MADISON — Willis Pelton was the Johnny Appleseed of the art world, sowing his landscape oil paintings far and wide to be savored by generations to come.

Born in Starks in 1862, Pelton was known to have walked and bicycled around central Maine in the summer, trading his art work for meals and a place to spend the night. His paintings — numbering in the hundreds — still turn up in antique malls and private collections, said Abbott Meader, Oakland artist and retired professor of art at Colby College.

A public showing of more than 200 paintings from the Pelton art collection will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Madison Historical Society inside the Old Point Avenue School in Madison.

“They’re very enjoyable paintings, I think, very upbeat with a kind of wistfulness, a nostalgia for the forest and for the natural world,” Meader said recently as the paintings were unpacked for Saturday’s show. “They think he started painting in Maine in the 1920s.”

Pelton migrated from Maine to Minnesota at age 17 and settled in the little prairie town of Perham, in Ottertail County, where he was married, according to material from the Madison Historical Society. He studied art in Minneapolis before moving to Benton Harbor, where he died in October 1953 at age 92 after being hit by a car and run over by a delivery truck.

Meader said Pelton would thin ordinary oil-based house paint for his work. He was a folk artist, Meader said.


“He actually had an art school education, he was married, he had children, but he evidently would leave them in the summers, come to Maine and you would see him on a bicycle in kind of Johnny Appleseed clothing and he would paint outside.”

Meader, 82, said he thinks he met Pelton when Meader was a young boy attending the Skowhegan State Fair.

“I saw this tall, slender, elderly man, white beard, at the Skowhegan fair,” Meader said. “He had four wooden tables around him and he had these paintings on some kind of millboard. I was just fascinated. I always drew as a kid. I just think he was a guy who had a really wonderful design sense.

“It’s real, but he doesn’t paint strictly realistically. They’re almost abstract. He was very distinctively individualist. They’re like ideas. They’re like memories, kind of poetic.”

While some of Pelton’s work has been on display in Madison before, this time is different, said historical society president Judith Mantor. She said her group has 20 Pelton paintings, Meader has 10 paintings and there are 30 or 40 more in local circulation, but a distant cousin of the artist, Lon Pelton, of Windsor, Connecticut, arrived this past week with more than 100 Pelton paintings he has collected over the years.

“We brought 165 with us, and we have probably eight or 10 more at home,” Lon Pelton said. “We got them all kinds of ways. We found one Pelton down near Middletown (Connecticut) and the guy had a bunch of them and we bought them from him. We’ve been researching this and found them in antique shops. We found one in Bath — all over.”


Lon Pelton and Meader agreed that the paintings are not actually worth much in terms of monetary value, but are cherished by art lovers who recognize Pelton’s love of the scenic outdoors and his ability to capture the simplicity of nature and of days gone by.

“It’s a classic eye of the beholder thing,” Meader said. “There are some in here that are absolutely amazing. The things that he’s done — his moons — we have one whole box full of paintings with the moon about the size of a silver dollar.”

Meader said none of the paintings will be for sale. Admission to the show is free.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


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