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
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
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
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!