Picturing Healing Energy: Paintings by Agnes Lawrence Pelton

I’ve recently returned to painting and, searching for inspiration, ran across Agnes Pelton’s extraordinary transcendental paintings, images full of energy balanced with a cool serenity.  She has quickly become one of my favorite painters.

Pelton, Resurgence

Resurgence

Agnes Lawrence Pelton was born in 1881 to American parents, William and Florence Pelton, in Stuttgart, Germany. She spent her early childhood in Europe before moving to Brooklyn with her mother when she was seven. Florence Pelton ran The Pelton School of Music out of their home and kept food on the table by teaching piano, as well as German and French. William Pelton overdosed on morphine at his brother’s home in Louisiana when his daughter was nine.

pelton_awakening_or_memory_of_father_19431[1]

Awakening: Memory of Father, 1943

Agnes Pelton graduated from the Pratt Institute in 1900, continuing her study of painting with Arthur Wesley Dow, who also taught Georgia O’Keeffe. His emphasis on structure, imagination and non-naturalistic color deeply affected both women. Pelton referred to her early works as “imaginative paintings“, “moods of nature symbolically expressed” that exhibited humanity in harmony with nature and experimented with natural light. She often dressed in flowing gowns with flowers twisted into her hair and set up her studio in Greenwich Village, a hotbed for political radicals and avant-garde artists.

Pelton, Vine Wood, 1913

Vine Wood, 1910

56869173-50d8-4ea1-b514-f38c77ea5733_g_570[1]

West Wind, 1915

2b23d25ff69ecb93846606d28dfa21f5--arthur-dove-art-of-women[1]

Room Decoration in Purple and Gray, 1917

In 1919, Pelton made a visit to Taos, New Mexico, as a guest of the colorful Mabel Dodge Luhan, who built the image and brand of “Southwestern Modernist Art” by inviting artists to her home and promoting their work. Here Pelton painted realistic portraits and romantic desert landscapes. These paintings honed her technique and sold and showed well, but her true calling was to paint inner visions rather than realistic representational scenes. Enchanted by the desert but, most likely, uncomfortable with fitting in to a commercial, mainstream artistic movement, especially one so aggressively shepherded by a personality like Luhan, she returned to New York to be near her mother. After Florence died in 1920, Pelton took up residence in a historic windmill on Long Island, seeking solitude and deeper abstraction, still heavily influenced by nature. It was here in the winter of 1926 that her first introspective, abstract paintings were born. She also traveled heavily, feeling herself to be a bit of a nomad. In 1932, the windmill was sold. Homeless at the age of 50, Pelton decided to travel across the country to Cathedral City, California, intending on a short stay. She would live out the rest of her life in the California desert.

Pelton, California Landscape near Pasadena

California Landscape near Pasadena, 1930

Pelton, Smoke Tree

Early Morning in the Wash, 1936

The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert it was an especially bright spirit. 

Pelton, Star Grazer

Star Gazer, 1929

Pelton, The Voice

The Voice, 1930

Pelton, Untitled, 1931

Untitled, 1931

Pelton, Sea Change

Sea Change, 1931

Pelton, Messengers

Messengers, 1932

Pelton, Winter

Winter, 1933

In 1938, a group of artists based in Taos calling themselves the Transcendental Painting Group contacted Pelton. They were inspired and excited by her work and wondered if she would become their first president, sort of a patron saint for spiritual abstract painting. She accepted, and for five years she had an artistic community. The Transcendental Painters sought “to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world, through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative realms that are idealistic and spiritual.” The group broke up in 1943 as World War II made life difficult for everyone. Pelton’s work became more personal and abstract, and she receded not only from the art world, but from society in general. She had no interest in promoting her art, and died largely forgotten in 1961 at the age of eighty. Recently, her work has been rediscovered and promoted. I am very excited about a traveling exhibition originating at the Phoenix Museum of Art this spring called Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. It will tour to the Whitney Museum in New York City, The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and to the Palm Springs Art Museum. I’d like to see it, wouldn’t you?

Pelton, Future, 1943

Future, 1941

 

Pelton, The Blest, 1941.jpg

The Blest, 1941

Pelton, Prelude

Prelude, 1943

Pelton, Passion Flower, 1945

Passion Flower, 1945

What I love so much about Pelton’s painting is its serene luminosity. Her light is powerful and energetic but remains benevolent and nurturing. She had a profound interest in spirituality and in finding common ground with other cultures. Heavily influenced by numerology, spiritualism and yoga, her work lies at the beginning of what would become the New Age Movement There is something very feminine and abundant about the portrayal of her inner world. At a time when many modernist painters were paring things down to straight lines and redactive images, her work is refreshing in its roundness and expressivity. Organized and elegant, she never overwhelms the eye, although she has a lively sense of color. World War II must have been a great challenge, yet she remains strong and hopeful in her painting, as if presenting a vision of healthy humanity undimmed despite pain and difficulty. What a refreshing vision for any age!

Pelton, Ligh Center, 1961

Light Center, 1961

 

 

 

 

Transformative Life: The Power of Imagination in Dhafer Youssef’s Whirling Birds Ceremony

The modern world presents opportunities to encounter and assimilate different cultures. Can this expansion of experience expand purpose and faith?

A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879

A Muezzin Calling from the Top of a Minaret the Faithful to Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1879

Musician Dhafer Youssef was born in the small fishing village of Teboulba, Tunisia, from a long line of muslim muezzins. It is the job of the muezzin to sing the adhan, or call to prayer, from the mosque whenever it is time for prayer. The community depends on the muezzin to keep accurate schedules that organize their day and help them practice faithfulness. Blessed with a powerful and expressive voice, Dhafer was sure to inherit both the beauty and the responsibility of the muezzin’s vocation. Life had other plans.

His grandfather introduced him to Quranic recitation, chanting of verses from Islam’s Holy Book, and he was schooled in the practice. Away from the discipline of school and grandfather, the six year old Dhafer sang along with the radio in his mother’s kitchen, experimenting with his voice in a different way. Although he still remembers his first chanting of the adhan with fondness, his talent and his interests would not be fulfilled as a muezzin. He attended a conservatory in Tunis briefly before leaving to study music in Vienna. In addition to singing, Dhafer plays the oud, a middle eastern lute and predecessor to the guitar, and composes music, both acoustic and electronic. He has released eight albums and performed all over the world.

Some traditionalists might say that he betrayed his ancestors by rejecting the role of muezzin, but that isn’t the only way to look at it. Yes, his music incorporates influences from Indian ragas, Norwegian music and jazz and is marketed to non-muslims. Despite this, a look at his subject matter and output, with titles such as Birds Requiem, Electric Sufi, Digital Prophecy and Divine Shadows, reveals that, far from abandoning his spirituality, Youssef has used his wanderings to deepen and expand his faith and share it with others, including those from different traditions. Delving deep into Sufi thought, with its desire to experience God intimately and directly, his vocation has become to call not only muslims to prayer and reflection, but all kinds of people.

Video via Dhafer Youssef on YouTube, please check out his wonderful website here.

This video from the album Birds Requiem is called Whirling Birds Ceremony. The title recalls the whirling dervishes, Sufi ascetics who practice a whirling dance in attempt to bring themselves closer to God. The atmospheric and ethereal music, which features Youssef on oud and vocals, Hüsnü Senlendirici on clarinet, Eivind Aarset on electric guitar and electronics, Kristjan Randalu on piano and Phil Donkin on double bass, is enhanced by splendid images from Maksoun Studio. We see and hear an inner world of fantastic and lovely transformations, much in contrast to the dark outer world revealed at the end of the video.  This inner world is constantly changing and moving, ranging through outer space, while the outer world is the human city with its fixed constructions and geography. Devotion and prostration lead to freedom and depth of motion as the soul whirls into the sky when the body bends low. Whirling Birds Ceremony reminds us that those who wish to contain and define other human beings can never contain and define our minds and spirits. More than that, it calls us to dream and let our inner being dance.

What a lovely and enduring vision!