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Pegi by Herself: The Life of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, Canadian Artist by Laura Brandon

by Joseph Sherman

I’d probably have fallen in love with Pegi Nicol MacLeod myself had I been her 1940s contemporary. Many men did. Described as gamin-like (think the luminously sensual Holly Golightly in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s), she was an only child and seemed individualized early on. She took to painting and illustration and design, clearly outgrew her parents‚ conventions, and became something of a Bohemian—whatever we think that term suggests—eventually living in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto (studying art in both), New York, and even Fredericton (which offered up its riverine attractions), always on the economic edge.

Schooled as she was, Pegi Nicol MacLeod was never a prodigy and less than an artmaking original, but she was passionate, animated, and questing, and did experiment within the parameters of her training and experience. She didn’t smash barriers, she bent them. Lush portraits and scapes became her stock in trade, with a distinguishing use of line and colour. Had she lived to a fair age, she might have broken real ground—a career-long resistance to formal abstraction was just beginning to deliquesce in her last years—but even had she not, she’d have remained an irrepressible presence in Canadian art.

There are individuals like this. The way they dress and talk. The way they smile and breathe. What they teach.

Gone before public funding for the arts could be enshrined, Pegi Nicol MacLeod, in time, would have been suitably recognized for her striving and her energizing qualities in a post-postwar era fiscally friendlier to artists and their institutions, and would probably have become more broadly influential. Almost by default, she’d become a teacher of art, but there wasn’t much of a living for her in that. She even worked in an arts and crafts emporium in downtown Fredericton. She died before the Massey Commission (Magus to the Canada Council), before the ‘official‚ empowerment of women’ before Canadian art caught on in large. Pegi surely would have found financial stability and the kind of recognition that comes, in mature years, with a seal of approval. She had attracted loyal friends, many of them players in the burgeoning Canadian cultural establishment.

Pegi typified that aspect of her time that was prepared to rattle the barriers of conformity and staidness. In a shortened but peripatetic life—communities in two countries, studying, teaching, painting…lovers, husband and daughter…a descent into quickly deteriorating health—she left an impression of charmingly frenetic possibility and a swath of regret for what might have been.

Laura Brandon, who lived with her family on PEI for a number of years (she cut her teeth as a writer on ArtsAtlantic), and is now Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, initially found her fascination for Pegi Nicol MacLeod through her own mother, who knew the artist. Sadly, much of her most interesting painting surfaces around the period—wartime and just after—that turned out to be the artist’s last decade. (Painting wasn’t all, but it’s what will last.) Depictions of a populace at war, in Canada and in New York, account for some of her finest efforts.

Laura’s meticulously documented book, Pegi by Herself: The Life of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, Canadian Artist (McGill-Queen’s University Press), is a must for anyone interested in the furrowing evolution of Canadian art in the furrowed 20th century, especially art made by inspired and irrepressible women. (Pegi Nicol MacLeod: A Life in Art, is also a touring retrospective curated by Dr. Brandon.)

What Laura can and can’t tell us about Pegi Nicol MacLeod makes for an engaging portrait of an ardent individualist. While no intellectual, Pegi was fundamentally an intuitive creator of art that embodies observation—particularly of self. Look into the eyes of one of her amazing and unsettling self-portraits, and tell yourself that this woman is not worth knowing, that the secrets within her eyes are not worth wishing to share.

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