by Grant Moser
The career of Mt. Airy artist Peter Paone, 77, has been all about telling stories through his art. With his first Philadelphia show in 30 years, “Wild Flowers: Paintings and Drawings,” at Woodmere Art Museum, he is telling a story about himself that no one else has ever seen.
Paone doesn’t remember a specific moment in his childhood when he decided to become an artist; it was simply who he always was. He remembers how important the Philadelphia Museum of Art was to his mindset as he grew up; he feels fortunate to have been born and educated in Philadelphia. “The Philadelphia Art Museum is personal; it has a selective viewpoint as opposed to [museums in New York] that are storage units. Philadelphia had a major impact on me,” he said.
Paone won a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art (now the University of the Arts) in 1954 and earned a BFA in Art Education. After graduation he spent eight years in New York, three years in London, six more years in New York, and then he moved back to Philadelphia in 1975. He had numerous gallery shows in major cities and won a Guggenheim Fellowship during that era.
However, his success over the years was a result of a lot of hard work, according to Paone. “I didn’t wait for it to come to me. A career of an artist doesn’t happen in one exhibition. If you’re not out there in the world as well as your own studio, no one is going to know you exist. Painting every day and being devoted to your work is absolutely marvelous, but it’s not going to generate the interest you need to continue to work.”
Paone worked at various times as an art appraiser and consultant, putting together art collections for private collectors. He taught at art schools, most notably at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for 31 years, from which he retired in 2009. Through it all, he kept painting.
When William Valerio, director at Woodmere, offered him an exhibition, Paone knew he needed a lot of work to fill the space at the museum. The only theme he had that would fulfill that was his flower paintings, which he had never shown to anyone before.
It was 33 years ago when Paone decided he wanted to do work that was all his own, that would not be subject to outside opinion or comment. He wanted to work on something that he could evolve by himself, that would allow him to keep going somewhere new. He continued to work and show other paintings, but these paintings were just for him. He chose to paint flowers. Sort of.
To him, flowers are perfect as they are, and he didn’t want to compete with that beauty or try and reproduce them, so he made his own flowers. He “reinvented flowers,” although these works are far from still-lifes. He likes to think of this series of paintings he worked on for over three decades as “reality reassembled.”
“For a work of art to be successful, it has to be extremely appealing and extremely disturbing,” explained Paone. “That combination is what works. I didn’t want ‘Oh, nice, nice. Let’s go to lunch.’ I want to draw the viewer in because the picture doesn’t tell the whole story, it allows you to say something about it.”
One of the paintings in the exhibition (“Peacock”) is a vibrant, colorful side view of the bird, its tail feathers tucked behind it and resplendent with a lush covering of flowers, fish, people and more. Paone painted it as a representation of life’s journey. A person accumulates things throughout his/her life: good things, bad things, memories, things we want, things we don’t. Valerio noted that Paone in Italian means “peacock,” so he refers to this piece as “a self-portrait.”
Another painting is “Sins of the Vampire,” an ethereal painting with grasping hands and bright flowers. Paone said these are offerings to the vampire, who promises eternal life. These are similar to the offerings made in a Catholic church. It is about the need to belong and to belong forever.
“In both of these paintings, I started with a story, my story. Then I interwove that with the symbolism of the flower. I hope that people find in my work that it’s more than flowers. And if they have to find out why it’s more than flowers , whether they know it or not, they’re beginning to tell a story around the picture.”
Paone chose to finally show these “secret” paintings specifically because it would be at Woodmere. Not only is it the only museum that commits itself to showing only Philadelphia artists’ work, but it was only at a museum that he would be able to show the full evolution of the work over the years. All the pieces fell into place at the right time, he said: the space was perfect, the staff was great, and he was ready to show his work. Out of the 200 pieces in this flower series, 86 were chosen for the exhibition, most of them by Valerio.
“When you see the paintings, you’ll see that the surfaces and the way I drew with paint and color is a whole different skills-based concept than traditional values. I wasn’t trying to accomplish traditional, I was trying to formulate a skill that would tell my story,” said Paone, who works in his studio every day from about 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.