September 7, 2019—On a June day in 1947, Agnes Pelton sat at her table in Cathedral City and drew a map of a place she knew as well as she knew her own backyard. There was the ancient stone wall where the sugar maples grow, the dark woods where witches once cavorted, the pond that becomes a stream in springtime.
As Agnes annotated her map with drawings and notes, she was transported to the 54-acre farm in Killingworth, Connecticut, she purchased in 1903, when she was just 22. Scholars had known she spent time in the community, perhaps at a family farm, but until now no one knew it was Agnes’ own place. “I had no idea that she bought it herself,” says Pelton biographer Michael Zakian. “It makes no sense to me why she would do that.” Not only did Agnes buy the land, she kept most of it–and the secret–her entire adult life.
Why would a 22-year-old woman buy her own farm? Where did she get the money? Why did she hold on to it when she was older and short on funds? But before we speculate on these questions, more about the farm.
Killingworth, about 80 miles northeast of New York City, is a bit of Southern Gothic transported to New England. Local legends tell of an equine undertaker (this explains the large bones buried in Agnes’ front yard), mother-daughter witches named Goody Wee and Betty Wee, and a tragedy involving three murdered children resting in the graveyard down the lane from Agnes. Our desert artist grew her imagination in this dim and haunted landscape.
My guide to the town and the mystery is a man named Pete, who lives on Agnes’ old farm property. I’m giving only his first name because he values his privacy and wants to discourage Instagrammers from popping in. To that end, I also agreed not to reveal the exact location of the farm.
Pete got in touch with California Desert Art several years ago and told me he lived on one half of a farm once owned by Agnes Pelton. After a brief exchange, I went on to other things. No book or article had mentioned a farm owned by Agnes. Surely the experts would have known. But Pete showed up again recently with a deed signed by Agnes Lawrence Pelton. “I kinda got the feeling you thought I was full of sheep dip,” he said amiably.
Pete first heard the Pelton name in the Bicentennial year when he was just a boy. The town was working to put plaques on old houses and Pete and his friend Jeremy agreed to research the house next door. They went to Town Hall and secured a list of owners through the years; one of them was Agnes Pelton. The name had no significance at the time, he says. “She was just a name on the list of people who owned it.”
He later realized Pelton was also the name on a batch of letters his father kept in a safe deposit box. When his father bought the property in the mid-60s, there was some confusion about the boundaries. The former owner offered up a set of letters describing the land in detail. The letters were postmarked Cathedral City in the 1940s, and were signed by Agnes.
Still later, Pete recalled two men (professors at NYU) who once lived next door at Agnes’ place. One told him he found a pastel of the house in the barn, a painting signed with the initials AP. “I have training and I can tell someone with talent did this,” said Robert Murray, the owner at the time. He and his partner Arbie Dale (he died in the house; the ashes of both men are scattered on the farm) apparently never knew about the prior owner, Agnes Pelton.
The men showed Pete the painting as well as an ancient photo album that had come with the house. “From the technology it looked like it was 1910, 1920,” Pete said recently. “I can see the photographs in my mind’s eye and one of those people, I swear, looked an awful lot like Agnes Pelton.” The painting by A.P. and the photo album disappeared when the former owners died. Be on the lookout.
It’s clear from Pete’s engagement that this is more than local trivia to him. While he is not acquainted with Pelton specifically or art in general, he told me, “I do love that old place.” He was a caretaker for the professors during the winter months when the house was closed up. “Many a quiet, happy hour I spent there, reading, studying or just soaking up the 18th century vibes,” he says. “It was quite serene and even spooky at times.”
He remembers an old portrait on the wall with eyes that seemed to look back at him from different angles. “And then there were the sounds that old place would make…” Like Agnes, Pete sensed something chilly, scary and alive in the house and the woods.
Agnes Pelton was born in 1881 and by age 22 had already been wounded by family trauma. Before she was even born, her grandmother, Elizabeth Tilton, had a widely publicized affair with the clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Beecher-Tilton scandal was front-page news for years. To add to the family’s troubles, Agnes’ father suffered from mental illness and eventually died of a morphine overdose. The ensuing shame and unwanted attention taught Agnes to keep secrets–which raises the possibility that she intentionally kept her farm under wraps. It might have just been overlooked, but, as Zakian wrote: “…silence would become an important theme in her art.”
She studied painting with Arthur Wesley Dow (an influential teacher to Georgia O’Keeffe and others) around 1900. The year 1902—just before she bought the property—was significant. She was suffering from unrequited love for a female student of her mother’s, and also struggled through a severe illness. The official chronology drops off in 1902, to pick up again in 1907 when she studied with artist William Lathrop in Old Lyme (a half-hour drive from Killingworth). The years 1903 to 1907—Lost Farm years—are blank.
Most of the farmers had left Killingworth at that time, Pete says, driven out by the rocky soil. “The real estate agents of the day were marketing many of the derelict old farms around here in New York papers, probably due to the fact that there was much more money in New York and the Connecticut shoreline was only a few hours train ride away,” he said. “Maybe she just saw a newspaper ad and wanted an inexpensive getaway.”
When Agnes came to town, Killingworth was remote and rural, with no running water or electricity. Hammonasset Indians had left solstice rock alignments, prayer seats and whale-shaped cairns on the land, early art that would have connected Agnes to the original residents.
The woods had been cleared in patches for farming but remained wild and unruly everywhere else. The oaks, maples, white pine and cedar remained so dense in the 1960s that one of the professors got lost on his property and abandoned his wheelbarrow looking for home. When he later went to retrieve the wheelbarrow, it was only 100 yards behind the house.
Agnes’ paintings from this era incorporated woodlands, nymphs and glimmering forest spirits. One is titled “Wild Farm, Madison, Conn.” A couple of early directories list Pelton’s residences as New York City in winter, Wild Farm, Madison, Conn. in summer. Killingworth mail was delivered at the time to nearby Madison. As no other Pelton or Tilton family farm in the area has been revealed, I am assuming Wild Farm is Agnes’ Lost Farm.
In Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature, Michael Zakian wrote of the previously unidentified Connecticut farm: “Pelton remembered being frightened of this place and in her Imaginative paintings often used dark woods as a metaphor for deep mysteries.”
At the time, Pelton’s art was influenced by Arthur B. Davies and his Symbolist worlds of mythology, dreams and allegory. Like Davies, Pelton painted nude women cavorting in dream landscapes. Neither the undraped women nor the fairy beings would have survived for long in the harsh and exposed desert where she later lived. With its sheltered hiding places and ancient mystery, Killingworth was a perfect incubator for the artist’s animistic imagination.
Agnes gave two acres of her land as a wedding gift to her friend Alice Geiger in 1907. (The Geiger name would pop up in the 1930s in Pasadena Theosophy circles, as Alice’s son, Henry, was a popular writer and lecturer on the topic.) In 1929, she sold a section of her land to her cousin Emilie Tilton, keeping half the acreage until 1947, when she sold the remainder to Alice Geiger.
When Pete’s father bought half of the original plot in the mid-sixties, the Geiger cabin was still standing but they later tore it down and built a modern house. The Pelton house has today been updated and remodeled, with ornate stone walls and an oyster pit. A row of shagbark hickory graces the entry. John McGinnis bought Agnes’ house from Murray’s estate in 2009. When I contacted the owner recently, I asked if the names Pelton or Tilton rang any bells. “I don’t know of either name you mentioned,” he said.
In the spirit of the hunt, McGinnis went out to the old barn (now a garage) and photographed some of the graffiti in the rafters. Among many other names, there were the initials DT, 1902 (or possibly 1908). Dorothy Tilton was the young cousin of Agnes’ who posed for her Wild Farm painting.
As for what motivated Agnes, there may be a clue in one of the letters describing the boundaries. As Agnes told the buyer, you go past a spring and up a high hill covered with birches, then when you look over the side: “There is enough land to hold a whole community with privacy and charming views for everyone.” Had Agnes been thinking of a community of some sort? Was this the reason she gave two acres to Alice Geiger? It was a time when utopian and Theosophist communities were cropping up, and the famous art colony in nearby Old Lyme had just been established.
Michael Zakian, director of the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, offered his own speculation in an e-mail: “Did she have some inheritance come due around 1902—perhaps tied to her 21st birthday? Grandfather Theodore Tilton died in 1907. Perhaps he was making gifts of cash to his heirs before he died.
“Did she buy the property to get far away from her mother Florence in Brooklyn? I firmly believe that Pelton was lesbian,” he added. “She wrote of being in love with one of her mother’s students when she was a teenager. The photos of the farm often show young women about her age who are rarely identified—were they girlfriends?? Agnes played dress-up there and was photographed as a Nature Nymph.”
The author of a forthcoming novel on Pelton, Mari Coates says the fact that Agnes owned her own farm comes as a surprise. “I’m guessing that she wanted it as a place she could retreat to,” she said. “Perhaps she and her mother did just that during WWI.”
Coates’ grandparents were friends with Agnes in Brooklyn. While researching their histories and the family connection, she has come up against the mystery that often hovers around Pelton. “That is why I wrote a novel and not a biography,” she says. “The sense of mystery about Agnes–what can be known and what cannot.” (Watch for Mari Coates’ novel The Pelton Papers in April 2020.)
Why Agnes bought her farm may remain in the “what cannot be known” category. But we do know that the Connecticut woodlands remained vivid to her as she was working on abstracts in the California desert almost 50 years later. Sitting at her table in Cathedral City, Agnes wrote: “But of course it is now long ago…”
The final day for Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist in Phoenix is September 8, 2019. The Phoenix Art Museum exhibition then travels to the New Mexico Museum of Art (opening October 3rd, 2019) then to the Whitney Museum of American Art, and finally the Palm Springs Art Museum in September, 2020.