Artist Peggy Strong was not quite 21, charming and beautiful, when she was paralyzed in a car accident.
The tragic story is made more sad perhaps by the fact that this strong-willed, hard-working and talented woman only lived to age 44.
Cascadia Art Museum curator David Martin makes sure that Strong is remembered in a comprehensive exhibition displayed today through Jan. 8 at the Edmonds museum.
As a child Peggy sketched incessantly, Martin said. She grew up in a cultured and educated family in Tacoma, where as a teen she studied with several art teachers.
After studying at the University of Washington, Peggy set out in 1933 on a cross-country drive with her boyfriend. They were headed for New York where she was to board a ship to Europe. She planned to further her art education in Paris.
A tire blew on a Wyoming highway and the car crashed. The boyfriend was mostly unharmed but Strong’s spine was severed.
Surgery saved her life, but she was paralyzed from the waist down. While recuperating in the hospital, the determined young artist carved sculptures from bars of Ivory soap, Martin said.
Back in Washington, Strong kept making art. She was welcomed into the Women Painters of Washington and soon she won national acclaim through publication of her paintings in the national Junior League Magazine.
In the mid-1930s, her mother accompanied her to Detroit where Peggy studied with noted portrait painter Sarkis Sarkisian, who became a lifelong mentor to the young artist.
Her exhibition history began in 1936 at the Seattle Art Museum’s Northwest Annual show. She exhibited frequently at SAM during the next few decades. National recognition soon followed in numerous prestigious national exhibitions.
Around this time, Strong’s work began displaying the influences of German expressionist painters, Martin said.
One of her paintings “Woman in Green” was exhibited in 1938 at the third annual National Exhibition of American Art at Rockefeller Center in New York City. Several months later she won the prestigious Purchase Prize at SAM’s Northwest Annual for “Mountain Merry Go Round.”
Also during the Great Depression, Strong entered the Federal Art Project competitions. An arm of President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the project provided work for artists who made art for public places.
Strong beat out other, better-known competitors to install a large-scale mural at the Wenatchee post office. Her father built her a lift to raise her wheelchair up so she could complete the job. The mural had six large panels and focused on pioneers, logging, ranching, orchards “and other images of economic hope,” curator Martin said.
The mural led to other public art commissions and a solo show at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1939, she was one of 60 American women selected for inclusion in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition of Contemporary Painting.
Strong later lived and worked happily doing portrait commission work for a time in New York and San Francisco, and traveled in Europe.
But paintings completed in her final years before succumbing to kidney disease frequently conveyed a feeling of despair and hopelessness, said Martin.
If you go
“A Spirit Unbound: The Art of Peggy Strong” opens Sept. 9 at Cascadia Art Museum. Free admission is offered Sept. 10 and 11 in honor of the museum’s first anniversary.
Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. On third Thursdays, the museum is open until 8 p.m. and is free during Edmonds Art Walk hours, 5 to 8 p.m. Located at 190 Sunset Ave., Edmonds. Admission is $10, discounts for seniors and students; 425-336-4809; www.cascadiaartmuseum.org.