Pep­per is the spice of sculpt­ing life

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - BY JU­LIA WEINER

IWAS RE­LIEVED to dis­cover that an­other art critic had de­scribed 91-year-old sculp­tor Beverly Pep­per as “the bril­liant artist you’ve never heard of”. Be­fore our in­ter­view, I, too, was un­fa­mil­iar with her name, de­spite the fact that her mon­u­men­tal steel sculp­tures can be found all over the world, in­clud­ing two in Is­rael. How­ever, there are none in the UK, and al­though she has been rep­re­sented by Marl­bor­ough Fine Art for nearly 50 years, she is now ex­hibit­ing in the UK for the first time.

“I ask my­self to this day why I have never be­fore shown i n Eng­land,” Pep­per says. “It was stupid be­cause Lon­don has al­ways been a great place to make art. Robert Hughes, the em­i­nent writer, said I was not a ca­reerist. And maybe that is why you have not heard of me.”

A small, sprightly woman, dressed com­pletely in black, Pep­per walks with a stick. But she is still full of en­ergy and com­mit­ted to mak­ing sculp­ture. Nei­ther a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent two years ago, nor the death in April of her hus­band, the au­thor and jour­nal­ist Cur­tis Bill Pep­per, af­ter 68 years of mar­riage has damp­ened her res­o­lu­tion. “I’m al­most 92 and I don’t have the same phys­i­cal en­ergy,” she says. “How­ever, I have found a way to out­wit my disability. I draw and work in Sty­ro­foam, then my as­sis­tants trans­late my ideas.”

Pep­per was born Beverly Stoll in 1922 in New York. “I came from a strange Jewish fam­ily,” she says. “My mother’s par­ents were very re­li­gious. My fa­ther’s par­ents were against re­li­gion and were so­cial­ists. We had the most won­der­ful Passovers. My mother’s fam­ily had the first night, where we had a very se­ri­ous ser­vice but then en­joyed hid­ing the matzah and play­ing lots of games. The next day, my fa­ther’s mother would have us over for can­dies, cakes and ice cream.”

Her mother and pa­ter­nal grand­mother were both strong char­ac­ters, which in­flu­enced Pep­per in forg­ing her own ca­reer. “And I was the first good cook in my fam­ily. My mother was a ter­ri­ble cook. So bad you can’t imag­ine. I never knew liver should not taste like rub­ber.”

Pep­per can­not re­call a time when she was not draw­ing, a pas­sion her par­ents did not un­der­stand. “How­ever, my mother gave me the use of our base­ment so I could paint any­thing I wanted on the walls. My first great paint­ings were of Pop­eye and Olive Oyl.”

She stud­ied ad­ver­tis­ing but also at­tended noc­tur­nal art classes at Brook­lyn Col­lege. She then got a well-paid job as an art di­rec­tor for an ad­ver­tis­ing agency, sav­ing up to travel to Europe in 1949. Study­ing art in Paris, she moved to Rome af­ter meet­ing and mar­ry­ing her hus­band, who was ap­pointed Mediter­ranean bureau chief for Newsweek. “We knew Mar­cello [Mas­troianni] and Fellini, Sophia Loren and An­to­nioni. But Rome was a small town. People knew who you were be­cause there weren’t that many people — and, of course, Bill wrote a lot about them. I had a split life. When ev­ery­one talked about the par­ties we gave, it was not Beverly and Bill but Mr and Mrs Newsweek.” In the 1970s, the Pep­pers moved to Um­bria, where she still lives. She worked as a pain­ter un­til a trip to the Far East re­sulted in an “epiphany” which made her take up sculp­ture. “I went with my daugh­ter [the Pulitzer Prize win­ning poet Jorie


Gra­ham]. She was just 10. I had this bril­liant child, more cu­ri­ous than I was. That was what made me fo­cus.” It was the stat­ues at Angkor Wat in Cam­bo­dia that par­tic­u­larly in­spired her. “When I came back to Italy, I just wanted to sculpt and never stop.

“I be­gan with clay, be­cause with clay you don’t have to have any tech­nique or talent. You just do it with your hands. The work was very naïve. Then there was some wood in the back­yard which was prob­a­bly des­tined for the fire­place. It never oc­curred to me that I didn’t know how to carve. I just bought elec­tric tools from a car­pen­ter. To this day, I do not know how to carve with sculp­tors’ tools.” And when asked if she would like to take part in an ex­hi­bi­tion of sculp­tors work­ing in steel, she lied and said she could weld. And thus she be­gan to work in the ma­te­rial for which she is best known.

Many of her sculp­tures have been mon­u­men­tal in size, though those on show are mostly smaller pieces that would sit hap­pily in a home. They are all named af­ter the wives of the Cae­sars and I re­mark on how very cur­va­ceous but strong they are. “I don’t think fem­i­nine has to be soft,” she replies. ‘Beverly Pep­per – New Works’ is at Marl­bor­ough Fine Art, Lon­don W1, un­til July 31


Beverly Pep­per in her stu­dio

Livia from the ex­hi­bi­tion

Steely per­son­al­ity: Beverly Pep­per at work in Italy in 1979

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