Art: Kathryn Abajian on painter Ella Peacock

The University of Utah Press has just published “First Sight of the Desert: Discovering the Art of Ella Peacock” by Bay Area author Kathryn Abajian. The book — which combines memoir and biography — focuses on the life and art of Peacock, a relatively unknown 20th century Utah painter.

Abajian agreed to answer a few questions about the book (which can be ordered from University of Utah Press). Also note that Abajian will be involved in a series of readings and events related to the book — including the opening of an exhibit of Peacock’s work later this year at the Museum of Utah Art and History.

I doubt that many AMV readers have ever heard of Ella Peacock. Would you mind telling us a little bit about her?

Many people outside of the art community in Utah haven’t heard of Ella Peacock. She was the sort of person who hid her light under the bushel of privacy. She was modest, unassuming and unusual, especially in the small Mormon community of Spring City where she lived.

She was raised on the east coast, in Germantown, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Like lots of easterners, I imagine, she pictured the West as a place of great potential. In fact, she said, “Of all my family, I wanted to move west the most and I was the last to leave!” She attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women on scholarship and graduated in 1927, then put aside her painting just to survive the Depression. She married late, then ended up supporting her small family (one son) working as a draftsman for twenty-eight years. It wasn’t until she finally moved west that she began to paint seriously. Then she blossomed!

How did you first become aware of Peacock and her work? And — related to that, how did the book come about?

I learned about Ella Peacock accidentally. I was driving around Sanpete County one day and took a side road to Spring City, National Historic District, according to an old wooden sign on Highway 89. This was in 1980 and my husband was from Sanpete County. I was there with our family on a summer visit. So that afternoon, I practically stumbled on an amazing woman with a house full of wonderful art. Walking into her house that day changed my day and the next decade of my life.

I didn’t start thinking about writing a book until years later. I think it was when I learned that Ella had donated a large number of paintings to BYU’s new Museum of Art and she was in her eighties. I thought it would be important to document her life, so art students, at least, would know her story. So when I was on summer break, for many years, I visited Ella in Spring City and the documentation grew. It didn’t become a book for many years.

A few examples of Peacock’s work can be seen on . But how would you describe her paintings?

Her paintings look as though they’re painted in another century practically. They are nothing like current styles of representational or impressionist art. The reason is that Ella painted in the style she knew, the one she learned in the 1920s. So her work documents important history in the old buildings of Sanpete County and the Utah desert’s ageless landscape, sights you can see today, but in a style from another era. Her work is most like other Philadelphia regional impressionists, one group especially — The Philadelphia Ten — a group of women who were a generation before Ella and some of whom she knew from art school. Her paintings evoke the California impressionists from the early part of the 20th century as well, paintings that came about during the Arts and Crafts Movement. In fact, Ella lived many of the ideals of that movement.

The blurb on your Web site suggests that you approached the book as part biography, part personal essay? Is that a fair characterization? How do your own experiences figure into the book?

Yes, the book blends memoir and biography. I’d originally intended to write a straight biography and actually completed an entire draft. Then I started getting questions from my writers’ group, from editors and anyone who read any of it, actually, asking about my involvement in Ella’s story. So many people wanted to know why I was interested in her and her work. To me that was like asking why I like art or why I read. It seemed a given to me, especially that anyone who met Ella would be fascinated by her and would want to know more. Right about that time, I met the perfect editor, Dawn Marano, who worked then for the University of Utah Press as Acquisitions Editor and worked occasionally as a developmental editor. She made the difference — encouraged me to find the nexus of my life experience and Ella’s. She was unfailingly supportive and insightful.

So the book developed slowly. It became what it is — a narrative structured around ten of Ella’s images, each one lending a theme for a chapter. In each chapter, I try to tell two stories — Ella’s and mine. During the years I came to know Ella, my entire personal and professional life changed dramatically — notably, I left a marriage and a church I’d long known. But it was only in the reflection that writing requires that I realized that the impact of those changes was directly influenced by, and symbolic of, my quest to know Ella.

What role did Mormonism play in Peacock’s life?

Ella was a Mormon woman who did exactly what she wanted to do, an unusual concept to me at the time (when I met her, I’d been a converted member of the church for nearly thirty years). She and her husband converted when she was in her late fifties, but she never completely assimilated into the rules and responsibilities that typical church membership implies. She told me she was drawn to the church because of her slight exposure to it in the 1930s on a road trip west. And she told me she really wanted to learn about the church because she wanted to learn about schools in Utah for her son to attend. My research told me much more about her motivations. Ella was the sort of woman who didn’t tolerate frivolity in any form and, though she remained “true” to the church’s teachings for the most part, she didn’t embrace the social lifestyle aspects of it.

How was her work received while she was alive? What was her reaction to the public reaction to her work?

Ella’s work was well received when she was alive, but her attitude toward marketing her work nearly sabotaged it. She was a very private person and didn’t enjoy (and refused to attend) art openings. She enjoyed the honor and loved being appreciated, but she was uncomfortable in social situations.

As she aged and her memory and hearing failed, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to communicate intelligently at a reception. Thus, when Robert Redford asked her to participate a second year at his Sundance Institute art exhibit, she refused. She even felt uncomfortable when a San Francisco gallery owner wanted to exhibit (and sell) her paintings and recalled them only weeks after sending them to San Francisco. She couldn’t be cajoled to attend the opening reception of an exhibit, called Eighty Something at Art Access Gallery that showed many of her paintings, even though she was offered chocolate and a nice hotel room.

Most people who own an Ella Peacock painting today will tell you a charming story of the process of acquiring it. She wasn’t readily inclined to sell paintings, and needed to be sure each painting went to the right home. But when she got to know and like someone, she would give her paintings away.

Thanks, Kathryn!

UPDATE 3.12.05: The best way to order the book is not from the University of Chicago Press Distribution Center (as originally reported), but directly from University of Utah Press. Or look for it at your local independent bookstore.

Art: ‘Redressing American Modernism’

The BYU Museum of Art has put together what looks to be a very interesting exhibit Thoroughly Modern: New Exhibition of Early 20th Century Women Artists (hat tip to Meridian Magazine). The exhibit opens Feb. 25 and features the work “of the women art students of Robert Henri — widely regarded as the most important American art teacher of the era.” And it includes “paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles and furniture by 31 women artists who studied under Henri from the 1890s through the 1920s.”

The major drive behind this exhibit, no doubt, is that Mormon artist Minerva Teichert was one of Henri’s students.

What’s even more interesteing for me is the accompanying symposium — Redressing American Modernism: An Interdisciplinary Symposium — which will be held March 4-5 at BYU.

From the symposium’s press release:

“The symposium will be held in conjunction with a new exhibition Thoroughly Modern: The “New Women” Art Students of Robert Henri. The exhibition seeks to challenge the dominant narrative about modern art by examining the work of an unstudied group of modernist artists — the women students of the American artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929). The exhibited work has hitherto been marginalized by the modernist canon with its emphasis on the purely formalist elements of abstract art. Indeed, many artists have been excluded from the historical account, as this exhibition affirms.

“The symposium will address key issues raised by the “Thoroughly Modern” exhibition and its accompanying publication American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910 ““ 1945 (Rutgers 2005), an anthology of essays by 7 prominent scholars concerned with the re-contextualizing of American modernism. It is anticipated that these proceedings will contribute significantly to an expanded definition of American modernism and will help to restore a less biased appraisal of the artists, poets, musicians, composers, and writers of this period.”

The keynote speaker is Lois Rudnick , professor of English and American Studies, and director of the American Studies program at U. Mass. Boston. I’m not so interested in the papers being presented — although “Deflowering Flora: Banjos and Modernity in Late Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Culture” by Leo Mazow, curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art, sounds intriguing — but rather the idea of BYU hosting the exhibit and symposium, and the whole project of casting it as an attempt to broaden the definition of American modernism and especially to include more women.

This seems to be part of the phenomenon I discuss in my post The Mormon angle to the Buster brouhaha. Perhaps there’s more hope for Mormons-as-ethnic-Americans than I thought.