Tucked away in a renovated structure still battling emergence from our Main Street miasma are paintings that deserve to be seen: "Ella at 100: The Paintings of Ella Peacock," on display at the Museum of Utah Art & History through Sept. 4, is a historically noteworthy and delightful exhibition.
Ella Gillmer Smyth Peacock (1905-99), a fiercely independent yet unpretentious woman, captured the soul of Spring City, Utah, and the surrounding community on canvas with rare integrity for 25 years.
Her ability to elevate the obvious, the everyday and the old, and to chronicle each with boldness and beauty makes her art something to be discussed and studied for decades to come.
"Ella had a wonderful saying: 'My full-time job is looking,' " said David Ericson, a longtime-friend who also represented Peacock's art.
According to Ericson, Peacock would go driving until she found a subject she wanted to paint. "She would then go back eight or 10 times before finally stopping to paint. She wanted to see the subject at different times of the day, under different lighting conditions, something maybe different in the sky, something that visually moved her beyond the ordinary thing that you might see."
Nearly every piece of art in the exhibit is a gem. There are confident, vivid block prints created over the years (many of them family Christmas cards), as well as several academic paintings completed in her early days as an art student and later.
When she married, Peacock put aside painting for the rigors of running a home and family. (For more detailed biographical information on Peacock, read "First Sight of the Desert: Discovering the Art of Ella Peacock," by Kathryn J. Abajian, University of Utah Press.)
The most satisfying element in the show, however, is gazing at the paintings Peacock produced after moving to Utah especially those generated during the last 25 years of her life.
In her American Art Review article highlighting the exhibit, Abajian also a close friend of the artist and the main thrust behind this exhibit explains how Peacock returned to painting after a three-decade absence: "She painted for 10 years before anyone saw her work, and by that time she had filled her house with stacks of paintings that attested to her love of desert landscapes and old buildings."
One work that stands out in the exhibition is "Indianola Snow." As well as Peacock rendered the snow, it pales in comparison to her sky. Here she applied muted, moody Cezannesque strokes that say more about a "snowy sky" than any photograph ever could.
"Sanpete Valley Farm" is another admirable piece. The proportions in the composition are consummate, but the sky, once again, is masterful. "I'm going out to see if there's something happening about the sky," she would say, according to Ericson.
Two other wonderful works are "Strate's Barn" and "Eureka Chapel."
Unquestionably, Peacock's handmade frames will be a topic of discussion during the show. Each was individually cut and painted to harmonize with the colors and composition of the finished painting, emphasizing the loneliness and isolation of central Utah.
To understand the importance of these frames, look at the few pieces in the show without their original frames. They are uninteresting and render what would have otherwise been a wonderful painting to a less-appreciated work of art, hampering Peacock's original idea.
"Ella at 100: The Paintings of Ella Peacock" is a very good exhibit, and for those not familiar with the artist, it's a great introduction to her work.Would Peacock have liked the show? "She would have been thrilled to see this exhibit," said Ericson, "but she would have never come to the opening. She would have been too embarrassed."
If you go
What: "Ella at 100: The Paintings of Ella Peacock"
Where: Museum of Utah Art & History, 125 S. Main
When: Through Sept. 4
Gallery hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
How much: Free
Phone: 355-5554Web: www.muahnet.org
E-mail: [email protected]