During much of the last century it wasn’t so rare a thing for an extraordinary talent to pass through town, crystallizing a moment in art. Such work soon entered the collective memory of a community committed — for much of its history, anyway — to the creation of similar expression. The result being that the town became the recipient of art speaking simultaneously of an individual, a time, and the place called Woodstock.
Pele deLappe who died in 2007 at 91 was exactly such a gifted transient, though it’s unlikely even she realized how unique her talent was since it never brought her wealth or fame. Those who believe in fate, however, might look back over the early years of her remarkable life and recognize in these a period of what might just be called genius. Nor did such a prodigy spring from a vacuum but from a co-mingling of raw talent, patronage, the mentorship of exactly appropriate greats and near-great artists, political views denying her fashionable success while keeping her at the very edge of such, all roiling within an immense energy including — but hardly limited to — a frank sexuality. In short, Pele deLappe epitomized a capped volcano which might have lit the world but for the fact she was 1) committed to the downtrodden, i.e. a radical; 2) soon married and repeatedly pregnant; and 3) yes — a woman in a man’s world.
Pele’s “moment” here, which spoke loudest of what she had (that Woodstock didn’t) took place when she was only 15 in 1932. Though never considered a beauty, she was tall, shapely, long-legged, darkly tanned and often dressed in “island” garb accentuating her exotic nick-name. Lethally intelligent, Pele was politically idealistic and thought art should speak of and for “the people.” She was gutsy, funny, flirtatious and, if that wasn’t enough and anyone actually bothered to investigate her talent, there was little end to it. Subtextually, Pele was also just the sort of “fresh meat” the hungry lions of Woodstock’s art colony traded among themselves as amusements. But instead of directly admitting to such, Ms. deLappe, years later coyly recalled an apt couplet, “In Woodstock there is said to be/Virgins unto the age of three.”
Newly arrived from San Francisco, she was flattered, excited, and nervous that July at being sponsored in the second show of the season at the Woodstock Artists Association. Her teacher, mentor, and a member the WAA’s exhibition committee, Arnold Blanch, discovered her while teaching the previous year at The California School of Fine Arts. According to Pele, Arnold “overlooked her politics,” when choosing her painting “Fitting Room” [location unknown] for exhibition. The opening reception, of course, served as Pele’s introduction to Woodstock as a whole.
In a review of the exhibition in The Overlook, July 16, 1932, Wendell Jones wrote: “In Pele de Lappe’s ‘Fitting Room’ we see a well composed and technically pleasing painting. It is an extremely accomplished piece from a young painter. In spite of her youth she has shown evidence of a strong and sensitive talent.” And in the same issue from a review of the show by Hobson Pittman: “Attention should be given to the sensitively composed ‘Bouquet’ by Helen Rous, ‘Yellow Trees’ by Doris Lee and to Pele de Lape’s [sic] ‘Fitting Room.’”
A mere 15 months earlier Wes deLappe, a heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, third-generation San Franciscan aetheist of an illustrator (who’d taught his daughter to draw caricatures on his knee) yanked Pele out of junior high at 14 and sent her off to art school with the vow, “No kid of mine is going to be a commercial artist!” Of course, he was, himself, just such an artist and, as such, had facilitated Pele’s first pay-check of five dollars for a drawing she knocked off at age eight. Her mother, Dot, was a pianist who eventually encouraged her daughter’s interest in jazz. The immense $200 a month allowance the deLappes soon made available to their only child’s education would disqualify her from WPA grants, while affording Pele art school (and travel) smack dab in the middle of The Great Depression.
The California School of Fine Arts was just a few blocks from her home on Russian Hill. And while Miss deLappe was at first shocked to behold a “liberated” drawing class featuring a nude woman model, it was not very long before her own virginity was forfeit to an associated art instructor’s further liberation. Herewith a precedent was set as Pele developed a penchant for “rubbing up against talent” confident some of it would wear off. Much did. However, for readers of an all-but-unknown memoir Pele wrote in later life, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain from exactly who, among many gifted men she “bumps up against,” she gleaned similar inspiration.