Cumming mural brighter.jpg

The story has all the elements of a Dan Brown thriller: a forgotten mural by a not-yet-famous artist, but clearly a priceless masterpiece, rescued from oblivion by a cascade of coincidences. It would be almost as dramatic as finding Da Vinci's Last Supper rolled up and forgotten in the plastered wall of a palazzo in Milan.

The Breckenridge family, farmers in Skagit County, somehow acquired the work, which is dated 1941 and signed by William Cumming, the much-loved painter who died four years ago. Tom Breckenridge's father, who taught school in Edison in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, had kept the mural, folded and unseen, in a box with paraphernalia from the county's Junior Livestock Show. His granddaughters used to play hopscotch and practice their long jumps on it.

Unfolded, it was 28 feet long and 7 feet wide, divided into six panels, painted in egg tempera that had lost none of its vibrancy over three quarters of a century, panels depicting agricultural activity in the Skagit: felling timber, baling hay, milking cows, loading the milk wagon, picking berries, building fences. It's not actually canvas but sailcloth, three horizontal bands sewn together, the whole thing surrounded by the original grommets. The girls had scuffed up one corner when they used the cloth as a mat to practice their long jumps, right where the artist had signed the piece. But a longtime friend of the artist, John Braseth, who owns the Woodside-Braseth Gallery in South Lake Union, was able to authentic the signature as Cumming's.

Braseth w Cumming's Street Corner.JPG

Cumming, born in Montana, had come to Tukwila as a youngster. He won art competitions, but disdained formal training; still, he caught the eye of Dr. Richard Fuller, director of the Seattle Art Museum. He was also a hotshot writer and critic; his particular favorites were a group of painters who came known as the Northwest School (or, by others as the Seattle Mystics): Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson. Cumming seemed to have an intuitive sense of who they were and what they were doing; they had immense respect for his writing, and he, in turn, was awestruck upon finally meeting them in person, in 1937, when he was all of 19 years old. Callahan's wife, Margaret, took young Cumming under her wing.

Within a couple of years, the Works Progress Administration had begun an ambitious program of commissioning work by American artists, writers, historians and photographers around the country. In the Northwest, the Seattle Mystics all got commissions that allowed them to ride out the worst years of the Depression. Cumming, too, got work from the WPA, but as a photographer, not as a painter. "So whatever he did in Mt. Vernon, it wasn't technically a WPA commission," says Braseth. "We still don't know exactly how this came about."

Cumming signature.JPGWhat we do know is that Tony Breckenridge didn't throw away the "tarp." It survived several barn fires; it survived cleaning horse stables and cattle barns. 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 in the basement. Earlier this year, he told me, he had finally decided to throw it out, but he looked at the picture one more time and was reminded of the Junior Livestock Show. Rather than drag the damn thing to the burn pile, he called Brian Adams at the county parks department; Adams was the man in charge of the County Fair, and might want to use it in an exhibit. Adams came by a week ago and loaded the "tarp" into his truck.

The next day a picture of the mural was in the Skagit Valley Herald, and within hours the story began to ricochet around the Internet. An art collector who lives in the valley alerted Braseth, who asked for a higher-resolution picture of the signature. This weekend, he made the trip to Mt. Vernon and confirmed the mural's authenticity. "I know Cumming's handwriting better than I know my own," he told me. "The way he would do his 'g,' gives it away."

Now the question is, "Who owns it?" Before that, though, comes the more immediate question: who's going to pay to restore it? Already several anonymous benefactors in Skagit County have told Braseth they'd contribute to a restoration fund; there's damage to the corner from the Breckenridge girls using it as a gym mat, there's damage where the linen has been folded and refolded over the decades. Fortunately, no water damage, no major abrasion. Braseth estimates that proper restoration will cost over $25,000.

When the story broke, this past weekend, Braseth estimated the value of the piece at $100,000. Since then, having actually seen the the mural, he's raised his estimate to half a million. But whose property is it?

Cumming never spoke of this particular piece, and to date no written records on its origins have been found. There was a retrospective of his work at the Frye in 2006 which doesn't mention at any commission like this, and none of the agricultural themes show up in his later work. But the style is unmistakeably Cumming's, with expertly rendered human figures captured in his unique stop-motion technique, turning their faces away from the viewer's gaze, blending into their pastel-colored landscapes.

The irony: Cummings was fervent communist who disdained the notion of private property. He saw himself as a teacher first and a painter second. He didn't believe in any distinction between "commercial art" and "fine art." A resolute populist, he wrote in his memoir, Sketchbook, "I hate fine art with all its fuss and crap. Fine art students are brought up in a spirit of contempt for people. Of course I paint for the market. So did Rembrandt. So did Titian." For that matter, so did Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist ("Man at the Crossroads" in Rockefeller Center), a generation older than Cumming but also a populist, also a communist.

Backyard Education: Dirt Is Good

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Vegetables at Georgetown farmers market.JPG

The notion that city-dwellers might, could, should grow at least some of their own food seems counter-intuitive. After all, people who live in cities might putter in the garden but they don't farm. Gardening is a pleasant pastime that lets you pick a few flowers or a couple of tomatoes from time to time, but farming is altogether different. Farming is work. Hard, sweaty, unrewarding work. We live in cities, don't we, so that we can avoid farming. Farming is something other people do, in other parts of the country and faraway parts of the world.

And yet. Even with encroaching development (housing, roads, shopping centers, offices), there are still 1,800 farms in King County, covering 50,000 acres. Many are close-in: Vashon Island, the Kent Valley, and along the Green, Snoqualmie and Sammamish rivers. It was 25 years ago that county voters authorized a Farmland Preservation Program that currently protects 13,000 acres of dairies, cattle and horse farms, row crops, flowers, even Christmas trees nurseries.

Lest we feel smug (or threatened) about the proximity of barns and fields, we should note that there are over four dozen farms within the city limits of our Neighbour to the North, Richmond, BC. Richmond--one third Seattle's size in terms of population, roughly similar density--devotes a third of a magnificent, 100-acre city park, Terra Nova, to urban agriculture, and employs environmental educators and restaurant chefs to teach schoolchildren the virtues of growing food. "Those aren't weeds," the park director told a group of grade-schoolers harvesting edible wild greens when I visited a couple of years ago, "just another form of money."

And there is a beacon of hope on Seattle's Beacon Hill: a new, seven-acre "food forest," which operates under the umbrella of the Department of Neighborhoods P-Patch program. The same planners had earlier led efforts to establish the Seattle Tilth garden at the Good Shepard Center. Only a cynic would point out that the average neighborhood supermarket covers an acre or more; back-to-the-land in South Seattle seems more like back-to-the-parking lot.

On Vashon Island, however, we have the embodiment of the genuine, back-to-the-land movement, Kurt Timmermeister. A restaurant owner in Belltown and Capitol Hill (Café Septième) who bought a few acres on the island two decades ago, Timmermeister became a farmer and cheese maker incrementally. His book-length accounts of the process (Growing a Farmer and Growing a Feast) give helpful advice ("don't go into debt") without sugarcoating the hard work, from morning chores to evening chores. One of his role models was a 95-year-old dairyman who had spent the first half of his life a practicing accountant. He admired the people he met at farmers markets: youthful if not young, healthy, happy. "I wanted to be like them." So he sold the restaurant and became a farmer.

Craigslist was a huge help (for used tractor parts, for baby pig "weaners"). Two-day-old chicks came in a box, by mail. When it was time for the chickens to be dispatched, the wings got fed to the pigs, "smart, attentive, aggressive, stubborn and charming." Before Timmermeister brought himself to the painful business of killing a pig, he took his reader through the agony and the joy of buying a gun. The dairy prospered as Kurtwood Farm, as it's now known, began to produce a highly regarded, creamy cows milk cheese called Dinah's.

Timmermeister used to open his kitchen table to a dozen visitors for weekly farmhouse dinners, a multi-course feast produced almost entirely from his own land (less so, lately, especially as production of Dinah's cheese has taken off). "I want there to be more small farms, more ways to connect to our food, more links to our cultural past of food raising, preparation and preservation," he writes. So, back to the garden!

The spiritual godfather of the eat-your-own food movement, and not just in Seattle, was Angelo Pellegrini, a Tuscan immigrant boy who grew up in Gray's Harbor County, on the Washington coast, earned a PhD and became a professor of classics at the University of Washington. Before he died, in 1991, he had written half a dozen books about what comes before the Joy of Cooking: call it the joy of growing. For Pelle, it wasn't "farming" or "gardening;" what came from the earth was a way of life.

"Grow your own, cook your own, make your own wine," he implored his readers. "You must build a garden." he mandates, "with a pick and shovel, dig up a portion of your lawn." In growing your own food, "there will be joy in the harvest, and the greatest pleasure in eating the fruit of your labor."

Pellegrini did just that, at his home in View Ridge. You can, too. Even if you live in an apartment building, a flower pot on the window sill can produce edible greens.

The lack of a green thumb is no deterrent; ignorance of the fundamentals of agriculture is no excuse. Late summer and early fall are a great time for planting, and there's help available for city slickers. Three Wednesday evening classes are being offered by 21 Acres, a learning center outside Woodinville under the title "A Local Farm-to-Table Adventure," starting August 27th Details are available online at 21acres.org/school; registration via Eventbrite.com, Dig in!

Tough times for a Jewish deli

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Stopsky's lox & bagel, menu board, baker Meltzer

Stopsky's.jpg

It was never easy, being a deli, especially a Jewish deli. French charcuteries or Italian macellerie generally started as butcher shops and added sausages, cold cuts and vegetable salads as they grew. The early Jewish delis, on the other hand, were products of necessity, providing religiously acceptable meat amidst the profusion of Kosher dietary laws. And it's hard, outside the urban enclaves of the East Coast, to maintain those traditions today. We wrote about Katz's ("I'll have what she's having"), going strong on Noo Yawk's Lower East Side, almost five years ago; and about Goldbergs', in Factoria, nine years ago, which struggled at the beginning but has since found its footing (mostly as an ecumenical sandwich shop).

No such luck for Stopsky's on Mercer Island, which announced today that it would close at the end of the week. This despite an admirable three-word slogan: Eat, Enjoy, Return.

The name was genuine: In 1905, four Stopsky brothers from a Jewish shtetl in the Ukraine arrived in the US and promptly changed their name to Sanderson, which sounded "less ethnic." A century later, Gilbert Stopsky's grandson Jeff, a former Microsoftie, decided to open a deli that honored his family's culinary heritage.

Stopsky's got its start in 2011, with celebrity chef Robin Leventhal at the helm. After she left, Andrew Meltzer took over the kitchen, and for a time even made his own bagels. Stopsky's continued to do its own baking, preserving, curing (pastrami, corned beef,) and pickling. A bar and additional seats were added last summer. Food & Wine named Stopsky's one of America's best delis earlier this year, and it was included in a roll call of "new artisanal Jewish delis" in The New York Times. But it wasn't enough. Not enough "returns."

If you were adept at reading tea leaves, you might have predicted this. The deli's website promised, "Our new fresh sheet will feature cuisines from regions where Jewish people have settled. First up is Italy, site of the oldest Jewish community outside Israel. Rome and Venice contain former ghettos, today vibrant areas of food and culture." Trouble is, that "news," the most recent post, was well over a year old. The deli's Facebook page was rarely updated, and while you might say that Mercer Island's older residents didn't mind the lack of a social media presence, you could also argue that ignoring social media was a sign of a disconnected owner.

Here's the text of a sign posted on Stopsky's door today:

Stopsky's was a project of the heart whose mission was to reconnect people to Jewish heritage, connect the community, and create homemade Jewish comfort cuisine from scratch. We achieved a lot of this, but in the end could not discover the magic formula to break even. Never willing to compromise our house-made meats, breads, pickles or sourcing, we made the call to not be in the industry. No regrets.

All the deli's packaged goods (pickles, mustards, and such) are 50 percent off, including their house-cured, smoked olives. Hurry on over for one last Reuben. No magic formulas but a few bargains.


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