Cascadia recognizes remarkable talent with a tragic past | Art & Appetite

By James Spangler | Sep 27, 2016
Courtesy of: Cascadia Art Museum "Untitled," Peggy Strong.

The art universe is a big place. So many truly great artists have had their moment, been recognized for what they are, and then slowly been consigned to obscurity.

The Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds is doing what it can to prevent that from happening to one such artist with the opening of its new exhibit, “A Spirit Unbound – The Art of Peggy Strong.”

Strong was a remarkable talent, so much so that I'm surprised I never encountered her work before.

Born in Tacoma, educated at Annie Wright and the University of Washington, the future looked very bright for Strong. Already showing great promise, her art at this time in her life is colorful, muscular and largely realist.

Tragically, on her way to Paris via a cross-country trip to New York, she was paralyzed just below the shoulders after a terrible automobile accident.

It's impossible for me to begin to appreciate the challenges that Strong faced when she returned to Washington. Yet over the next 20 years she produced some truly extraordinary work.

In fact, by 1938 Strong had become one of the most renowned artists in America, winning awards, solo shows and other accolades.

In 1940, she won a U. S. Treasury commission to paint her large mural “The Saga of Wenatchee” from a field of 60 artists that included Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson. Everyone, it seems, wanted this commission.

Strong set to work, and with the help of an inventive father, developed an ingenious scaffolding that allowed her to paint the mural in sections. The next time you're in Wenatchee, drop by the Northwest Central Washington Museum, where the mural is still available to view.

Interestingly, Strong diverges from many other notable Northwest artists by drawing inspiration from the German expressionists. Some of her work is reminiscent of Blue Rider artists like Frank Mark and August Macke.

There is also evidence in her work that she appreciated Spanish masters such as Zurbaran – a baroque master of the religious icon.

That influence is especially clear in an untitled portrait produced somewhere around 1939. The image is dark. It is of a woman, in what appears to be a nun’s garb – broken, downcast, bound in shackles at the wrists and gagged at the mouth.

The obvious conclusion is that this is something of a self-portrait. After all, women were fighting to be heard and respected. Strong must have encountered that resistance in the male-dominated art world in which she moved.

The binding of the subject’s hands and her despair may be representative of the disability that challenged Strong with every movement she made. It is a powerful piece, subject to much interpretation.

If you have the opportunity, I recommend that you go see Peggy Strong’s work. Check Cascadia’s website and sign up for a docent tour if you can. Peggy Strong might just be the greatest Northwest artist you never knew.

“A Spirit Unbound – The Art of Peggy Strong”
Where: Cascadia Art Museum, 190 Sunset Ave., Edmonds
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Through Jan. 8
Admission: $10 adults. $7 for those 18 and under, free for children 4 and under. Free 5-8 p.m. during Art Walk Edmonds the third Thursday of the month
Information: 425-336-4809, www.cascadiaartmuseum.org

 

James Spangler is the owner of Spangler Book Exchange in Edmonds and an aficionado of all things art and appetite. Do you know of a Snohomish County restaurant, art gallery or theatrical show worthy of a review? Call him at 206-795-0128 or email him at jamessspangler@gmail.com.

 

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