Treasures from the Vault: Frances Pestow

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Happy Halloween! The FWMoA holds numerous spooky (and not so spooky) artworks in the permanent collection. Some of these works are intentionally imbued with the Halloween spirit or represent festivities and customs surrounding death or the afterlife, like Día de los Muertos, that are completely separate from Halloween. Other works connect in more abstract ways: to people, places, or things we deem scary. How would we classify the painting, below, by Frances Pestow?

A painting of a colorful cemetery with white obelisks and a tree.
Frances Pestow, American, 1908-1983. Graveyard. Oil on canvas. Gift of Wray C. McCalester, SC62.2018. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

As someone who enjoys walking in Lindenwood Cemetery & Nature Preserve, I am not especially spooked by cemeteries…at least, in the day time! An elongated canvas to match the long, towering obelisks and headstones, Pestow’s graveyard plays on the human reaction to color and light. Her graveyard bursts with headstones in muted tones of red, yellow, blue, and green in direct visual opposition to the normal grey, black, or white. Though white obelisk’s break up the inscribed headstones clustered on the hillside, their greyish tone brightens the headstones despite their darker hues. A single tree stands to the left, splitting the blue sky with its tiered branches and providing the interplay of light and dark from its shadowy overhang. The names and dates are not discernable on the headstones, though Pestow has included allusions to them. Her thickly applied paint creates a rougher texture, such as one might expect when touching a headstone carved from rock, and lends authenticity to the scene.

No flowers adorn the headstones and no offerings, flora or otherwise, lie in front of them. In fact, there are no people at all! Despite the desolateness, the composition feels neither haunted nor grim. Pestow’s use of light and shadow, paired with the overlapping sculptures, creates depth and height, leaving the viewer feeling as if they are standing near. Seeking, perhaps, solitude and contemplation, Pestow’s work evokes a quiet space that welcomes introspective thought. We seem to approach from the crest of another hill, suggesting the graveyard extends behind us instead of in front of us. In fact, the red triangle in the background could be the rise of a roof, perhaps of a church. It also, however, bears a marked similarity to a mound of dirt, which could just as easily suggest a freshly dug gravesite. If so, the work takes a turn for the creepier!

In the end, it’s all in how you look at it! Do the colors brighten up the scene and scare away the spooky? Or are you giving any graveyard a wide berth? If Pestow had chosen a black and white palette, how would the overall mood change? What about if a service was taking place? Or hands and feet were thrusting upward from the ground to pierce the blue sky? Pestow’s scene appears more like a study of light and shadow, using the tree and headstones, than a creepy rendering of a cemetery.

Recognized for the Modernist style she brought to her abstracted figures, still lifes, city scenes, and landscapes, not much is known about Frances Pestow, which isn’t uncommon for women artists. Trained at Notre Dame University, the University of Indiana, and the South Bend Art Center, she was active in the Indiana art scene in which she lived and worked, exhibiting at the Hoosier Salon and the Midwest Museum of American Art in Elkhart, Indiana. 

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