APRIL 2, 2020
AS A CHILD growing up in Plainfield, New Jersey, Mari Coates, author of The Pelton Papers, was aware that many of the portraits on the walls of her family home had been painted by her grandparents’ friend, Agnes Pelton (1881–1961). One picture depicted her mom as a 10-year-old girl, another was of Agnes’s windmill studio. All told, there were seven Pelton paintings decorating the Coates’ suburban residence.
But like most kids, Coates did not pay much attention to the family household’s aesthetics. This changed, however, when, in 1996, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art in Malibu, California, mounted a show of Pelton’s work. By then, Coates had moved to San Francisco, and when the exhibit traveled to the nearby Oakland Museum of California, she went to see it. “I was stunned,” she told me. “Her abstractions are full of symbolism. They glow. They shimmer. They’re big. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
After reading the show catalog, which included a fairly comprehensive account of Pelton’s life, Coates began delving further, perusing archival documents and news accounts about Pelton and her community. She then began writing. The result is a beautiful and evocative novel, by turns historically accurate and fanciful, that addresses such disparate themes as artistry, unrequited love, religious hypocrisy, and sexism.
I spoke to her by telephone in late January.
ELEANOR J. BADER: Did your grandparents tell you much about Agnes Pelton when you were a kid?
MARI COATES: I knew that Agnes had been a friend of theirs in the early 20th century when my grandfather was a young man. They all lived in Brooklyn. My grandfather was a photographer, Agnes was a painter, so they traveled in the same circles. They were also in the same religious group, a sect called The Plymouth Brethren.
Once I began researching Pelton’s life, I discovered that her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Tilton, had been involved in a huge scandal in the 1870s. She had had an affair with Congregationalist pastor Henry Ward Beecher, the first minister hired by Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. By the time the affair started, Beecher was a popular orator and known womanizer and both he and Tilton were married to other people. The pair were eventually charged with adultery. The trial lasted for six months and was covered in the daily newspapers; when Elizabeth was finally called to testify, she denied the affair. The end result was that Beecher was exonerated. The Tilton family, on the other hand, was essentially ruined as the scandal followed them for decades.
This had an enormous impact on Elizabeth, of course, as well as on her husband and children. It likely pushed Agnes’s mom to leave the United States for Europe where she studied music, married, and remained with her husband and daughter until Agnes was six.
We never heard about any of this. All I knew was that my grandfather and Agnes were friends and that he gave her her first portrait commission. She painted him and then used the painting as a sample to show others what she could do. It was also my grandfather who suggested that Agnes move to the eastern end of Long Island since he knew there were a lot of rich people there who would likely want their portraits painted.
Why was seeing Agnes Pelton’s abstract paintings so jolting for you?
When I went to the show that Michael Zakian, late director of the Weisman Museum, had put together, it was life changing for me. Her palette was so surprising, so different from the paintings we had. I just loved it. I read the catalog that Michael had written from cover to cover but I wanted to know more. Until Michael’s catalog, I didn’t know anything about the Tilton-Beecher scandal, for example, and read every news article I could find. I then delved into scholarly materials, articles, and books about the trial.
That said, the idea for the book took a while to come to me. Actually, in the early 2000s I was working as an editor at a scholarly press and was trying to write a novel about my grandfather. Each day, as I commuted by train from San Francisco to Berkeley, I’d find myself in a meditative state; one day, I started thinking about Agnes. As I traveled under the Bay, I heard this voice say, “I want to draw big pictures.” It sounds weird, I know, but it was so specific, so powerful, I decided to follow it.
Tell me more about the research you did into Pelton’s life.
Agnes’s personal papers are stored in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, DC. I traveled there, but it quickly became obvious that there was too much material to see in a single afternoon. I then learned that it is possible to arrange an interlibrary loan, which means that the Smithsonian can send local library branches microfilm of their Pelton materials. Sadly, mine was baffled about how to do this, but a curator at the de Young Museum in San Francisco had the same reels and put them up for me. I read the microfilmed accounts over 12 or so visits. And as I read, I just knew I was on the right track. I got insight into Agnes and started to understand that even though her grandmother’s affair had taken place before she was born, the notoriety and shame it caused impacted her deeply. I’m theorizing here, but I think it’s what drove Agnes out of New York. Had she stayed in the city, she might have been a better-known artist.
The archival materials were my primary source of information, but I learned of a scholar at Cal State Long Beach, Nancy Strow Sheley, who wrote her dissertation on Pelton. She sent me a copy, and it was revelatory. I also read Mabel Dodge Luhan’s papers at Yale University.
I was struck in the novel by your descriptions of the many people who supported Pelton emotionally and financially. The generosity of Alice Thursby particularly amazed me.
Alice was Agnes’s first major patron. She did everything she could for her. Alice was a trained artist herself, but gave it up after she married. Nevertheless, she had money and was motivated to help Agnes.
In the book, Agnes falls in love with Alice, which leads to heartbreak. More generally, though, Agnes was a person who attracted friends and others who were helpful to her.
The novel paints Agnes as a lesbian, but without any romantic relationships. Is this accurate?
As far as I know, Agnes was gun shy about anything that might put her in a controversial spot and never had romantic attachments with either women or men.
How about political ideals? Did she also steer clear of feminism, women’s suffrage, and other early 20th-century movements?
I don’t think Agnes was involved in politics at all. She was friends with Mabel Dodge but was shy and didn’t hang out at Mabel’s salons very often. I think her reluctance to get politically involved was an aftereffect of the Tilton-Beecher scandal.
Still, she was obviously impacted by the times she lived in. During World War I, she became so depressed she was unable to paint for a time. Then, the Great Depression wiped out the possibility of a lucrative career. Later, World War II caused the Transcendental Painting Group she was part of to shut down. Her timing was unfortunate.
Pelton interacted with many well-known artists throughout her life, but even though she lived and worked in New Mexico, the novel makes no mention of Georgia O’Keeffe. Did their paths cross?
I think they were aware of one another. They’d had similar training and both had fallen in love with the sun and open skies of the Southwest, but there are no confirmed reports of them meeting.
Unlike Pelton, O’Keeffe was a lightning rod from the start. Alfred Stieglitz exhibited O’Keeffe’s work and the two of them fell in love. He took nude pictures of her and championed her, served as her agent, and took care of her. By the time she left him, she was well established.
Agnes might have been envious, but I don’t really know.
Agnes loved to travel and moved quite a bit, going between Brooklyn and Long Island, New York, to California, Italy, Maine, and New Mexico. Why do you think she was reluctant to hunker down in one place?
Agnes got a lot from traveling. She was re-inspired by new places. This was especially true of her trips to Hawaii and South Pasadena. She also traveled to Syria and the American South. It was only when she landed in Cathedral City, California, at the age of 50, that she stayed in one place.
Can you discuss Pelton’s spirituality and how it affected her abstract work?
Agnes never practiced a formal religion even though, as I said, her family was part of the Plymouth Brethren. Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was one of the first people to write of spiritual expression through art. He believed that certain colors had a specific effect on people; that idea resonated with Agnes. She wanted to communicate that divinity is love, freedom, light. She pondered and journaled about biblical passages about Christ. For her, Christ was the presence of God in people.
I hope that the novel makes clear that creating art was her mission, her religious practice in a way. Agnes was always working. She painted portraits and desert landscapes to support herself throughout her life, which is why her abstracts took years to complete.
Can you tell me about your writing and revision process?
Writing The Pelton Papers took me about 20 years. I’d start, quit, then go back to it. I eventually joined a writing group in the Bay Area, and they helped me limp to a complete first draft. After this, I started revising. Someone I sent the manuscript to rejected it, but gave me some great advice. The early draft was focused on Agnes on her deathbed, telling her life story. This person suggested I just focus on her life, so I stripped out everything that was extraneous.
And finding a publisher?
I knew I needed to go with an independent press because The Pelton Papers is a quiet book. I also wanted it to be timely. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City was to host a show of Pelton’s work from March 13 to June 28. Things worked out because I saw that She Writes was soliciting manuscripts for spring 2020, so I submitted the book to them. Needless to say, I’m delighted that they accepted it.