painted an agricultural scene.
Meanwhile, his monumental mural was lost.
It must have been moved from Burlington High School to Edison Elementary School around 1948, because Edward Breckenridge was a teacher there. Edward was likely told to get rid of the painting, but he took it home to the Breckenridge farm instead.
Tony Breckenridge didn’t throw it away either. The “tarp” that his father, Edward, had kept was folded away and unseen in the family barn. Tony’s nieces used to play hopscotch and practice their long jumps on it. It also 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.
Then, in 2014, deciding whether to chuck the “tarp” once and for all, Breckenridge looked at the picture one more time. It reminded him of the Skagit County Junior Livestock Show.
He contacted the Skagit County Parks Department, which hung the mural at the Skagit County Fair. The Skagit Valley Herald published a photo of it. An art collector in La Conner saw the picture and alerted her longtime friend and art dealer — John Braseth.
Braseth, who represents Cumming, immediately recognized the long-lost Farm Shop mural from 1941. He confirmed its identity by authenticating his scuffed-up signature.
“The minute I saw it, I knew,” he said.
Cumming had been showing his work at the Seattle gallery since 1961.
“I’d been looking for this mural since I met him in 1978,” Braseth said. “I was an intern at the gallery at the time. He said he had done a mural up in the Skagit Valley, but it had disappeared and he was disappointed.”
The Breckenridge barn was destroyed by fire in 2015. If Tony hadn’t spotted the painting on the “tarp” and turned it over to the county, the mural would have been lost forever.
Instead, it’s now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Northwest Art and is valued at half a million dollars.
“It’s mega-impressive,” Braseth said. “It’s sort of like the greatest ‘Antiques Roadshow’ find. I mean, when I saw it, I almost started crying.”
Decades of life in boxes in barns — and its turn as a play mat — had taken their toll.
The Woodside/Braseth Gallery managed to raise $80,000 to restore the mural by 2017. After three years of restoration work, the mural was returned to the Northwest Museum of Art. Right around the time the coronavirus hit.
“It was lost for all those years because no one could find it,” Sikes said. “The (Breckenridge) family didn’t know what they had. It’s amazing that then, not only does it get found again, but it’s actually in good enough shape that it can be restored. And now it’s back to its original glory.”
“It’s really exiting. There is a lot of interest,” Braseth said. “People stand in front of the thing and go, ‘My god.’”
Cumming never got to see his Skagit Valley mural again. He died four years before it was found. He was 93.
Now that the governor has given museums the OK to open in Phase 2, the Museum of Northwest Art will open on Sept. 4 with “The Barn Show” exhibition.
If you go
Through Sept. 20, the “Seattle Deconstructed Art Fair” exhibition at Seattle’s Woodside/Braseth Gallery, 1201 Western Ave., features a retrospective of William Cumming’s work, including his Skagit Valley mural of 1941, on loan from the Northwest Museum of Art. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 206-622-7243 or go to www.woodsidebrasethgallery.com for more information.