Peggy Root, Painter
Born in 1958, Peggy Root grew up in Florida and North Carolina. She studied at Ringling School of Art and Design (1977-1980), and studied figure painting and anatomy at Lyme Academy of Fine Art in Old Lyme, Connecticut (1984-1987). Peggy has spent the last 25 years painting the landscape of the Eastern United States. She has had many solo exhibitions in the Northeast and South and has exhibited in numerous invitational group shows. She works in oil directly from life on location, generally working on large canvases in two-hour sessions, returning to the site at the same time on successive days to develop the painting. Her work is in private and corporate collections throughout the country. Peggy lives in East Tennessee with her husband, artist Tom Root, and their two children.
I feel deeply privileged to have the opportunity to witness nature in all its moods and conditions. I also feel privileged to experience the rigorous and invigorating process of making an on-the-spot painting. I work quickly, moving around shapes and color, always striving to make a solid construction that most simply and elegantly states the significance of the scene. Because each year, each season and each day is so different from another, I am content to take what comes and consider it a gift.
Peggy Root: I’m Peggy Root. I’m a painter, landscape painter, and I live in Jonesborough, Tennessee.
Cara Ellen Modisett: You live in Jonesborough. Where are you originally from, then?
PR: Well, I grew up in Florida and North Carolina. My father’s a painter, Roy Nichols, and he ran a summer school of art in the Smokies. And so I grew up there, and probably from the age of six to I don’t know, when I got married at 23, and then my husband, I married my husband… I married my husband – see, this is the kind of thing! [starts laughing]
CEM: You’re doing fine!
PR: Let me start that over again – I married a fellow art student – I went to Ringling School of Art – was the first arts school – and I married Tom Root, a fellow art student, and we worked in Atlanta for a while doing kind of a combination of commercial and fine art, and we both wanted to go back to school. So we sold everything and piled in our van and drove to New England and found a little art school we could study figure painting, so we studied figure painting for about three and a half years and got to really get into the mechanics of what we wanted to do. And we got to study from Aaron Shickler and Dean Keller and some wonderful, wonderful instructors, and since then it’s been fine art for both of us. And I – after art school, when I found that models were expensive and not the most available, and we were in the land of the American Impressionists, and so I started studying the landscape painting and that just led to serious landscape painting.
CEM: You were in the land of the American Impressionists?
PR: Well, there’s a colony. The school we went to is called the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts and now it’s a college, but back then it was Lyme Academy of Fine Arts and it was in a little bitty town of Old Lyme, Connecticut, and that was an art colony.
CEM: How did your painting change then, when you moved from Connecticut down south again?
PR: Well, it didn’t. It’s just developed – I’m a Southerner, and I’ve always wanted to paint the South, and so it really hasn’t changed because of region, it’s just developed as an artist gradually developed. So I can’t say that that had a great impact except that I was painting the location that I knew the most, and that I loved the most.
CEM: Tell me about your father. How much did you learn from him, and what was he like as a painter?
PR: Well, he’s – and in fact, he’s still very much a painter. He is working out of Spruce Pine…
CEM: Oh, and they’ve had some really awful stuff happening.
PR: Oh, I know. The poor little town.
CEM: Fire downtown recently…
PR: Right. My parents are located kinda halfway between Burnsville and Micaville – well, not really in Micaville – Celo, on the south Toe River, so they’re in the middle of the woods, so it didn’t really affect them. But Daddy – he went to Ringling School of Art also, in the ‘50s – so did my uncle. And besides my husband, his brother went there too, so a lot of people got their start there. So we have a family of artists. Um… Where was I?
CEM: Your father, and what kind of painter he is, and what you learned from him.
PR: Daddy is – he also trained in a lot of different – I mean, he painted figure when I was a child, and he painted landscape, and still life, and is a realistic painter, and I guess that’s where I decided to – I wasn’t headed for an art career, I was headed for a career in forestry, and I was working as a naturalist in the Smokies with Fontana Village, and I wanted to do that, and I was just – when I landed in art school, I really was just there just on a whim, just to play, but then I found that that’s really what I wanted to do and that I talent to do it. Dad – so therefore, all my childhood I didn’t take advantage of my father. But I did look at his paintings, and I’ve always loved his paintings, um, so I was in more formal study before I even got to study from my dad. I guess I would occasionally take a class, maybe one every summer, um, with him, but no direct study, but for years we’ve been peers in this and looked at each other, and he would help me with things, and I’ve looked at his paintings and studied them. So very – a whole lot, I’m sure, of influence, but not direct study with Dad.
CEM: Does he still do the Great Smoky Mountains – workshops, or the, what did you call it, that he did?
PR: That he worked in Fontana? No. It was a summer school of art, and he retired from that I guess about 10 years ago or a little bit less, and he’s been working in another area.
CEM: What was that like and what ages did you go there?
PR: That was mainly for just seasonal guest that would come in for a week or so. So he would teach people that came to stay in the resort and um, I was off doing my own thing. But that was – that was what that was, a very small little school. And painters – people that just wanted to do it for a day or people that were pretty serious about it – he had different kinds of students.
CEM: What drew you all back? Your father, or your parents and you and your family, to this area, as opposed to Florida or anyplace else in the south?
PR: Well, Daddy never left. He’s always been there. My husband and I are the ones who’ve been gallivanting around [laughs]. And we came back ‘cause our family’s here – his mother, Tom’s mother, lives across the street from us now, in Jonesborough, but she had been in Atlanta, but moved back up to be with us. It’s just a very beautiful place – we’re just homesick, we were homesick, after being in New England. We were in New England eight years, and we had a wonderful time, and there’s a lot to paint up there, but we were just basically homesick.
CEM: Could you talk a little bit about your landscape – what, when do you know you’ve found a subject, when does it resonate with you and why?
PR: That’s – that’s – I do a lot of searching, and that’s why I’m not – I don’t mean to be antisocial when I go out with other painters, but I tend to drive them all crazy because I will not settle down and paint – I look, and I look – including my father and my husband [laughs] – and it takes me – most often – days. And what I’m looking for is a subject, and I guess this goes around to your question you asked me that – (what I am I talking about?) [laughing] – I do. I go out, and I search for something with a small emotional impact. A strong mood. And the second thing I look for is strong bones, which would mean, a composition that is classical. I love composition, and so that’s one thing that I’m very, very concerned about. And once I find those two things, then I go at it, and I really want to get very specifically what is connecting me emotionally to the subject matter. So if it’s a matter of light, I’ll just be out there for weeks, trying to get that light just right. Or if it’s um, in the middle of a thunderstorm – which is something from time to time [laughing] – I’ll be hunting for every thunderstorm for a month to try to get something that’s similar that I can really project onto the canvas. So I’m – I, I paint many days in succession on painting in the field. I don’t do much studio work. That’s one probably something that might be a little different from other plein air painters.
CEM: How do you paint a thunderstorm on location without getting soaked?
PR: Well, underneath cover. I would have to arrange that according to – whether it’s the back of my minivan – now I’m painting, it used to be a truck, I had a cab on the back and I could – well, if it’s lightning and thundering I’m not out there, but afterwards I might be out there. Or right before, until it just gets too dangerous to be out there. But I do try to duplicate conditions as many days in succession as I can. And then I change my mind, of course. Some big billowing cloud will come over and I’ll change the whole idea! [laughs] But I just love being out there, I really do.
CEM: Being married to a painter – what’s that like?
PR: It’s crazy! [laughs] No, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful – we speak the same language. He’s primarily a figurative painter – he studied that in school and he had, he obviously had a gift for portraiture, so he paints, even though he does a wonderful job with landscapes, too, he primarily paints people. And so studio work is his main thing. And he’s also a musician, a songwriter, and so he always has that going too. In fact today he’s practicing at home and so we all cleared out of the house to give him some space and time!
CEM: What kind of music?
PR: It’s kind of an eclectic – it’s not exactly acoustic ‘cause he plays – he’ll play electrical, electric guitars, but he’s done a CD and is working on a second one – southern eclectic – that’s all I’ve ever called it is southern eclectic. It’s very lovely stuff. He’s obviously had this gift all along, it’s just he’s been so serious on the painting he hasn’t had time or space to do it, but he has a couple band members and a friend that has a recording studio and is devoting a good bit of time to it now. And it’s a very interesting thing to be in – he’s always been a musician, but he just never had the time and space to do this, so. It’s been a blessing.
CEM: Are you a musician as well?
PR: I once tinkered with a lot of it. I grew up with a banjo in my hand [laughs] but I don’t really – I have two children to raise, and I’m – I homeschool my daughter, and I have a four-year-old, so painting is pretty much all I get to do!
CEM: Does your daughter paint?
PR: No, she loves to dance. She loves ballet. That’s what she does, is her passion.
CEM: Do you see connections between visual arts and performing arts, then?
PR: Oh yes, I do. I mean, it’s all interconnected, and the emotions stirred by it – and now I find myself really in the midst of a lot of that – I do things for the ballet, scenery and – but it is, it’s – we find in our family, when we’re just kind of saturated in visual and performing, that it’s the same emotions that are stirred by all three.
CEM: And you live in Jonesborough, Tennessee, which is sort of the center of storytelling in the region.
PR: Right, that’s an interesting thing, very interesting – we didn’t really know about that before we were there in town, but it’s – that makes the town quite interesting and we have friends that come see us all the time because of that.
CEM: How many pieces do you have in the Blue Ridge Parkway exhibit?
PR: I believe I have five large canvases – I was going to bring some small ones in, but I don’t think they’re going to be part of the parkway show, so, five.
CEM: Can you talk a little bit about those pieces, and describe them?
PR: Sure. They’re here somewhere, and I probably need to look at them. I painted between I guess between Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain this summer. I started in about mid-June and Grandfather Mountain I believe was my first – I’m trying to remember the pieces that I have in the show – but I think I started on that first. I painted from the parkway – and it’s very interesting, ‘cause I’m used to painting in the woods with nobody, with no human contact, and the parkway is filled with people, and when they see a painter, they slam on their brakes and back up, and I’m surrounded by painting so it’s kind of working an information desk at the same time as painting! [laughing] So that’s been a little different for me this summer, but it was fun, it was really fun – I met a lot of interesting people from all different countries and places and it was quite interesting, but a little distracting, but ok! Ok. So I painted a large painting of Grandfather Mountain, and then I painted two paintings of a beautiful lake up near the Moses Cone Manor – Trout Lake – and I painted, the newest one, was at Mt. Mitchell, looking down, which is very interesting to paint Mt. Mitchell, because the clouds and the light patterns are constantly changing ‘cause they’re so high and you’re in the middle of the clouds. And so that was fascinating – I – it was kind of hard – the hardest part was making up my mind on what I thought was the most dramatic, and I plan on doing a good bit more. Now that the show’s over, I’m gonna go back up there and do a lot of work, because it’s just – there’s too much. It’s so beautiful.
CEM: What is it, why do people put on their brakes and stop if they see a painter by the side of the parkway?
PR: I guess it just doesn’t happen every day, I suppose – I mean, at my house, it’s the most common thing, in fact it’s quite boring. But I guess to people driving by – there were a couple ladies that had just been over to Giverny and looked at Monet’s garden and so an artist painting by the side of the road was just, “oh, yes!” and all the kids piled out and came around, and it was wonderful.
CEM: What do they ask you?
PR: Everything. They ask me everything – from which way, how do you get to Grandfather Mountain, to you know, why did you, why’d you put the horizon so high. So they can be some really specific questions to painting, and the kids’ questions are wonderful. Or why does my palette look like that? ‘Cause I have a horrible-looking palette, that the paint is caked high, and so that’s its own fascination.
CEM: Why does your palette look like that?
PR: I guess ‘cause I’m messy. [laughs] Last year, I painted a workshop in Virginia, and it was on the coast, and I was demonstrating, and the most-photographed part of what I was doing was my palette. [laughs] Maybe I should be embarrassed.
CEM: That’s fun. Well, what do you do – I think there’s a thriving arts community in these mountains, especially in, certainly in Asheville, and different kinds of arts in Jonesborough. Do you see trends in the southern Appalachian mountains? Are their directions that art is going – is it thriving? Is it growing?
PR: I think it will thrive and grow, but as far as a direction, no, everybody’s doing everything. And it’s – art is now so wide and what is considered art is so wide, that it’s going in all different directions, and it is thriving, yes. But I wouldn’t say there’s any direction, any specific direction.
CEM: What did you learn from your father, then, informally – what lessons have you taken away from him?
PR: Well, I would say he inspires me the most – well, he’s just a wonderful painter. And I don’t know how he does it. I watch him, but I do not know how he does what he does. He’s a magician. But what is most inspiring about Daddy is the love of it. He loves it. With all his heart. And I can understand that, ‘cause I do too.
CEM: What is it about painting?
PR: I guess it’s the process itself, um, the process of seeing and translating into two dimensions. The paint, the paint quality in itself is so exciting – being able to be outside – and he’s developed pretty much as a landscape painter too, over the years, and primarily landscape – but he loves painting out there too, even though he doesn’t like to stay out as long as I do. [laughs] Once or twice out in the field and then he’s back at the studio and that’s the way his pattern is. But being out – being able to be outside is a wonderful thing to be able to work outside. Just – I don’t know, just a lovely thing. But the love of painting, the connection with centuries of painting, and of a mind, an ancestry of painting, is a wonderful thing to learn the language slowly. I wish I hadn’t been learning it so slowly – I’ll be probably ready and feeling mature about the time that I’m ready to hang up the brush. It just takes so long to learn it, and we don’t have the academies or the schools to teach a lot of things so you learn as you go – it’s trial and error, as far as realistic painting, and um – but I’m blessed to be able to do it, but it does feel like I’m just taking baby steps.
CEM: When do you think you’ll know you’ve gotten there?
PR: [laughing] I won’t ever get there! I won’t ever get there, but I can try.
CEM: Anything else you’d like to say?
PR: Thank you.
CEM: Thank you!