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Mel McCuddin: The Art of Darkness

Inside a downtown gallery maybe two decades ago – that’s where I first got McCuddined.

I recall strolling through the vast array of art when one canvas stopped me cold. It contained the disturbing image of a semi-formed man on his back.

Oh, yeah. He had a fez on his head.

I stood transfixed, posing mental questions about what I was seeing, like …

Who pushed the Shriner onto the grass? How did his fez stay on?

Muted bruised colors added to the mental mystery, giving the subject a dreamy, back-lit look.

Great art is supposed to prod and provoke. Being thoroughly weirded-out is some powerful voodoo, too.

Admittedly I’m working from the haze of memory here, but I recall asking a gallery worker about who was behind this Twilight Zone-worthy scene called “Fallen Farsi.”

“That’s a Mel McCuddin,” I was told.

And so it began, my unabashed hero worship for the Spokane master with the at times eerie, but always-unmistakable style that includes elongated “pod” people and animals with human eyes.

A “figurative expressionist,” McCuddin has been called, but only jerks love labels.

Over the years I’ve admired dozens upon dozens of McCuddins, including his huge sports and performance-oriented paintings that hang in the Spokane Arena.

On a recent day I decided I was long overdue in finding out what the artist behind all the haunting art was really like.

And that revealed the biggest shocker of all.

The soft-spoken ex-dairy truck driver who turned 83 on Thursday is about as normal as it gets.

No strangeness. No trace of malevolence that often is seen in his work.

Normal.

Some do think of my art “as being a bit dark,” McCuddin conceded, adding, “but I’m not that way at all. It all comes from the paint.”

McCuddin is a trim man; his white hair and beard frame a pale pleasant face. He greeted me in faded jeans and a blue quilted vest draped comfortably over a green sweatshirt bearing the imprint of a majestic elk under a full moon.

We met outside his Millwood home. After some chitchat, McCuddin led me into his backyard studio where he still paints every day, usually producing a prolific half-dozen paintings a month.

The effort and intensity is evidenced on the color-splattered floors and scarred, smudged walls. A stack of finished canvases leaned against a large box. More canvases hung from walls, one featuring three orb-faced humans and another of an amiable brown steer.

McCuddin usually has five or six paintings going at once.

He’ll apply a layer of paint on one and, while it’s drying, hop to the next and so on.

Sometimes the pace is glacial, he said. Other times it’s “as clear as a bell what I should do.”

The images, he said, slowly emerge from a method of applying coats of paint in a variety of colors. Brushes. Cloths. Hands. McCuddin would use his feet if he thought it would add to the outcome.

As he once explained:

“I begin a painting with no idea in mind, and at a certain point in the process of putting paint on the canvas, an idea will suggest itself.

“Many of these ideas change and many are rejected until one seems strong enough to accept. My paintings, then, are essentially a record of the evolution of an idea.”

McCuddin’s process can be viewed in a number of YouTube videos. (Just search his name and enjoy the show.)

But it’s clear that the style McCuddin is best known for took the slow train in coming.

Portrait of the artist as a shy young man: McCuddin enjoyed art as a Spokane first-grader until being put-off by a micro-managing teacher who “had to show everybody what to do.”

He continued to be drawn to art while attending North Central High School yet “was afraid of what people might think.”

Marriage in 1953 proved to be a milestone of not only romance, but motivation.

Gloria, his bride of 62 years, a gregarious former schoolteacher, championed and encouraged her husband to pursue his passion.

McCuddin’s progress from then to now is amazing.

He showed me some of his efforts circa 1954, pedestrian outdoor scenes that could have been created by a thousand other artists.

Speaking of early art, McCuddin talked about once actually creating a “paint-by-numbers” landscape.

“I worked and worked on that thing,” he said.

McCuddin, alas, hung his masterpiece while it was in the still-wet stage. Much of the paint, he added, dribbled “down onto the floor.”

He went Winslow Homer to Jackson Pollock in one easy step.

McCuddin took art classes and kept working, always working to improve.

His paintings through the 1960s are mostly abstract. In the 1970s, however, the layered odd figurative style that I love began to bloom.

Count me among a large and continually growing Mel McCuddin fan club.

“Mel’s ability to juxtapose dark imagery with vivid colors is amazing,” said my rocker pal, Myles Kennedy, who owns a McCuddin.

“His paintings have a powerful presence that appear to radiate from the canvas.”

Andy Dinnison, another loyal fan, owns several McCuddins. For years he displayed the artist’s paintings inside Boo Radley’s, Spokane’s iconic downtown gift shop that is owned by Andy and wife, Kris.

“I wasn’t trying to make a dime off them,” said Dinnison of the paintings. “I just loved having them up on the walls.”

Steve Gibbs is arguably the biggest McCuddin devotee of all. Since 2004, the owner of Coeur d’Alene’s Art Spirit Gallery has represented some 850 McCuddins, selling all but 32 paintings for prices that range from $600 for smalls to $5,000-plus for oversized works.

“As a gallery we’ve made more money on Mel McCuddin art,” said Gibbs, mainly to emphasize the scope of his friend’s popularity.

“Mel is so consistent. He’s got a work ethic that has given us 75 paintings a year.”

That’s such a far cry from the time McCuddin tried to run a gallery on the edge of downtown. When things didn’t work out, the artist held a going out of business sale for $25 a painting.

“Only sold three,” he said in his countrified drawl.

So what makes a classic McCuddin?

“What I’ve been after a long time is something that you feel more than see,” he said, “paintings with a strong presence.”

Possessing a dry sense of humor, McCuddin also delights in giving many of his finished canvases memorable names, such as: “Comparing Beaks” for a painting that shows a needle-nosed woman in a face-off with a bird, or “The Mailman” for a raging dark mutt.

McCuddin is currently getting 18 paintings ready to show at his annual visit to Mango Tango, an art gallery at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. McCuddin has been showing his art there since 2007.

“I do better all the time down there,” he said.

When he’s not coloring canvases, McCuddin can be seen blowing his harmonica along with his guitar-playing wife. Three or four times a month, Mel and Gloria provide music at retirement centers and a home for vets.

Humble to a fault, McCuddin eschewed any suggestion of fame or fortune. “I like selling them, but that’s not the reason I do it,” he said, adding that he has never stopped chasing his muse to make better and better art.

“I don’t have any pretensions,” he drawled. “There’s always somebody better.”




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Doug Clark
Doug Clark joined The Spokesman-Review in 1982. He is a columnist whose columns appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.