Meet Peggy Cullen: Artist and "Road Scholar"
(written in 2003)

I was familiar with the work of Peg Cullen decades before I met her. As I child, I was drawn to a watercolor of a Maine lighthouse which hung in the living room of my parents' dearest friends. It was skillfully executed, but with a certain primitive quality to it that just grabbed me…almost like a modern day Grandma Moses. Last weekend, I was admiring that same painting when I discovered the artist was a Longmeadow resident. In the same room of this Cullen collector was another gem, done decades later. It was a garden scene done in oils, and with a radically different style, sort of post-impressionistic bordering on fauvist. The scene was bursting with chaotic life and energy, yet balanced and peaceful at the same time.

Collector Evelyn Morawski spoke to me of her friend Peg with such awe and respect I immediately wanted to meet her. Upon calling her, I was cordially invited to her Emerson Road residence for a chat. Her apartment was furnished with a variety of lovely furnishings in an eclectic variety of styles; and paintings were everywhere. They were on the walls, and stacked in various piles throughout. What I did not notice, however, was the unmistakable smell of linseed and turpentine…the hallmark of any art studio. You see, Peg's studio has always been the great outdoors. She never paints from photographs, and sneers at so-called artists that project slides on a canvas to aid them. No, Peg packs her oils and heads out to capture New England in its native element - along the open road, highway and byway.


Although now 88 and suffering from arthritis in her hands, Peg still drives down to the Meadows and walks a mile every day. Often, she will paint. It was there she captured a wintry railroad crossing on the road to Longmeadow's "Town Yard", as she referred to it.

The arthritis has taken its toll, but Peg still has works in progress. For over a half-century, Peg has been capturing rural New England on canvas. Many of the scenes have now been lost to progress; like the barn in Agawam, which is now probably an industrial park. Another favorite spot was the Berkshires, or small Massachusetts towns like Williamsburg or her hometown of Blanford. Whether it's an old farmhouse or a village church, these paintings all have Peg's unique style. Just look at the close up of her signature. It could be a painting in itself, yet is just a very small component of the whole.

A selection of Peg's paintings graces her walls, but many are done by her old friends and painting companions, most now gone. She sat beneath one by old friend and artist Maurice Kennedy. Kennedy and Cullen were part of a group of artists that traveled New England and painted together. Almost an itinerant art school, you could say. You might call them "Road Scholars," for this group fed off each other and for most it was the mainstay of their training. From the looks of the results, it seems like they were almost a Massachusetts equivalent of Connecticut's Lyme School of Impressionism. A century and more ago, the area of Lyme Connecticut was a major destination for Europe's premier impressionist painters. The landscape and foliage were considered to be on par with those painted by Van Gogh, Monet and the other founders of the genre. Whereas the European motifs (like our Rockport's motif) had been painted over and over again, the Connecticut terrain was still fresh and artistically unspoiled.

While a small canvas from the Lyme School can often fetch five figures, the works of these Massachusetts artists have lingered in relative obscurity…so far. These Massachusetts artists painted for the love of it, and the love of the world they captured on canvas. Each pursued other careers, so their art was not tainted by commercialism.

In Peg Cullen's case, it was a career with the Charles Sheldon Advertising Agency of Springfield, Mass. Charles Sheldon was an artist of no small fame, as well as a successful advertising businessman. Whereas he may not be a household name to many folks, almost everyone is familiar with his work. One of his more prestigious local clients was Mr. John H. Breck, of Breck Shampoos. Charles Sheldon's brainchild was the "Breck Girl" and he was the artist who painted each and every one of them during his lifetime. These immaculately coiffed young ladies were meant to signify class, breeding and quality; and their pastel portraits graced full-page back cover ads in the Ladies Home Journal and other fine publications. I erroneously assumed that Peg was employed in some artistic capacity, but she told me modestly "No, I was just a clerk." Apparently Sheldon's style and hers had not much in common, and she does not feel that his style and hers contributed to each other's, as was the case of the "Road Scholars".

The tables did turn on Peg during her tenure with the Sheldon Agency. Artist became model as she was selected to be a Breck Girl. The painting by Sheldon, done in pastels, was given to her. Instead of hanging it in a prominent place, the modest artist has chosen to use her walls primarily to display the works of her friends, while Peg the Breck Girl lies in storage in a locker in East Longmeadow, along with dozens of other gems.

Peg has sold very few of her works, and has given away others to friends. She views her art as something she did and still does. An intricate and wonderful skill, which is a Gift. In the same way an oriole can simply weave a wonderful and delicate nest without really thinking about it, so Peg goes about her art. She agreed with me that looking at these various scenes brings back memories of Fall trips in old automobiles to wonderful old villages and countryside vistas. She has close to one hundred paintings done over the course of the past half-century. Peg is not big on showing her work, although she is not against it. She says, "If someone wants to buy one, they can find me." Apparently not much of the Sheldon Advertising zeal rubbed off on her.

Someday Peggy and I are going over to that cache in East Longmeadow. Peg tells me there are quite a few old Longmeadow scenes there. I see an investment or two in my future!



a website of LongmeadowBiz, LLC