An American Artist in Greece

An American Artist in Greece

414_marguerite-sylviaBorn in July 1928, the artist was abandoned at birth. She was a victim of severe scoliosis, a condition she bore with grace all her life. Her first years were a painful blur of moving from hospital to foster homes one after another, always returning to the hospital. When she was eight years old and close to losing her struggle to live, she was placed in a loving home with a mother, father, and slightly older sister. Together they gave her the love and care that saved her life.

The little girl, called Peggy by her family and friends, sailed happily through her schooling that began in the first grade when she was eight years old. Very soon her intelligence, sense of humor, developing love of music and art overshadowed her small body. Much later a friend wrote, “. . . her essence of spirit came toward one.”

She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1952 with her roommate Bobby Lynn Hartness and their friend John Maslen. Peggy and Bobby moved to New York and soon found success designing children’s clothing. Bobby and John married in 1955 moving to Portland but remaining Peggy’s lifelong friends and ultimately caretakers of her art.

By 1958, Peggy had saved enough money to move to London and a new job designing clothes for children. She loved to travel, and one of her many journeys brought her to the island of Lesbos and the village of Molivos. At the age of 34, she decided to go home to London, save all her money and return to this village. Leaving behind her career, her flat and her friends possibly to paint, possibly to write, Peggy planned to give herself three years to discover her path.

In her first letter from Molivos to Bobby Maslen dated October 21, 1962, Peggy wrote:

“My house here is full of treasures, rich in memories, and they make up for the lack of furniture. The view is even more breathtaking than from last summer’s house, for I look out across garden-farms and olive trees of the valley to the mauve mountains beyond and out to the sea as well. I have a roof garden over the kitchen and plan to have lovely potted roses and irises this spring. From this private perch the sunsets are truly magnificent. How I wish you could see my beautiful island and crazy-charming house. I have almost nothing and almost everything!”

When summer came, Peggy met new friends who heard about her attempts at painting.

“There are two Canadian couples here . . . the men, painters. . . they are willing to teach me the chemistry of paint mixing, canvas stretching, etc.”

They told her to have stretcher bars made by the local carpenters. Then, they took her to the fabric store in the larger town of Myteline to buy the heaviest muslin. Next she learned to use vinyl, a plastic fixative that could be mixed with powdered Greek house paint pigments.

She first painted in a style she called “bird’s nests,” great big swirls in different colors. Eventually, subtle faces began to emerge. Although Peggy began with the bird nests as long as she painted, through time they became more refined as she continued each painting until the bird nests became the underpainting and gave a very rich feeling to her very simplified shapes.

In 1963, she wrote Bobby:

“My funds dwindle daily, my painting is demanding more and more of me. Really, I never had the intent or desire to keep plugging that I have now and feel conscience-stricken when I take a day off. I have met many people here, English, Canadians, Australians, Americans. Somehow finding ourselves in another cultural environment has made us very vulnerable. This is perhaps true because with the simple life here, there are few sublimating distractions and we are thrown back upon our individual selves. I am continually having to question my own values and my ‘reason for being’ when such factors as the Greek language tend to isolate me. My paintings go through the same evolutionary trials. I wish you could see and criticize my work, for it is not without frustrations, doubts and ‘moods’. I keep at it since I suppose it is all part of the creative process and I am learning. When and how it will end I don’t know but for the present it is a very absorbing and satisfying life.”

In the 1960’s, Peggy sold several paintings to visiting foreigners and in shows, at last bringing in enough money for survival. She was given shows in Athens, first in the Hellenic Union and then in the American Embassy. In March 1971, Peggy came to visit her friends in Portland, bringing several rolled up paintings with her. At a show in Portland, she sold six paintings and had money in the bank to return to her village.

However, the cold wind and wet weather in Portland made her very sick. The scoliosis that never stopped her before finally caused major problems. She was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital in the middle of the night with a dangerous pneumonia, made worse by the fact she had less than one lung. The doctor thought it a miracle that she had lived such a full and strenuous life for so long. Her friends begged her to stay, but to her, Greece was her only home now.

Getting ready for a museum show to be mounted in August 1973 in Aachen, Germany, Peggy wrote “. . . the elephant is off my back, the paintings are finished.” Sadly, to the great distress of her family, her Greek neighbors who had come to think of her as one of them and her dear friends from many countries, Peggy died of pneumonia on July 8, 1973, about to begin her forty-fifth year.

After her death, her friend Bobby found a quote by Aldous Huxley that Peggy had copied. Not dated, but written in her hand on a sepia tracing paper, it is a perfect prediction of her art.

“Look at this figure. Perfectly flat. And yet all the modelling’s there. It’s the line. If the line’s good enough, it implies the volumes. You know there’s a third dimension. Well, some people are like that. They’re flat; they don’t say anything in particular; they make no obvious effort to express themselves. And yet you’re aware of depths and volumes and psychological spaces. . . ”

~Aldous Huxley

During her lifetime, Peggy sold about 75 paintings. They are in seven countries in Europe, as well as Australia, Canada and the USA. She left an extraordinary legacy of her remaining paintings to her lifelong friends Bobby and John Maslen. The Maslens gave a few paintings to her friends in Molivos for their kindness to Peggy and brought the rest from Peggy’s little house in Greece and from the Neue Galerie in Aachen, Germany, to their home in Oregon.

They have cared for them and displayed many of them in a small private museum in Portland. The paintings are now on loan to the Hellenic-American Cultural Center in Portland until 2032. Each year the center will exhibit 12 to 15 of the artist’s paintings for one month to share with others Peggy’s unique expression of courage and life in a small village on a Greek island in the Aegean Sea.

May her memory be eternal.

Excerpts by permission from
Once a Friend Always a Friend:
A Story of Friendship, Courage, and Destiny
by Bobby L. Lind