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 (She Writes Press, 2020). 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.
C. P. Lesley is the author of ten novels, including Legends of the Five Directions, a historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible. Her latest book, Song of the Shaman, appeared in 2020. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com
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