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Spokane’s ‘figurative expressionist’ Mel McCuddin dies at age 89

Sept. 27, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 28, 2022 at 4:20 p.m.

Mel McCuddin, the prolific and beloved Spokane artist whose work blended vibrant colors, plenty of whimsy and sometimes just a pinch of darkness, died Monday at age 89.

McCuddin, who worked as a truck driver and painted at night until retirement allowed him to create full time, painted canvases large and small, frequently working on multiple paintings at once in the backyard studio of the Millwood home where he and his wife of 69 years, Gloria, raised their family.

Six large-scale McCuddin paintings hang inside Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, and his works have been collected across the globe.

His process always started with paint on the canvas, and no preconceived idea of what the subject would be. As he told former Spokesman-Review columnist Doug Clark in 2016, “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.”

Born in 1933 and raised on a dairy farm on Spokane’s North Side, McCuddin loved art as a child, and continued to make art through high school at North Central. But, as he told Clark, he kept it to himself because he “was afraid of what people might think.”

It was Gloria who encouraged him to pursue his passion, he told Clark, so he did. While working his day job as a truck driver for dairies – first Early Dawn, then Darigold – he took art classes when he could. His early works in the 1950s were outdoor scenes. By the 1960s, he was producing abstract works, and by the ’70s the figurative expressionist style for which he became known started to come out, he told Clark.

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

Clark and his wife, Sherry, co-wrote a compendium of McCuddin’s work in 2019, “McCuddin: The Inner Eye.” In it, McCuddin describes his painting technique: “The paint is poured, dripped, rubbed and wiped, and I use rags and my fingertips at least as frequently as I do brushes. The decisions made concerning color, light, space, etc., are largely intuitive. The color is treated generally by under painting with warm colors overlaid with cooler ones. This technique gives an inner glow to the paint.”

His son, Mason, grew up watching his dad paint.

“He had his studio in our basement for a long time when I was a kid, and I’d go watch him,” Mason McCuddin said. “He puts a bunch of color down, then looks at it, then turns it over and looks at it. I remember asking him when I was probably 6 years old, ‘What are you doing?’ He said, ‘Have a seat and here’s what I do.’ And he was doing the same thing then that he did right up until the end.”

Mason McCuddin described it as akin to looking for an animal in the clouds. “He said, ‘Keep looking and eventually you’re probably going to see some kind of shape. It might look like a person, it might look like an animal, it might look like a coffee pot,’ ” he said. “That’s the one thing that really stuck with me my entire life. He taught me how to see.”

Karen Mobley, an artist and arts administrator who ran the city’s arts department for 15 years, said she suspects there are many people in Spokane who will be saddened to learn of McCuddin’s death.

“He was such a lovely person. He was always, always, just so loving and generous to everyone,” Mobley said. “He was professionally successful, but all they way through his life he was the same gentle, kind of shy guy that he always was.”

One thing she remembered fondly is McCuddin was “twinkly and sly.”

“He was funny. And you could tell that he has such a fabulous sense of humor through his work,” Mobley said. “He’s always painting these people doing these goofy things with their weird and awkward anatomy – way too big hands, way too little hands, all the creepy eyes. ”

That creepiness, or darkness, or mischief, glimmers beneath the surface of some of McCuddin’s most memorable works. As he told Clark in 2016, while some see his work as being a bit dark, “I’m not that way at all. It all comes from the paint.”

Mason McCuddin said he suspects a lot of the subtext or layers of his father’s work were a result of the process he used and was not intentional. “He kind of left that to the viewer to find those things in the background,” he said. “It depends on the viewer’s background a little bit because everyone brings a little something to their own viewing experience.”

For 25 years, McCuddin has been represented by the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene. He also has shown at the Mango Tango Gallery in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, for several years. This Saturday the Art Spirit will open its annual October show of McCuddin works.

Blair Williams, gallery owner, said as she and the gallery staff are hanging paintings on the wall, “It’s just so wonderful watching us walk around and lift them up and say, ‘Ah, look at this one,’ and ‘Ah, this one brings me joy.’ ”

“We are going to do everything we can do to do (Mel) proud. That’s our job.”

The appeal of a McCuddin, Williams said, stems from a variety of sources – the color palette and warm tones he used draw in the viewer, and the imagery always “caused for pause,” meaning it makes the viewer stop, examine and contemplate the piece. “What is that? Why is that? Why is he looking at that? Why is he holding that? Why is that out of proportion?” she said. “And whenever you are ‘cause for pause’ and you have that palette that can draw you in, you can’t help but begin to bring your own story to the piece, and I think that’s why they were always so popular.”

Although, she added, the No. 1 reason people became fans of McCuddin’s paintings is McCuddin himself.

“Once people had the opportunity to meet and know Mel McCuddin, you couldn’t help but love them,” she said. “You understood his nature, his kindness, his gentle soul, and it made you look at the pieces again in a different light.”

Mason McCuddin said his family – their mother, Gloria; brother, Neil; and sister, Colleen – do not plan to hold a memorial service. During this month’s show at the Art Spirit, Williams said the gallery will set out a book where friends and fans of McCuddin can share stories. Williams said the gallery will pass the book to McCuddin’s family.

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