The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Cahoon Museum of American Art, presenting from March 12 through April 20, 2002 the exhibition Peter Coes' Neighborhood: A Thirty-Year Retrospective. An illustrated catalogue containing this essay may be obtained through the museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Cahoon Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
by Cindy Nickerson
Peter Coes was born in 1946 in Springfield, Massachusetts, but his first real neighborhood was in nearby Longmeadow. There he grew up in a creative household, with a mother who painted portraits and a father who painted for fun. Peter always made pictures and some of his own toys, and he encountered only encouragement when he decided to go to art school.
After majoring in sculpture at the University of Hartford, Peter lived in a cabin in the woods in Granby, Massachusetts. By day he held a routine job, but in the evenings continued his artwork. Since there wasn't enough room to make sculptures, he turned to painting. During this early period, he often invented dark scenes charged with mystery and psychological symbolism. A girl in a pink dress runs through the woods toward the light. Young female nudes "hide" in places where they're actually quite visible, such as under a hollow river-bank. Mystical maidens in long white dresses hold candles of hope.
On the day he made his first sale -- an art dealer bought five paintings at once -- Peter left his day job behind and resolved to succeed as an artist. "Up to that point, I made art because it was just something I did," he says. "This made me take myself more seriously. This made me realize these paintings communicate with other people, too."
In 1980, Peter moved to Provincetown and his work began to reflect the light-filled atmosphere. In his new environment. he also developed a visual vocabulary that has remained rather constant through the years. Visit the neighborhoods of his creation and you're apt to see vintage Cape Cod houses, cats poking about in grass painted blade by blade, boats resting on their cradles and temporarily abandoned bicycles.The people in Peter's neighborhood are a most inevitably girls on the cusp of womanhood. They're his protagonists, radiating quiet self-possession, yet tender and sometimes dreamy.
Although picturing the commonplace, the Cape paintings retain the enigmatic mood of Peter's earlier work. A curtain blowing through an open window or footprints on the sand or snow suggest an unseen presence. Girls, cats, even houses seem to wait with an air of wistful expectancy. The season is often autumn, with falling brown leaves imparting a semi-sweet sadness. Typically, the paintings suggest stories, but allow us to finish the tales ourselves. In some works -- especially those involving doll houses and other toys -- the line between reality and fantasy magically dissolves.
Peter's excellent draftsmanship combined with his appealing linear style puts him in some realm between the realists and primitives, not really in either camp. Recently, he's done landscapes in which areas of solid color take the place of painstaking detail, but they're still Peter Coes -- no doubt. Peter has also returned to sculpture, fashioning and painting wood constructions and carvings that closely resemble his two-dimensional works in their motifs and colors. He compares it to building models. "That's another reason I like sculpture, it's more like toys, and I've never really grown up," he says.
Since 1999, Peter Coes' neighborhood has been the mid-Cape village of Cummaquid. He and his wife, Linda, live there with their pet cats. A converted barn on his Route 6A property serves as his studio and gallery.
About the author
Cindy Nickerson is Director of the Cahoon Museum of American Art. Nickerson has a master's degree in art history from the University of Denver and a bachelor's degree in art from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She is a former employee of the Cape Cod Times, where she reported on the Cape's art scene for many years. She also curated "A Century of Impressionism on Cape Cod," an exhibition which ran at the Cape Museum of Fine Arts in Dennis, MA in 1999.
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