Tuesday, April 07, 2020

On researching artist Agnes Pelton for The Pelton Papers, a guest post by Mari Coates

Today I'm pleased to welcome author Mari Coates, whose novel The Pelton Papers, published today by She Writes Press, delves into the life and artwork of early modernist painter Agnes Pelton (1881-1961).  

Researching artist Agnes Pelton for The Pelton Papers
Mari Coates

I come from a long line of history buffs, so embarking on the research to write The Pelton Papers was like slipping into a comfortable shirt. First, I read the excellent catalogue written by Michael Zakian—Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature—for the first ever retrospective of Pelton, where I first saw her abstracts. I had grown up with several of Pelton’s beautiful realistic paintings—portraits of my grandparents and my mother and uncle as children, a pair of desert scenes, and a stunning view of Pelton’s Long Island windmill studio.

The catalogue was a brilliantly concise 100-page summary of her life, and at every turn I found myself wanting to know more. The Peltons had been neighbors of my grandfather in Brooklyn from the 1890s to the 1910s. Because he was himself artistic, being an amateur photographer, and also, like Agnes, often in frail health, their friendship endured. I found a letter of his in which he mentions her.

Besides being a history buff, I am also someone who is profoundly affected by place. So immediately upon reading about Agnes, I started seeking out where she had been. Brooklyn, for instance, where I located her house on Pacific Street. And the Pratt Institute, where she’d studied with Arthur Wesley Dow, himself a giant who changed the way art was taught and instilled in Pelton (and his other students, such as Georgia O’Keeffe) a love of modernism. At Pratt I got a feel for the building, which seemed to shimmer with its illustrious past.

The catalogue noted Agnes’s Cathedral City address, and my wife and I took a trip down there to have a look. The shanty-like structure we found was clearly nothing like Agnes’s studio, which could be seen in a photo in the catalogue. We assumed it had been destroyed to make room for temporary housing. Later we would learn (from Ann Japenga’s website californiadesertart.com) that renovators had changed the house to face the opposite street.

author Mari Coates
(photo: Lynn Shepodd)
Other excursions: a week in Taos, New Mexico, where we marveled at the light and the sense of the sacred infused in the very ground itself. And where we toured Mabel Dodge’s home, where Agnes was a visitor while it was being built. We had been to Italy, so reading about Agnes’s year in Rome allowed me to mentally revisit places she must have seen, such as Florence.

But of course there were books—on her family’s great scandal (known as the Beecher-Tilton affair); wonderful books on the Armory Show of 1913; books about the people she encountered, like the influencers John Quinn and Mabel Dodge Luhan, and artists such as Raymond Jonson, who with Emil Bisstram started the Transcendental Painting Group.

And then there were Agnes’s actual papers, which I was able to see through arrangement with our local art museum. I waited a considerable time before availing myself of that resource. I was completely in the thrall of the voice that was telling me Agnes’s story, laying it out for me as clearly as whispering in my ear. I was terrified that Agnes’s actual voice as found in her journals was entirely, shockingly, different from my version. When I finally ventured into the world of microfilm, to my enormous relief it seemed so close to mine as to be seamless. So, I think now that Agnes herself was truly whispering in my ear.


Mari Coates lives in San Francisco, where, before joining University of California Press as a senior editor, she was an arts writer and theater critic. Her regular column appeared in the SF Weekly with additional profiles and features appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Monthly, Advocate, and other news outlets. Her stories have been published in the literary journals HLLQ and Eclipse, and she is grateful for residencies at I-Park, Ragdale, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods, which allowed her to develop and complete The Pelton Papers. She holds degrees from Connecticut College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Find her online at maricoates.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment