December 04, 2003 News » Cover Story

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man 

When Bill Cummins has nothing nice to say, he says it anyway

click to enlarge The many faces of artist Bill Cummins. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • The many faces of artist Bill Cummins.

Artist Bill Cummins admits he's a fascist. "Bad artists should be killed," he says in the charming grate of his telltale Bronx accent. Then he smiles wryly, deepening the furrowed lines in his cartoonishly expressive face. "But not without due process, of course. They should get three chances and then, BAM!"

Make that: fascist and Republican.

Bill Cummins: I'll tell you something; I'm one of the few artists who is conservative -- ultra-conservative. I mean, I used to be an anarchist, then I became a liberal, then a Democrat. I was never involved in politics, but that was my thinking. But now I understand there's a limit to how much freedom you can have.

Indy: So you voted for George Bush?

BC: No. [laughter] But it's a good thing he got in because he knows what to do in this situation with the war.

Indy: But he was AWOL in the military.

BC: It doesn't matter -- he's a Texan. He knows what to do with the criminals and the guys pluggin' each other. If Gore were in, it would've been a disaster.

Indy: Isn't it a disaster now?

BC: No, it isn't. You know nothing. [laughter] Anyway, we've gotta take the war to them.

click to enlarge Groucho Crows
  • Groucho Crows

Virtually unknown to all but a handful of local artists just six months ago, Cummins' rubber jaw and deliriously prolific output of maniacally visionary art have made this 74-year-old curmudgeon gossip fodder in some local circles and the object of fanatical admiration for others.

"I lust for his work!" said local artist and teacher Sean O'Meallie, who worked closely with Cummins during the hanging of the recent Something New show at the Fine Arts Center. O'Meallie was also instrumental in persuading the FAC -- notoriously slow to the draw when it comes to purchasing works by local artists -- to quickly pick up three of Cummins' works.

Gerry Riggs, director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS, is already planning to host a one-man show of Cummins' art in the University Center sometime next year. "His work is fun. It's unique," Riggs said. "And it's certainly worth spending the time to absorb because there's a lot there."

Cummins is standing in front of his latest work, "Paper Doll Double Suicide," a black-and-white image of male and female paper dolls jumping out of the window of a brick building hand-in-hand, naked.

Paper dolls, he explains, are supposed to be exactly alike. "So when they realized they were different, they tried to have sex, but there was no lubrication, so they jumped out the window." But because they're paper dolls, he explains, they float down to the sidewalk like leaves, which means they can't even kill themselves. "So the whole thing's a mess," he says, with another of his signature smiles and a 1,000-yard blue-eyed gaze that's grown even more piercing since he began losing his eyesight to macular degeneration a few months ago. Not a good thing for a visual artist. Particularly one who has every intention of living to be 120 years old.

His studio at the back of his home on the West Side of Colorado Springs smells like a really bad Ben Gay accident in a high school locker room. Cummins uses a lot of wintergreen oil for much of his artwork, which, he will only divulge, involves a very secret alchemical process.

"It's called wintergreen transfer printing," I say to him. "It's not that big of a secret."

"Don't tell anyone. They'll steal my ideas. I'll be broke!" Smile. "Wait, I'm already broke." Laugh.

This is how it goes with Bill Cummins: An earnest, belligerently opinionated statement is generally followed by a sock-you-in-the-arm ha-ha grin. It's the old: "I'm serious, but I'm really joking even though I'm totally serious" bit that any good dilettante will use to slither out of a crackpot position. But these philosophical balks are all neatly accounted for in his romantic belief that "artists have to be passionate and opinionated, and it doesn't matter if you're right or wrong because most opinions are wrong." Oh, and, of course, Cummins thinks any well-rounded person is a dilettante. "I would describe Leonardo da Vinci as a dilettante."

click to enlarge Next
  • Next

Like his conversation, Cummins' mixed-media artwork is prophetic, sloppy, touching, unending, brilliant, all over the place, witty and completely exhausting. He's got thousands and thousands of artworks, most of which were created on bright white sheets of 26-by-20-inch printing paper and kept neatly in stacked cardboard boxes labeled by year and going all the way back to 1948, when he was 18.

Cummins' works have elements of all his influences: apocalyptic renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (the 16th-century artist who painted portraits in which the faces were composed of vegetables), the Spanish impasto painter Francisco Goya, and Bauhaus master Paul Klee. Cummins names his pieces with titles like "Groucho Crows" (a bunch of crows in a cheerleader pyramid that all look like Groucho Marx), and "A Bat, A Cat, A Rat All Lost Their Head Over A Panama Hat" (which is what it sounds like). Then there are prints like "Down Below We All Go," with muddied figures falling into hell; and "Gluttony" (from his rather biblical 7 Deadly Sins series), with a dark and swollen face rendered as intestines.

His works are like him: at once comical and dark. And none of them are ever made in exactly the same way. "My main thing is discovering new ways to make pictures."

"His work is inventive and it's innocent," said O'Meallie. "Even though he's quite seasoned as a human, his work is compulsive and really genuine. Some of the things he comes up with really resonate with our times. And he's always looking at different ways to put things together. I don't think he's ever done the same thing twice."

So why has it taken Cummins' artwork so long to find an audience? Was he doomed to be another self-taught Henry Darger, whose volumes of work were not discovered until after his death several years ago? Was he to be the next outsider/recluse whose works would be worth millions once he died and his art was uncovered by a hapless cousin cataloging his estate who just happened to take his work to an auction house where a dapper dandy with a waxed moustache and a monocle immediately recognized the true, untarnished genius of this tortured soul?


Part of Cummins' obscurity and isolation is self-imposed and seems to be yet another affectation of the romantic arts persona that he cultivates mostly because it suits him and because he can.

"It's totally useless for me to exhibit in this town," Cummins says with acrid conviction. "I don't think people are savvy to what's happened in art in the past 100 years. They understand Matisse, van Gogh and Picasso, but after that it's a blank. A lot of artists in this town are lazy. That's what bugs me."

But on this account, Cummins doesn't have a follow-up smile for artists and arts patrons in Colorado Springs. He thinks little of the provincial attitudes, the figurative Western art and generally unimaginative work he sees around him.

click to enlarge Gluttony from Cummins Seven Deadly Sins Series.
  • Gluttony from Cummins Seven Deadly Sins Series.

After all, he was only sort of joking about the "bad artists should be killed" thing.

So what the hell is he doing in Colorado Springs?

Bill Cummins: I was born in the Bronx in the year of the depression, 1927, December. And it's been all downhill from there. [laughter] Now, the main quote I want to give you is that everyone in this town is insane, and I can prove it. ... [long, philosophical digression in which he argues that everyone in the world is insane but no one knows it because we're all insane] But people in Colorado Springs aren't exceptionally insane. They're just mediocre insane. And this is a revelation that came to me from outer space. I don't want it, and it's making me more insane than the rest, but I gotta live with it.

Indy: So you think you're the only one who's ever had this realization?

BC: No, there are a few others. They're called enlightened beings -- avatars.

Indy: So you think you're an avatar?

BC: [laughter] No, I'm just a mediocre insane guy. Me, I compare myself to Benny Hill -- just a sex-mad crazy old hoot.

Despite the naive/outsider artist myth that Cummins seems content to cultivate, his art career actually began when he started drawing comics as a young man. He did it, he says, for the pragmatic social necessity of setting himself apart from his peers in one of the tonier neighborhoods of the Bronx.

I wasn't big. I was shy. I was skinny ... and I was ugly. So I had to do something. And art, I figured, hey. And I was attracted to comics. Milton Caniff [who illustrated Terry and the Pirates] was my god.

He practiced cartooning every day for an hour with a crow quill pen -- a flexible calligraphy pen dipped in India ink -- while the other kids were out playing.

click to enlarge Mr. Nice Guy, one of two of Bill Cummins pieces recently acquired by the Fine Arts Center
  • Mr. Nice Guy, one of two of Bill Cummins pieces recently acquired by the Fine Arts Center

I got to be a master of the crow quill by the time I was 12. When I was 14, I met Al Fagaley who was drawing Archie comics for the comic books and he took me under his wing. In those days they had a writer, a guy who did the drawings in pencil, the guy who did the lettering, then the guy who did the inking. Fagaley was the guy who did the penciling.

After graduating from the School of Industrial Arts in New York City with top honors in cartooning, Cummins tried to get a job at DC Comics and Marvel comics -- the major houses at the time -- but couldn't find work. In 1948, broke and facing a choice between enlistment and the possibility of the draft, he joined the Army for three years.

At that time my name was David Corman because my mom had been remarried. She had been chased from Santa Monica [Calif.] by her husband of six months with a butcher knife. She had to get out of town. She never told me my real name was William Cummins -- she had never changed it legally. So when it came time to go in the Army, that's when she told me. I didn't like my stepdad and it was the perfect opportunity. I didn't have to go through life with his name.

During his tour with the Army as a member of the 82nd Airborne, Cummins eschewed his comics for books on Rembrandt, Honor Daumier and Goya and decided he wanted to be a fine artist.

The day I got out was the happiest day of my life. I said, I'll never be unhappy again for the rest of my life and I can go back to my career of becoming a famous artist.

Because of his talent for graphic illustration, Cummins quickly found himself in the advertising industry, working his way up from messenger to paste-up and then, finally, to typesetting and art direction and illustration, or storyboarding. Like most artists, Cummins was forced to balance his 9-to-5 career with his art, which he did in the evenings and on the weekends. Within a few years he'd met his wife Dolores and started a family, making his chances of becoming a famous artist even more remote.

My mind was divided. I never had the ambition to rise to the top of my profession. All I needed was enough money to support my family.

Adding to his responsibilities, Cummins wife was schizophrenic. At the time, psychiatrists were experimenting a wide variety of medications, and shock treatment was par for the course. The treatments did little to stabilize her.

She committed suicide. She was schizophrenic. She held off for 15 years. Once the kids were full grown, she finally did it. And it was a good thing. The worst thing is mental illness. I knew from living with this situation that it was chemical. I could see it. And these people go off the medications and you can't make them take it. Then they have an episode. She made many attempts to kill herself. She tried to jump off the building and they put her in the hospital for a year. Finally I was able to get her out and keep her out with the medications, but she had about three suicide attempts over the years. I realized that it was a lost cause. You take these things and put them in your body and you become like a zombie. It prevents you from living -- from being in touch with your everyday reality.

Dolores finally succeeded on her birthday in 1982.

click to enlarge Demon with a Broken Trident
  • Demon with a Broken Trident

It was around the same time that Natalie Wood drowned, so she had a thing with that. It was a year to the day of Natalie Wood drowning, so she drowned herself in the bay. We were living in Staten Island. At the time, she was taking all her things and throwing them out. By the time she committed suicide there was nothing of hers left. Every single thing had been thrown away. She had her raincoat on, which she filled with rocks and threw herself off the pier. And I knew that was what she had done because we had been out on the pier the week before and I thought it was gonna give her an idea. Her body was found three months later. The currents take you over to Long Island. She had tried to kill herself two months before by blowing up the building. She'd taken the cap off the gas line and lit it like a blowtorch. She thought that was gonna explode the whole building. But the whole thing was a good thing, actually. And it set me free because I was the caretaker. Now I was free to go and start a new life.

Ten years later, when Cummins was ready to retire, he realized he'd never be able to afford to stay in New York on his Social Security benefits.

But then I realized: Hey, if I go somewhere else, I can live on that amount if I have a very modest lifestyle.

Cummins read about Colorado Springs in a magazine, listed as one of the cheapest places in the country to retire. Plus he liked the fact that it had an ice-skating club at the Broadmoor. He'd been ice-skating in Central Park for years, and found it a convenient place to meet women after his wife died.

He rented a cheap apartment near Ft. Carson, sight unseen, and drove into town on Oct. 2, 1991.

During his first four years living in Colorado Springs, Cummins continued to work as a freelance storyboard artist from home. During that time, he decided to make a brief foray into the local art world.

Indy: So what happened when you started showing your art around town?

BC: I realized it wasn't a good place for my kind of art, which is good art. If you're an artist, you have to be passionate and put forth very strong opinions. You can't be wishy-washy. You've gotta be a leader.

Indy: People don't seem to be following you.

click to enlarge Paper Doll Double Suicide
  • Paper Doll Double Suicide

BC: Well, they're idiots [laughter] about art. My art is about life and death and what's going on. Every piece I make has some kind of idea about it -- about what's happening today. I very rarely just do a picture to make a pretty picture. You've gotta make art that has meaning. You have to influence the younger generation. You have to shock them -- to have shock-and-awe art! [laughter] I mean, the day of painting pretty pictures is over. I mean, we are in a lot of trouble here in Western civilization. We've got people at our throats. Rome is gone. If I had the means, I'd move out of here immediately because I need a place to exhibit my work. I mean, you have artists here exhibiting in restaurants. Come on people! They should have enough pride not to do that. They shouldn't be that desperate. I'm not gonna do that! The only place here is the museum. That's where I'm gonna go for. Or UCCS -- I respect that gallery. That's where I'm gonna exhibit. Otherwise I'm not.

And that's just what he did.

David Turner, the former director of the Fine Arts Center, encountered Cummins when he entered a piece in the museum's Colorado Biennial in 1998. He entered "Sampson" -- one of his many primitive-looking faces, which won an award of merit.

I was totally dumbfounded. I was thinking, Geez, maybe there's some hope for this town after all. So I was encouraged by that. So in the [Colorado Biennial 2002 exhibit at the FAC], I put in "Down Below We All Go." It's a really beautiful piece of all these people going to hell, which is where we're all going. We all think we're going to heaven, right? Every human being thinks they're going to heaven. No, we're all going to hell. We have done bad things. We have no idea. It does not take much for you to get sent to hell.

After that, Turner and former curator Scott Snyder visited Cummins studio and invited him to show his work in the annual Something New exhibition at the FAC, which features contemporary local artists. The show, earlier this year, gave many people in Colorado Springs their first peek at the creative curmudgeon, the next outsider/recluse of his self-created myth.

But despite this paper-thin slice of recognition after nearly 70 years of laboring at his craft, Cummins still seems largely indifferent. And who can blame him? Four years after he moved here, he met his second wife, Linda (more than 20 years his junior), while ice-skating at Memorial Park ("I didn't know he was an artist," Cummins' wife said, "But I thought he was a good ice skater!") Their combined income allowed him to retire from the advertising business and dedicate himself fully to his art without the slightest need to sell it.

Once that happened, my mind was no longer divided. I was single-minded. And I started doing the kind of work I've been wanting to do all my life. It's amazing when your mind is free from all these distractions and you've been trying for 40 years, that's when it'll happen. It'll all come out the way it's supposed to. And I can guarantee that with any artist or creative person. Eventually they will succeed. Now, a guy like Mozart, OK: 5 years old and he's writing sonatas; that's a genius, that's a different thing. I'm talking about ordinary artists like me. I don't have any genius. I have no talent. All I have is a tremendous desire. I got into this art thing accidentally. I'm supposed to be something else I think.

Cummins picks up a piece of paper on which he has annotated a list of talking points. He wants to make sure to expound on his idea for achieving world peace (set aside 1,000 diverse couples, then send the rest of the world out to party on cruise ships in the middle of the ocean for two weeks, nuke them and start over -- with a United Nations resolution, of course).

And then there's his idea for a house train. "It moves so slowly you barely notice, but you wake up in a new neighborhood every day!"

Oh, and here's another: houses on the coasts and plains that frequently get torn up by hurricanes and tornadoes should be able to be lowered down into pits or shelters when there's a threat that they'll be destroyed.

"Why don't they do that? Because it's too expensive." he says, answering his own question. "Forget that idea."

He pauses for a few seconds and furrows his face again, adding: "Just remember these four things: 1. Vote Republican. 2. Study nutrition. 3. Take your children ice-skating. 4. Observe and learn from the behavior of animals." Then he cracks another grin and it's impossible to discern whether he believes a word of it.

"Whatever you do," he says, reveling in the incredulousness that his every word inspires, "just make me look bad."


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