In her 2020 novel The Pelton Papers (She Writes Press), Mari Coates portrays the life of 20th-century modernist artist Agnes Pelton in a multifaceted rainbow of color, reaching into the recesses of Pelton’s personality and career to portray a woman who rose above all odds to obtain a legacy that lasted beyond her 79 years. Told from the first-person point-of-view of the protagonist, Coates lingers in languish on the page as she painstakingly outlines the process by which some of Pelton’s most historic paintings came into being, etching each moment of discovery the artist experienced as it must have unfolded in Pelton’s real life.
The depth and span of the novel begins in 1888 and ends in 1961, positioning Pelton in the historical framework in which she lived and worked. While describing her early childhood, Pelton is first introduced to drawing as a way to cope with her father’s loss: “I must have been fourteen when I started telling everyone who would listen, I was going to be an artist. I spent every possible moment of the day drawing pictures, often furtively when I should have been doing my lessons.” This succinct statement encapsulates the artist’s career: surrounding herself often with nature, alone, yet always within comfortable reach of friends who shared similar passions and experiences. Coates does not shy away from expressing Pelton’s sexuality as an obstacle in the early 20th century (“Shocked, I realized that my friend had become my beloved. I would never tell her, but I would find a way to contain happiness, grief, exhaustion, and despair”), but ensures that a full portrait of her struggles and eventual happiness is shown. The artist’s life was a full and complete one, and Coates uses dialogue and setting to bring the novel to life in a way that allows Pelton to become a fully realized character on the page. Perhaps one of the most notable experiences in reading this book is learning, through Pelton’s narration, what it must have been like to attend a salon in the 20th century: “from what I could tell, [salons] were calculated gatherings of the most unlikely groups of people: newly arrived immigrants, Communists, socialists, artists, writers, and the leading likes of New York society, all packed into an elegant parlor…as evenings designed to provoke, inspire, and even outrage, the salons were unqualified successes.”
Throughout the book, Coates uses vivid language to describe Pelton’s art and influence in the art world, and the picture of this mysterious woman begins to gain clarity through the author’s account of her life. By the end, as she goes through her past, the reader gains the sense that Agnes Lawrence Pelton’s acclaim would far outlive the artist herself.
Nikki Lyssy (@blindnikkii) is an MFA candidate studying creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida. Her essays have appeared in Hobart, Sweet, and Essay Daily. When she is not working, she can be found in a coffee shop.
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