President M. Lee Pelton narrowed his eyes as he studied a challenge unrelated to the business of running a college: making sense of abstract art.
“The geometric shapes, for me, suggest some medieval castle nestled in a landscape,” Pelton said, as he scrutinized the painting that hangs above the fireplace mantle of the presidential mansion on Beacon Hill. The work, by Portland, Ore. artist Tracy MacEwan, is a vibrant mix of sundry colors and waving shapes.
“This, to me, looks like a moat,” said Pelton, pointing to the forms he saw on the canvas. “This is a green lawn.”
Pelton is no stranger to art. He estimates that he has been seriously collecting pieces for 15 years, though he noted that even as a “starving grad student” he was investing in artwork.
Most of the art that hangs in Pelton’s Boston abode comes from the Pacific Northwest, where, until coming to Emerson last year, he spent 13 years as a president of Willamette University in Salem, Ore. He obtained many of the paintings from the Mary Lou Zeek Gallery, an art dealer there.
The artwork is diverse, but most pieces are dynamic, vivid in color and texture, and hosted on large canvasses. They provide a contrast to the refined elegance of the Beacon Hill interior that surrounds them.
“There’s a formalism of Boston in the room,” Pelton said, “but there’s also the playfulness, the informality of the Pacific Northwest.”
The most prominent artist in Pelton’s displayed collection is Oregon-based painter Robert Schlegel. Schlegel’s paintings — a house on the precipice of a grass-covered cliff; a comically oversized, round bird raising its tiny leg; a calf against shades of yellow infinite — all were a lively blend of colors and bold impasto set by thick brush strokes
“The northwest landscape is lush and multihued, so it is green year-round, but you also get these rich colors,” said Pelton, fondly gazing into a Schlegel. “These are northwest colors.”
“He [Pelton] enjoyed the flavors Bob [Schlegel] has. Bob does a lot of layering, and that layering brings more textures to the piece, more depth to the work,” said Mary Lou Zeek in a phone interview. Zeek sold Pelton the eight Schlegels that now hang in his home, as well as works by Tracy MacEwan and John Van Dreal. Zeek could not recall precise figures for the artwork she sold to Pelton, but said single pieces from these artists typically sell in the $2,000 to $3,000 range.
Not all of Pelton’s displayed paintings have the soft mixing of the concrete and abstract found in Schlegel. Above a landing of stairs hangs a chaotic work reminiscent of Jackson Pollock that Pelton believes is by an artist named Billy Bronco. Wild lines and abstract shapes coalesce on the chaotic canvas as a convacade of colors splatter and drizzle around them.
“I was attracted to the playfulness of it, and the irony there,” Pelton said of the painting, which he acquired at an art show.
At first, the painting seems wholly abstract without any representational forms. But on a closer inspection, Pelton pointed out that the lines and shapes form toes, noses, skulls, and other pieces of human anatomy.
Two considerably tamer works, by Salem, Ore. painter John Van Dreal, dwell in Pelton’s dining room.
“These have a kind of formality to them, so they work well in this dining space,” Pelton said.
Both paintings are still lifes of roses in glass vases, which Van Dreal made more alluring by playing with the flower’s reflection in the vases’ surface.
“He plays on the realism of Dutch paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries,” said Pelton.
While private art collections are often considered the realm of the rich and famous, Pelton emphasized that collecting art is something that should be — and is — accessible to college students.
“What I would say to students and young people is that you can start a small collection inexpensively at an early age,” Pelton said.
“You don’t have to think of art as being this overwhelming, expensive project. You can go to these great art galleries in Boston and get inexpensive works of original art,” said Pelton, “I highly recommend it.”