“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.