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Nashville Scene Well-Connected

Local artist uses clothes, architecture to capture linux between past and present

By Angela Wibking

MARCH 15, 1999:  Old friends, old clothes, and old buildings are the inspirations for Peggy Snow's latest oil paintings, now on view at Vanderbilt University. The Nashville artist caught the attention of the local media last month, when she spent over three weeks on West End Avenue battling the elements and curious onlookers to paint a portrait of the Jacksonian as the old building was reduced to rubble.

Actually, Snow created three portraits of the building. The one Snow calls "The Wasteland" is a large oil painting in which the structure almost overflows the picture frame in splashes of gold and black. Another view of the dying Jacksonian highlights a huge red wrecking crane and ball as it descends upon the building. Snow's third view includes the Westboro, another vintage apartment complex, in the background; a wrecking ball looms over the building, as if to suggest the Walgreen-ing of West End has only just begun.

While all three works are included in the Vanderbilt show, human faces rather than architectural facades form the heart of the exhibit. The show features 10 portraits of Snow's female friends and relatives wearing favorite old or vintage clothes. "I've always worn old dresses," Snow says. "So do a lot of my friends. One day a friend was wearing an old pink lace dress that was really exquisite, and I got the idea for the show. Painting these portraits has been so much fun, because when my friends came over to sit for their portraits it was sort of like playing dress-up again."

Snow's subjects include her teenage niece Rachel, shown sitting casually on the floor holding a hand of cards. A long scarf belonging to an aunt is knotted loosely around the young girl's neck, and she wears a sleeveless white top and a flowing pair of slacks belonging to her grandmother. As in all of Snow's work, the artist uses rich, intense colors in unexpected combinations and a swirling brush-stroke style. It is obvious in both Snow's color choices and her brushwork that German Expressionism and the works of post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh have been strong influences; indeed, Snow mentions both as her favorites.

The artist holds a degree in art and English from Belmont University and speaks fluent German. She received a one-year scholarship to pursue her master's degree in painting at the University of Montana but left without completing her degree. While she loved the Big Sky country of Missoula, Mont., she found the academic art world demoralizing. "Criticism seemed to be the name of the game, and I got so little encouragement," she recalls.

Returning to Nashville, Snow decided to follow her own path as a painter. Her work has been exhibited at local galleries, including James-Ben Gallery in Franklin, and at the High Museum in Atlanta. The Tennessee State Museum also owns one of Snow's paintings. Snow understands that her style isn't very commercial or trendy, and she admits she's had little success selling her work through galleries. To supplement her income from direct sales and the occasional commission, the artist also works as a substitute English and German teacher in area schools.

Though it's not exactly a wage-earning endeavor, Snow also sings and plays guitar in a folk-rock group called the Cherry Blossoms. Fittingly enough, several of her portrait subjects are fellow musicians. In Snow's portrait of her friend Ann, the musician and visual artist is shown strumming an autoharp and wearing a bright-green velvet tunic that accentuates her long red hair. Another friend named Mallory, who sings with the Cherry Blossoms, is depicted in a full-length portrait wearing her mother's blue prom dress. At her feet is her dog Charley, wearing the white fur coat passed down to him by his elders.

Two friends named Emily are also captured on canvas. One wears a vintage green sweater, accessorized with her grandmother's bead necklace and earrings. The other Emily shows off a feathered hat belonging to her grandmother. Friend Anna dons a Bavarian-style costume decorated with rickrack, while Laurel models a print polyester dress of the type that was a wardrobe staple 40 years ago. But the portrait that takes the show's title most literally, perhaps, is one of 10-year-old Eva Marie, all dressed up in an adult-sized black evening dress of her grandmother's.

Then there's Snow's self-portrait called "Buttons for Buttons' Sake," which shows the artist in a 1940s red dress belonging to her mother and a purple pillbox hat of her grandmother's. The buttons of the title adorn the neckline and the waist but don't serve a practical purpose. "Like the brick and stonework you see in old buildings, the buttons are just there for beauty's sake," Snow says.

In the self-portrait, Snow holds a paintbrush in her hand, and she is pictured at work on a canvas just outside the picture frame. Behind her are the weathered boards and windows of an old house, a reference to the artist's preference for painting on site rather than from photographs in a studio.

"I love painting outdoors," Snow says in her artist's statement. "Dust, insects, and leaves find their way into the paint and leave their imprint. The wind blows off boards, and scavengers of brick come to deliver a building's deathblows. There is all manner of conversation and interaction with people living, working, or passing by, and thus I become informed about what I am painting." It is that kind of interaction, which Snow experienced so fully while painting the Jacksonian, that the artist says puts her work in the realm of performance art.

In many ways, Snow's portraits of old friends in old clothes send the same message as her portraits of old buildings. They remind us that crumbling brick, worn wood, and hand-me-down garments can connect us to our past and to each other. If we lose that connection, Snow's paintings seem to say, we lose our very sense of identity.

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