MADISON — Willis Pelton was an artist who often walked and bicycled around central Maine in the summer and was known for exchanging his work for food and lodging.

Born in Starks in 1862, Pelton migrated to Minnesota to attend art school at the age of 17 and eventually settled in Benton Harbor, Mich., though he often returned to Maine to paint.

His story, which has been documented by the Madison Historical and Genealogical Society and others in the area, is the subject of an exhibit Saturday at the Old Point Avenue School. The Willis Pelton Art Show, hosted by the historical society, will include more than 70 works by Pelton and will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

“People like it, but at the same time they don’t respect it as much as they might,” said Abbott Meader, an Oakland artist and retired professor of art at Colby College. “He was kind of like a Johnny Appleseed of painters. When he was a younger man, he had a good education. He was married and had a few kids. No one really knows the details, but he kind of left and wandered around, painting these paintings.”

Pelton would exchange the paintings for food and lodging while visiting Maine in the summers. “He did so many pieces, and he traded them or just gave them away, that people just said, ‘Oh, they’re not valuable,’ because they didn’t have to pay a lot of money for them, though that was a long time ago,” Meader said.

Yet among some artists and local history buffs, the paintings have become valued for the way his landscapes capture late-19th-century romanticism, specifically a sense of threat to the natural world from modernization.

Several local collectors of Pelton’s work have gotten together to curate the Saturday exhibit with the works they own. The historical society has about 20 Pelton works, including some that his granddaughter sent the Madison Historical and Genealogical Society about five years ago, said Judy Mantor, president of the society.

“It started with about three or four people I knew, and I didn’t know until recently that they collected Peltons,” Mantor said. “We are amazed that there are this many in the area. It’s going to be interesting to talk to people to see how they’ve collected them.”

Pelton probably painted his first works in the late 1800s. He was active through the mid-20th century around the time America was beginning to appreciate modern art, abstract art and Cubism, Meader said. His work embraced those elements, but at the same time his subjects — central Maine landscapes — were something that many local people could relate to. He also painted portraits and scenes of life in the American West, Mantor said.

“He was warning people of the value of the landscape and the beauty of nature,” Meader said. At the same time, he wasn’t interested in painting every single leaf on a tree and instead embraced more modern techniques of abstraction, he said.

Meader thinks that like many local people, he encountered Pelton — a tall, slender man with a long white beard — at the Skowhegan State Fair as a young child in the 1940s. He had set up a table at the fair and was working on four paintings at once.

“I thought, ‘Wow, look at that guy painting these pictures,'” Meader said. “It’s one of my strongest memories of my childhood, this tall man smiling and talking and laughing with people and making these landscapes. I know that was him.”

Lottie Howes, a Lexington Township resident, also remembers Pelton from when he came to stay at her family’s farmhouse in Highland Plantation in the summers. He spent his time painting and catching fireflies with Howes and her sister, she said.

“We thought the world of him. Of course any kid does of a grown-up who does something with them,” said Howes, 81. She plans to attend the exhibit with her sister, Laurie McLean, on Saturday. They are bringing three Pelton works that belong to their family.

“I hope to see a lot more,” Howes said. “They’re really important. If somebody tried to buy them, I wouldn’t sell them. It never seemed like he had to pay a lot of attention to what he was doing, but his work would always come out nice.”

Pat Pratt, a Madison resident, said she also has memories of Pelton staying at her grandmother’s house on Old Point Avenue in the 1930s.

“It’s nice to know there was somebody here who was painting Madison and its surroundings,” she said.

Pelton died in 1953 at the age of 91 after being struck by a car and then run over by a delivery truck in Michigan, according to an article in the Benton Harbor News-Palladium.

Meader said he estimates about 500 of his paintings are still in the area.

“I would love to see him more appreciated,” he said. “We have a local artist that’s a prolific artist and who is unique. His work isn’t like anyone else’s. It’s distinctive, and it would be fun if more people admired it.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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