Peg Dalton, whom I knew from the Newburyport Art Association, recently died at the age of 97. Her obituary in The Daily News stated that she “was active as an amateur artist.” My first thought was, “That’s not right. She was too good to call an amateur.”
Identity is a tricky business for an artist. I think the hardest four words for anyone working in the arts to say out loud are “I am an artist.” Whether you call yourself an artist or not is your choice. There is no exam to pass, no degree that is required. And that is as it should be. Art is subjective and personal. It is always a balance between skill and expression. For me, true art means that the artist reveals a part of her or his soul. There is no test for that.
The first definition of amateur in Merriam-Webster is “one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession.” One of the definitions of profession is “a principal calling, vocation, or employment.” For many of us, it is the addition of money into the conversation that makes it so complicated. The word “profession” brings with it the sense of status and income. And yet money and art often do not go hand in hand. Selling art is not easy, as any artist or gallery owner will tell you. For many artists, even those who define themselves as professional, selling their work is not their principal source of income.
I call myself an artist and like to leave it at that, but if asked I would say that I consider myself a professional. As an English Lit major, I have never been able to leave my analytical training behind. I spend time thinking and writing about what it means to be an artist. I don’t think Peg ever did. Doing the work was what was important to her. In an interview with Elena Bachrach (NAA director) and Annemarie Smith (NAA assistant director) published on the NAA blog to celebrate her 65th year of service to the organization, Peg was asked what her motto was. She responded, “Don’t procrastinate.”
Peg liked getting into juried shows, and she liked selling her work. But I think it was always the joy and challenge of taking brush to canvas that motivated her. In an article in The Daily News from 1985, she said this: “I try to capture the light. I try to see what the light is doing and get that action in my work.”
In addition to exhibition in shows, she sold small pieces (sketches, paintings, pottery — all with a distinctive charm) in the NAA gift shop. She taught art classes for children for many years. I never asked her how she thought of herself, but I suspect if I had, she would have said she was an amateur. Rather than try to convince her otherwise, I would look to the Latin root of the word — amator or lover. Peg was a lover of art and even more, a lover of making art. Her life was enriched by her pursuit, and through it, she enriched the lives of others. In the interview, she said that her favorite subject was flowers. A piece of Peg’s heart was in every flower she painted.
Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord of Merrimac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.