“They began to glow, began ‘to talk’…”

For the essay I am currently working on, an essay or maybe a collection of linked essays because I’m not quite sure how to arrange the material, how to stage it or hang it is maybe more appropriate as I am writing about paintings, anyway, for this work, I am reading a stack of letters written to me in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s. They are dense and intense and I come up from the reading sort of dazed. But it feels like the right time to be doing this.

Yesterday I was reading a letter from March, 1982, when my correspondent had just returned from a studio exhibition of the work of Margaret Peterson. I’d completely forgotten this letter and his account. In either 1975 or 1976, a group of us were taken by our university instructor Rona Murray to visit Howard O’Hagan and his wife Margaret Peterson. I’d read Howard’s novel Tay John and his collection of stories, The Woman Who Got On At Jasper Station, and I remember asking him some questions, listening to his gruff responses. Margaret was sort of in the background, making tea for us, finding places for us to sit. But I remember her vivid paintings on the walls of the small apartment on Dallas Road in Victoria, the dim light, the visible poverty of their lives. In 2018, John and I entered Lupo, a restaurant in Vancouver, and were seated in a small room below a stunning painting. That’s a Margaret Peterson, I exclaimed. Seeing the painting brought back the memory of that apartment, Margaret’s beautiful work, and how it seemed that she’d been forgotten in the years since. By me, yes, though I tried to make amends by writing the memory of the visit into the novella I was working on then, The Weight of the Heart; and I think by the times we live in, the art world of the 21st century.

at Lupo

Yesterday, I was taken by the account of the studio visit in which J. writes of the shabby apartment with the paintings, mostly gouache on paper, thumb-tacked to the plaster walls. But then light from a sunset over the Strait of Juan de Fuca flooded into the room and he realized how extraordinary Margaret’s work was.

They began to glow, began ‘to talk’, to assert their presence & dignity, even more than the two aged warriors who were our hosts. Her work is highly original, could be confused, mistaken for, an eclecticism of Indian (N.A.) folk art & some borrowings from Cubism. But it isn’t! Each of the works exists completely on its own, at two levels, like the work of aboriginal artists of thousands of years ago. Her forms are symbolic of the man-woman beneath the skin, of the bodies of their spirits. The designs are precise, essential, not decorative (like some Indian art) no schematic, and are unique and full of pure life. Her colours are simple. She works on a kind of glowing red ground (Mauda?? red, mainly) with black, white, brown, green, yellow, hieroglyphic ‘stories’ on them. They are all very powerful; have an undeniable voice. My senses were strongly awakened & I watched her, him (who in gruff, blunt, interjections from the corner, supported Margaret’s ‘performance’ with contradictions & corrections) and the myth of life, of real life, that her work embodies. I felt the absolute opposite of my first impression of these two ancient lives. I felt reassured, reconfirmed, by their lives and wondered at the supreme logic of art.

How is it that some painters (writers too) are remembered and some aren’t? Look at the painting I photographed with John’s phone at Lupo, awkwardly, badly, but see how it glows and shimmers with life. I could live with this on my wall, could look at it daily and that wouldn’t be enough. It has resonance, power.

In a letter written a month after the one recounting the studio visit, J writes to describe three days spent helping Margaret and Howard move out of their apartment into a motel, then a hotel, and finally onto the Black Ball Ferry where they were planning to take a train from Port Angeles to San Francisco where Margaret planned to stay with her brother. By September of that year, Howard was dead.

I have a booklet published as part of the The Artists’ Archives series at the University of Victoria Libraries, An Archival Mosaic: The Margaret Peterson Fonds, by Robert Amos, and he provides some biographical information as well as an account of how her archives came to Special Collections at the University of Victoria. There are a number of reproductions of her gorgeous paintings. Reading this morning that she’d left a rented storage locker filled with her work and that she’d “always named high prices for her work, so very few had been sold in her later years”, I think of J’s description of her studio show.

I had come with a couple of Victorian collectors, i.e. those few that one knows, who have the funds to acquire. One of them, who has purchased quite a lot of my work at prices that have been always in the hundreds, was enamoured of one of Margaret’s small works, which was thumb-tacked to the wall & was on some rather cheap paper, about 8”x10” in size. She asked Margaret what kind of price she would like, and Margaret, rather indifferently, said she wanted to make a painting from it but she guessed she would sell it for about a thousand. The dear collector, with her pearls, Straiths suit, and Hawaiian holidays, could hardly believe her ears. She kept on asking me what I thought, ‘is she that good’, etc. I enjoyed it rather a lot.

Radiance, all these years later

We went to Vancouver (3rd time in a week…) to see a concert, one of two for which the tickets were given us a gift by one child at Christmas. It was the VSO’s A Spanish Rhapsody, conducted by Jun Märkl, featuring the wonderful Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter.

But first we went to dinner at Lupo, a restaurant we’d never been to before, though we’d heard good things about it. And yes, the meal was fabulous—I had duck confit with sausage and a delicious assortment of vegetables and John had braised rabbit with pappardelle. Before our mains, we shared a salad of beets, as sweet and succulent as any I’ve ever had, with two kinds of goat cheese—a fresh pool of creamy cheese under the beets and a roasted round of a more mature chevre beside them; and we also had a plate of vitello tonnato. Desserts were (for me) a roasted white chocolate cheesecake with a cherry compote and (for John) wild blueberry and coconut tart. We drank crisp white wine from Sardinia. The service was note-perfect.

It was the moment we were shown to our table that was most remarkable though. On the wall, right by our table, was a huge painting I recognized immediately as a Margaret Peterson. It was so beautiful, glowing against the putty-grey wall.

at Lupo

I asked our waiter where on earth they got a Margaret Peterson painting. He was gracious and said he thought it was from a gallery in Gastown that lends art to businesses like restaurants. The reason I was surprised was that I had forgotten about this extraordinary artist and I suspect many others have forgotten about her too. And that’s sad.

She came to attention in the 1950s and 1960s. You can tell, I think. Her work is abstract, highly influenced by her travels in Mexico, Central American, by Picasso and Braque, and by her own interest in Indigenous art. Her paintings are rhythmical and richly coloured.

I met her in 1975 or 1976 when I was a student at the University of Victoria. One of my instructors, the poet Rona Murray, took a few of us to have tea with Margaret and her husband, the novelist Howard O’Hagan. (I was so excited about seeing her painting at Lupo that I told the waiter all about her and O’Hagan and how important the latter’s novel Tay John is to an understanding of our province and its literary history that he came to tell me, between courses, that he’d ordered Tay John online and it would arrive by Amazon Prime today! I know my daughter will be rolling her eyes if she’s reading this and will ask me, Why do you do that, Mum? But I can’t stop myself.) Anyway, yes, a few of us were taken to meet them, Rona presenting a bottle of Scotch to Howard, and we spent a couple of hours in their company. They lived in a small shabby apartment on Dallas Road near Ogden Point and I remember wondering how such amazing people were reduced to such poverty. For it was clear they were poor. Howard wasn’t well. But Margaret’s work was on the walls and the apartment glowed. I remember thinking I’d like to know them better but I never met them again.

A few years later, Robin Skelton and Charles Lillard edited a special issue of the Malahat Review, gathering together the work of poets∗ and visual artists of British Columbia. The cover image is one of Margaret’s totemic figures. I was lucky enough to have 5 poems included in the issue (published in January, 1978) and I went just now to our library area to find my copy.

Number 45

I didn’t expect to be taken back all those years when we walked into Lupo last evening, I didn’t expect to call the small apartment to mind, to recall those two people whom I never hear mentioned these days, apart from a conversation with Kevin Paul a few years ago when he said Tay John was one of his favourite books. It was one of mine too. I’m going to read it again for its resonant retelling of an important story of B.C., and I’m going to try to look for more of Margaret’s paintings. I remember a mosaic at UVic and I believe the Maltwood Museum had some of her work so I’m thinking it will now be held at the Legacy Art Galleries of the University of Victoria; the next time I’m in Victoria, I’ll see what I can find.

If you’ve never read Tay John, here’s a passage to encourage you to seek it out:

It was early autumn, then, before the snow began to fly. –(There’s an expression for you, born in the country, born from the imaginations of men and their feeling for the right word, the only word, to mirror clearly what they see! Those with few words must know how to use them.) Men who have seen it, who have watched it day by day outside their cabin window coming down from the sky, like the visible remorse of an ageing year; who have watched it bead upon the ears of the horses they rode, muffle the sound of hoofs on the trail, lie upon spruce boughs and over grass – cover, as if forever, the landscape in which they moved, round off the mountains, blanket the ice in the rivers – for them the snow flies. The snow doesn’t fall. It may ride the wind. It may descend slowly, in utter quiet, from the grey and laden clouds, so that you can hear the flakes touching lightly on the wide white waste, as they come to rest at the end of their flight. Flight – that’s the word. They beat in the air like wings, as if reluctant ever to touch the ground. I have observed them coming down, on a very cold day, near its end when the sky above me was still blue, in flakes great and wide as the palm of my hand. They were like immense moths winging down in the twilight, making the silence about me visible.

*A second issue devoted to B.C. writing and art focused on fiction. including a story by Howard O’Hagan, illustrated by Margaret Peterson. And I’d forgotten that I have a story in that issue too.