15 Bytes | Book Reviews

Artist Interrupted: The Life and Art of Ella Peacock

Book Review: First Sight of the Desert
Artist Interrupted: The Life and Art of Ella Peacock

by Tony Watson

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The University of Utah Press recently published a biography of Spring City artist Ella Peacock by first-time author Kathryn J. Abajian. Abajian’s biography, entitled First Sight of the Desert, reads like a slow portrait, done in oils, over various sittings. It reminds me of the account of Picasso’s portrait of author Gertrude Stein. Over and over the artist would return to the portrait, reworking the face again and again, struggling with its structure and personality. In Abajian’s case it is an author writing the portrait of a painter, and Abajian’s struggle is not so much with her sitter as it is with her self.

The book stretches over a fifteen-year period of interviews, from the author’s first meeting with the artist in 1985, to Peacock’s death in 1999. Abajian relies on numerous interviews, personal examinations of the artist’s work, and historical source material to create a portrait of this anomaly of an artist. Peacock was a vibrant woman, “full of inner drive and independent spirit,” who grew up in Pennsylvania, where she studied art in the 1920s, but who didn’t seriously begin producing a body of work until the 1970s. In the book, the same fifteen year period is witness to the author’s own struggles, from her stagnant marriage and crisis of faith to a time of renewal and soul searching that culminates in the expression of her own independence and creativity, the publication of this book.

Abajian, a convert to the LDS faith, a granddaughter of Armenian immigrants, and a native and resident of California, married early to a lifelong Mormon from the Sanpete Valley town of Fairview. Her summer trips with her husband and children to visit her in-laws created the chance encounter between her and Peacock.

Abajian has a talent for creating a sense of space. Anyone who has traveled the Sanpete portion of Highway 89 will recognize the author’s depictions of the flooded ghost town of Thistle, the “snow-rimmed crater, called ‘the Horseshoe’ by locals,” the land that “asserts itself in the undiminished vigor of sagebrush and rocky terrain foregrounding spectacular Mt. Nebo.” Her description of a summer night in Fairview in 1985 reveals the inner state of Abajian’s life at the time: “lying in one of the large lumpy beds that filled three small attic rooms crowded together at the top of a narrow staircase, I listened, wide-eye, to the snuffling, sleep-talking, dream-whimpering of my children, all of it backgrounded by my husbands’ droning snore.”

It was on such an afternoon of boredom and disorientation in 1985 that I had met Ella Peacock and her art for the first time.” Abajian’s own personal journey serves as a foil to her exploration of Peacock’s life. At times, Peacock’s life becomes a frosty paned mirror of Abajian’s. At other times, Peacock’s life comes into a more traditional focus as Abajian pieces together the artist’s biography. The book shifts time and place repeatedly throughout chapters, shifting between interviews with the artist, the recreation of the artist’s life and career, the author’s own continuing struggle, and the vivid glimpses of Peacock painting in a field or rustling through old papers. Abajian does so with a mature, controlled style so that the book flows as it reveals two or more narratives at the same time.

After six years of acquaintance with the artist, Abajian first proposes the idea of writing about her life in 1991. In a letter to her shortly after this visit, Peacock says “’By the way, the reason I am here is that the first time I saw this area I knew I could paint the rest of my days here.’” And the process of revelation begins to unveil itself.

The most vivid part of Ella’s life that Abajian recreates is her childhood and early adult years in Germantown, Pennsylvania: her strained relationship with her mother, her admiration for her Methodist Minister Grandfather, her rebellious days at a Quaker school, her father’s death, and her general sense of isolation. All are brought into focus in Abajian’s portrait. She also places Ella into her historical context as an artist, detailing her training at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in the 1920s, where she learned “the single-minded ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.” Here she studied the style of art associated with “The Philadelphia Ten,” under the tutelage of instructors like Samuel Murray, a close associate of Thomas Eakins, and with classmates like Alice Neel. Though she enjoyed her experience at school, Peacock always had a sense of unease. “She felt she had never fitted in, felt misplaced in her hometown, her home state, everywhere in the high culture of the East.”

Peacock would find her home in the West, which she first saw on a couple of trips in the 1930s but which she wouldn’t settle in until the late sixties.

Peacock’s last days are also well documented in the biography. Abajian gives us eye-witness accounts of Peacock’s last two decades in Spring City, and Peacock’s own reminiscences and those of neighbors and friends make the portrait of this period of her life vivid and full. But even here, in her adopted home, Peacock could be an outsider. When helpful neighbors once offered to remove the sagebrush from her yard, she had to point out to them that she had purposely planted them, restoring the desert to its original beauty. Though she remained a Mormon to her death, Peacock paid little attention to the formalities of the culture, found little use for the Relief Society organization and bristled at the sexism she found in the Mormon culture. This sense of independence appeals to Abajian, who at the time she is writing the book is struggling with her own place in the same church.

But to me the most fascinating part of Peacock’s life, that yawning gap in her artistic career, where she married, had a child, worked a farm and at a drafting agency for forty years, and joined the LDS church, seems only a faint rendering of loose brushstrokes in Abajian’s account. Ella Peacock’s artwork has fascinated so many contemporary collectors because when she came out of artistic hibernation in the late sixties, her style had remained completely unchanged by the currents of the art world. She had been trapped in a time capsule and began painting the Utah desert scenery as if she were painting it in the 1930s. I find this part of Peacock’s life the most intriguing and the least explained. Why, in all that time was there no corner of the house, no hour of the day, no time of the week that the artist could not find to pursue her art? And had she not picked up a single art magazine or gone to a single exhibition in that time?

I must allow the author the benefit of the doubt, however, because the impression I receive is that Peacock, a very private woman who would often hide in ditches when she painted to avoid the stares of passers-by, was reticent to talk about her private emotional life. Abajian recognizes her own lapse “Since I’d never known Bill and she talked so little of her life with him, he had become, I suppose, fairly incidental in my mind. In my mythology of Ella Peacock, I suddenly realized, she had always been alone in her purposeful existence. But the reality was that Bill had shared forty years of her life.”

One thing I realized after putting this book down is that Abajian tells us as much about the process of writing a biography as she does about the subject of the biographer. We ride along with Abajian as she attempts to make a collage of the scraps and pieces of a life she is able to put together. And this, ultimately, is what reconciled me to the dual narrative that Abajian pursues in the biography. A biography is always the life of one individual seen – at times darkly, at times clearly, but never definitively — through the lenses of another. Abajian is honest enough to fully reveal the spectacles of her own struggles through which she is viewing Peacock.

And anyone reading this biography should understand that. In addition, anyone looking for a catalogue of her works will be sadly mistaken (for that they will need to attend the Museum of Utah Art and History’s exhibition Ella at 100: The Paintings of Ella Peacock, June 3–July 31). Each chapter is headed with an appropriate image of Peacock’s but the total number is only ten. Abajian does explore the nature of Peacock’s work and her style. Peacock’s own comments, as recorded by Abajian, provide insight to the subjects and moods that appealed to the artist and her strident working methods. In addition, Abajian gives us wonderful insights into the life of Spring City, a small out-of-way town quickly filling up with artists. We see Joe and Lee Bennion (potter and painter, respectively), Osral Allred (painter) and M’lisa Paulsen, all residents of Spring City who make cameo appearances in the narrative that is Abajian’s encounter with Ella Peacock.

Peacock was a time capsule. A female artist, trained in Philadelphia in the 1920s, she went for thirty years without painting until she moved to Utah and got to the desert she had always wanted to paint. One gets the feeling that her creative life was on hold for that time; that she held on to her first impressions and the style she had learned until she got back to the West and began painting it. I think it is this part of Peacock’s life that most appeals to Abajian — the sense of a life interrupted, which is the story of the author’s own life.

“Ella was sixty-five years old before she fully embraced her identity, before she could leave the East and settle into her own element in the western desert. And it had taken many conscious acts of painting the desert’s wildness again and again to cement that sense of self in place. Finally, that evening, I came to understand that I’d repeated the pattern as well: marrying young, I had completely lost track of myself during the ensuing twenty-five years.”

First Sight of the Desert by Kathryn J. Abajian is available in Salt Lake at King’s English and Sam Weller’s, from the University of Utah Press’s website and from major bookstores.

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 edition of 15 Bytes

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