Friday, April 17, 2020

Discovering Agnes Pelton

Over the course of eight years, I’ve been very fortunate in—and grateful to—the guests who agree to talk about their new novels during my podcast interviews. But some authors stand out, and Mari Coates, whom I talked to a couple of weeks ago and whose interview went up on Monday, is one of those. 

While investigating her website in preparation for writing up potential questions, I discovered that her family had a long-time friendship with the subject of her biographical novel, The Pelton Papers. How that relationship came about became the basis of a fascinating and informative conversation.

Now I have to confess: before reading Mari Coates’ book, I had never heard of the painter Agnes Pelton. I immediately looked her up and discovered an extraordinary and beautiful body of work, as well as a touring exhibit currently off-limits to the public at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (thank you, coronavirus). But you can see the description and some of the featured pieces on the museum’s website.

I also had not heard—or, if I had heard, did not remember—that Pelton’s grandmother was involved in a major scandal in late nineteenth-century New York. Which is, in a way, how Pelton came to be, since her mother fled to Germany to escape the trauma and encountered her father, another ex-pat fleeing traumas of his own.

Many of Pelton’s more dramatic and mature art works are not yet in the public domain, but you can see her style developing in the two works from 1915 and 1917 included in this post. And by all means listen to the interview and conduct your own exploration into the works of the “desert transcendentalist” who, almost sixty years after her death, has yet to attain the recognition that is her due.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. You can also find a short transcript on the Literary Hub and listen to the interview there if you wish.

Like the better-known and perhaps luckier Georgia O’Keeffe, the American painter Agnes Pelton also found her unique vision in the western desert. As Mari Coates details in our conversation, Pelton and O’Keeffe took art classes from the same teacher and had parallel careers in several ways, yet Pelton is relatively unknown despite a number of major exhibitions during her lifetime and one traveling the United States even as this interview airs.

But Pelton’s time in the California desert is only a small part of the captivating story traced in The Pelton Papers. Born in Germany, where her ex-pat parents connected while escaping family scandals and tragedies, Pelton came to New York at the age of seven. A sickly girl in a dark and brooding house, she survived her childhood with a deeply religious grandmother, an absent father, a strong-minded mother who supported the family by giving music lessons, and no social life to speak of by losing herself in colors and paint. That set her on a path that led, through training in modernism and more traditional instruction in Italy, to a deeply spiritual, intensely personal understanding of her own artistic mission. In this beautifully written novel, Mari Coates—whose own family had a long and productive friendship with Pelton—draws on stories she heard growing up and numerous other sources to portray an emotionally complex, sometimes troubled, but always gifted heroine whose resilience and eventual triumph will warm your heart.

Images: West Wind (1915), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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