by Sheri Boggs

His paintings are like ghosts. Like visitations from the kinds of dreams that hurl you awake -- heart pounding and sweat drenched -- in the middle of the night. Dark figures block out the light on enormous, murky canvases -- a raven, a dog, a human figure. In others, it's the pale tumescence of an octopus emerging from the inky dark sea, the oddly elongated limbs and grimacing expression of a man in a striped scarf holding a torch. Enigmatic, sometimes humorous, his figures are often solitary. His human forms seem caught in some lonely moment of their own unfolding drama. Animals look back at the viewer with that unblinking, disconcerting human eye. There's oddness, to be sure, but in that oddness is something strangely comforting and familiar, a bridge to our own hidden feelings of weirdness, of being cast out.

This darkness, this sense of existential angst made manifest, is the very thing that makes Mel McCuddin's work such a fascinating paradox. One would expect the artist to be a recluse -- a Boo Radley-esque figure peering out from behind the drapes -- or maybe a misanthrope who sees the blunted ambitions and twisted desires of human nature. At the very least, one would expect someone with a healthy closetful of Freudian neuroses and maybe a few garden variety demons thrown in for good measure. One would not expect the tall, genial artist, whose studio sits a few feet away from a handmade koi pond, to welcome a reporter and a photographer to his studio like old friends.

"He's got that dark edge to his work, but I don't know where it comes from," says fellow artist and longtime friend Harold Balazs. "I've never encountered anything like that in Mel himself. He's the neatest, gentlest guy. I've never heard him say a mean thing about anybody; he really doesn't have this big dark past he's drawing from."

"McCuddin at 70," opening Friday at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene, is a retrospective showing of McCuddin's work from the 1960s through the present. His paintings span four decades and have evolved from the small "hobby" landscapes of his early 20s to the enormous and unnerving figurative canvases he continues to produce to this day. Like most young artists, McCuddin had a hard time getting his work shown back in the '50s and '60s, but his paintings are now highly sought after, and his name is one of the most recognizable in regional art circles.

"He stands out as one of the stronger contemporary figure painters from this region," says Jochen Wierich, curator for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC). "He may not have received the recognition outside of Spokane that he deserves, but he has made his mark. He's clearly on the map. His style is very recognizable. You can have him in any group show, whether it's Spokane, Seattle or Portland, and people identify his work immediately."

Born in January 1933, Mel McCuddin and his family lived on the Little Spokane River before moving into town. He attended North Central High School, where he considered becoming an artist, but admits his early notions of the artistic life were not necessarily grounded in reality.

"I took a few art classes, but they were a disaster," he recalls. In fact, McCuddin rediscovered art almost by accident. Newly married to his wife Gloria -- they'll be celebrating their 50th anniversary in September -- he picked up the paintbrush with the original intention of finding something to do.

"I didn't have any hobbies. I just bought some oil paints and started with those. I didn't really know what I was doing. But it was fun. It still is fun."

He still has one of his first paintings, a small landscape lit with the chilly glow of sunset and inhabited by bright orange trees. It's a far cry from the kind of kinetic, dissociative work McCuddin would be doing in just a few years. What started out as a hobby caught fire as he discovered the Abstract Expressionists, who were redefining art during the 1950s. He counts Willem de Kooning and James Brooks among his major early influences, and his later, more figurative works often bring to mind the dark visions of British painter Francis Bacon.

McCuddin was becoming serious about his art, but he always kept one foot firmly planted in the world of practical concerns. He worked as a truck driver for the Early Dawn Dairy (later acquired by Darigold) for most of his working life and retired just 11 years ago. He says that the job was a good one for an artist in that he was able to support his family and come home every night, but it was also the kind of job you can put away at 5 pm and not think about until the next morning.

"I painted at night. I really had a lot more energy in those days," he laughs. "I had a studio downtown, and I'd go down there and paint till 10 or 11, sometimes midnight. Or sometimes I'd get up at 2:30 or 3 to go paint. I didn't do it every night, but I did that a lot."

His studio was in the now-demolished Kuhn Building on Riverside, and McCuddin remembers it as an early artist's colony. He had several other studios downtown before moving into his current work space, behind his home in the Spokane Valley, where he painted even with two young boys, and later a daughter, at his feet.

Like many artists, he has also discovered the enormous value of having a life. In addition to his marriage and family life, McCuddin is an avid hunter and fisherman. In fact, his hunting buddies are more often than not other well-known local artists like Harold Balazs, Ken Spiering, Steve Adams and Tom Askman.

"It's funny. Most of us make art, but we seldom talk about art," says Balazs. "But I think going up to Alaska to hunt, or going on our fishing trips is important. It's important to have that balance between your work and your life. It's something to draw upon."

Not surprisingly, McCuddin was just as resourceful with his materials and career as he was with his time. He took some courses at Eastern Washington University, Fort Wright College and the Spokane Arts Center, but just like every other artist he had to pay his dues.

"My first show was in the restaurant at the Bon Marche," he laughs. "My next one was at a tavern -- in fact it was that Red Lion Tavern on Division. I had some work up there for awhile, but I was spending too much time down there."

In addition to finding unconventional "gallery" spaces for his work, his materials were more often than not executed with whatever was at hand.

"In the old days, I used scrap lumber and house paint. I started out using regular oil paints, but I didn't have a lot of money. I had a friend who worked for a paint company, and every time they had a bunch of paint to throw away, they'd give it to me," he says. Even now, he likes incorporating stuff from around his studio -- rags, chunks of old paint, careless brush swipes that suddenly look like things -- into his works.

"I just made a resolution not to paint on cardboard or newspaper anymore. It just doesn't hold up. I have all this stuff lying around that I clean my brushes on. That's how a lot of these little paintings came about."

An example of this can be found in "Corporate Greed," the piece that Art Spirit is using on the postcard for the show. At first glance it's an octopus, but if you look closer, you can see layers of texture, from the raised lines of string to the fringed squares of canvas.

"I just started cleaning my brushes on that thing. I had an old piece of the canvas around and I glued that on there, and then I added some string and some glue from a hot glue gun," he says. "It was an awful mess for a long time. Finally I just saw that octopus in there, and it started to turn into something."

Over the years, several distinctly recognizable "McCuddian" motifs have evolved.

"I like a strong light/dark relationship, either a dark figure on a light background or a light figure on a dark background. And I mostly just use one figure in a painting. My work is always kind of changing," he says. "I did those abstract expressionist things for a long while, but even then I was always looking for a little image, something that grabbed me. That's how I started doing more figurative things."

The influence of the abstract expressionists can still be seen in his hands-on approach to painting. While he still uses brushes, he's also just as likely to work with rags or to mottle colors together on the canvas with his bare hands. He has also discovered the peculiar magnetism of imbuing his animal subjects with human features.

"Putting a human eye on an animal is kind of disconcerting. People don't really notice it at first, but something about it is different," he says. "Eyes looking right at you are really a good form of communication. What I'm after is a real strong presence, something you can feel in the painting. The eye, that's one way to do that."

The last few decades have been good ones for McCuddin in terms of recognition and selling paintings. He is represented by the Art Spirit Gallery, Art at Work in Spokane, the Blue Creek Gallery in Walla Walla, and even a gallery in Cleveland. His works also show up on caf & eacute; walls, in hip retail locales like Boo Radley's and maybe even on T-shirts. He did a commission for the Spokane Arena several years ago and shows no signs of slowing down.

"He's still growing. There's something really ageless about his work," says Wierich. "There's a freshness that he has maintained over the years."

McCuddin has several projects underway, and his son Mason is continuing his father's tradition and works as an artist as well. When asked about the dark element of his work and where it comes from, McCuddin merely shrugs and smiles.

"I do as many funny things as I do dark things. I'm mainly after that strong presence, whether it comes out as funny or dark or whatever," he says. "One of the things you hear people say about really good paintings is that 'it can't be forgotten.' That's what I'm after. I'm looking to make an impact."

Publication date: 05/08/03

The Rum Rebellion: Prohibition in North Idaho @ Museum of North Idaho

Through Oct. 29, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
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