William (“Bill”) B. Cushner was born in Alberta in 1914, the son of Russian immigrants from the Ukraine. His father worked in the wheat fields and mines as well as for the Canadian Pacific Railroad which, at the time, was being built across the province. In 1924, however, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York where there were more employment opportunities and a better life for the children. During his formative years, young Bill spent many happy days wandering through New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, gradually developing an interest in art and artistic impression.
In his late 20s, Bill served in Italy with the US Army during World War II and upon returning home, started a business making wooden packing crates. In 1949 a potential client asked if Bill could make picture frames. After some experimentation and teaching himself to do miter cuts and bevels, Bill remembered that “a whole new world opened up for me.” He began framing for advertising agencies, art galleries, national magazines, and individual artists. He quickly learned that the frame needed to complement and enhance its contents but never to detract from it. By the mid-1950s, Cushner was developing a steady business in framing and opened a workshop/gallery in lower Manhattan which he operated for almost 20 years. By the mid-1960s, he had become an advocate of a style known as construction and geometric painting, translating everything he saw into geometric shapes as well as emphasizing shadows and light play. His work began to be acquired by a number of museums including New York’s Whitney and the 20th Century Museum of Modern Art in Israel.
In the course of his work with Herman Kessler, the art director for Field and Stream magazine, Cushner met Kessler’s wife, Helen Shaw, who was one of America’s top fly tyers. She asked Bill if he would frame a fly for her and although never a fisherman or a fly tyer, Bill was immediately intrigued with the craftsmanship and artistry that went into fully dressed Atlantic salmon flies. By 1970 Cushner was devoting all his spare time to the collection and preservation of artifacts relating to the fly. His technique was focused on presenting the flies in shadow boxes with beveled walls and mitered corners to give the fly plate a three-dimensional effect with the fly itself attached by an almost invisible Plexiglas peg so that it appears to be suspended in space. His work was so highly coveted that a showing of 200 of his framed sets at the National Art Museum of Sport in 1975-76 attracted over 80,000 visitors.
After several years of vacationing in the Cape Breton Highlands, Cushner and his wife retired there in 1977. He built a small museum attached to his home near the famous Cabot Trail and began collecting the work of renowned Canadian tyers past and present. In 1986 the couple moved to Oregon to be closer to their daughter’s family but by the early 1990s Cushner began to experience health problems and died on April 13, 1992 at the age of 78. After his death, most of his framed works were sold to John Keith-King to be housed in his Sport Fishing Museum on Granville Island, British Columbia. The Atlantic Salmon Museum, through the generosity of the Keith-King family, is now the proud recipient of 159 fly plates crafted by William Cushner.