Fayetteville artist recalls always taking pictures since he was a child


When Willson Cummer was growing up in Ithaca, he spent three years working with a family friend who was a professional photographer. “He took mostly landscapes and portraits,” Cummer recalled. “He would let me come and develop film and make prints.”

He vividly remembers the first roll of film he shot. The photos were close-ups of various objects, including the pile of shoes inside his home’s front door. “That’s when I realized that art isn’t a slavish reproduction of reality,” he said. “Part of the function of art is to create something new out of something that already exists.”

He pointed to a large photograph of a run-down shed hanging on his studio wall. “This is not a shed,” he said. “It’s a photograph of a shed, that would be different if I took the image at a different time or stood closer so you wouldn’t see the flowers or farther away so you would see the street in front of it. It would be different.”

Cummer’s latest series of photographs, Common Places, will be on display at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn from March 22 to May 12, 2019. The images show mundane, common places: Duguid Park near his home in Fayetteville, a nearly forgotten Erie Canal feeder canal in Manlius, a patch of grass on the side of Interstate 481 near a Wegmans store in DeWitt.

“What I’ve always been interested in is taking pictures of the ordinary,” he said. There’s beauty in the mundane. There’s beauty even in the ugly.”

Take, for instance, his first series of photographs, Parking Garages. Garages seem like an unusual subject for photographs, until you learn about Cummer’s childhood. The son of an archaeologist whose focus was Greek and Roman architecture, Cummer spent a lot of time being dragged to temples.

“Temples have columns, a roof, and are massive – a lot like parking garages,” he said. “(Parking garages) are the ultimate invisible structure. People just don’t notice them.”

Upon investigating them, Cummer realized that the garages, especially those in downtown Syracuse, have incredible views. But he didn’t want to take pictures only of the view; he wanted to include the garages in the photos, too.

Cummer’s other series examine their subjects in multiple ways and for different reasons. His State Tower Building series contains images taken from all over downtown Syracuse and beyond. Sometimes the viewer has to look hard to find the Art Deco structure in the background. His Dawn Light series of images focus on how the day’s first light changes the look of a place, using light as a metaphor for recovery from depression.

He recently led a group project called Picture81 that looked at Interstate 81 in downtown Syracuse, culminating in a juried exhibit at SUNY Oswego’s Tyler Gallery in Syracuse. It was the first time he has worked on a group project, and he enjoyed it.

“Since there are discussions about replacing it, it was time to explore a structure that is objectively quite ugly,” Cummer said. “But if you think of it as a built structure, I-81 is the largest built structure in the county, as it runs from one end of the county to the other. It’s enormous!”

The 150 or so artists in the Picture81 Facebook group shared photographs, paintings, sketches, and other art about the interstate that focused on what it looks like now, before any work is done. “I don’t know if it would be interesting to cover the demolition and building of its replacement,” Cummer said. “I’ll ask the group to gauge their interest.”

These days, Cummer teaches occasional workshops and takes occasional freelance jobs, but mainly focuses on his photography. “I’m focusing more of my interest and energy in fine art these days,” he said, adding some advice for people who wish to become artists.

“You just have to create art, to put effort and time into it,” he said. “Forget the part of becoming an artist, and just do it. It’s easier than people think, and it’s harder than people think.”

About the exhibit

What: Common Places
Who: Artist Willson Cummer
Where: Gallery Julius in the Schweinfurth Art Center, 205 Genesee St., Auburn
When: March 22 to May 12, 2019
Cost: $7 per person; members, participating artists, and children 12 and under free
Also showing: Made in NY, an exhibition of artists from around New York State, and Double Vision, an exhibition of husband and wife painters Pennie Brantley and Robert Morgan
Special event: Cummer will be giving a talk about his work at 6 p.m. Friday, April 5, 2019, during the Schweinfurth’s First Friday event. The event, including the talk, is free.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays.
More information:

Photo captions

TOP: Detail from Duguid Park #50 by Willson Cummer

PROFILE PHOTO: Willson Cummer stands in his studio at the Delevan Center in Syracuse. To his left is an image of a run-down shed that is part of his Dawn Light series. Behind him at right is an image from his Parking Garage series.

BOTTOM PHOTO: Butternut Feeder Canal #1 by Willson Cummer