Living North Magazine, July 08
by Jill Pertler
John Peyton – Wilderness artist
A deliberate life well lived
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Henry David Thoreau
For artist and author, John Peyton, the very essence of life was found in the beauty of nature. He approached it purposefully, longing to learn the truths that surrounded him and called to his canvas – in the woods, atop a rock, around a campfire, in a cave, from the shore and on the lake.
Always, on the lake.
John Peyton trekked through the Northwoods and canoed Lake Superior throughout most of the 94 years of his life, beginning not very long after his birth in 1907. He referred to the lake as the Ojibwe do, calling it 'Tschgumi.
For Peyton, art and nature were as intertwined as the wind and water. He swam, hiked, camped and canoed – often bringing his paints and canvas along with him out on the lake or into the woods. To him, it was the logical way of doing things.
"A canoe is as well suited to watercolor as it is to hunting and fishing. I lay my paddle across the gunwales for a drawing board and have the whole lake to dip my brushes in," Peyton wrote in his 1993 autobiography, Bright Beat the Water. The book is a treasure. Although Peyton is no longer here to talk with us personally, his thoughts and insights live on through his words. After a chapter or two, it feels like you've been his companion on a weekend canoe trip – and you're glad for it.
John Peyton had a lifetime of adventures, an intimate relationship with his surroundings and an immense respect for nature, which shows in his work. Each piece has its own story, creating a richness and depth of subject matter.
"In painting a landscape I find something right about really being a part of the place: shivering or sweating or squinting into the sun or getting bug-bitten. Such small sufferings usually improve the painting," he wrote.
Peyton often took his watercolors into the woods, but when the weather became too cold, the paints would freeze. He solved that problem by switching to oils. To him, it was as simple as that. Giving up was not an option.
"I have manipulated a big, wet oil painting through the dense hazel brush, trying not to let the surface touch anything, but leaving a trail of brightly colored twigs," he wrote. "That picture looked better after it came out of the thicket than before it went in."
Peyton was an explorer – in nature and on the canvas. Throughout the decades, he was constantly changing and developing the way he created his art. He used a variety of mediums and techniques – watercolor, oils, pastels, acrylics, pencil drawings and a combination of all these. He experimented (quite successfully) with collages and worked extensively with a technique known as original prints, where he used drawings made directly on lithographic plates to create prints – many of which he then finished individually with watercolor. In the final years of his life he was introduced to and became excited about computer-generated fine art. To put it mildly, the guy never quit.
At 84 – an age when most are thinking about slowing down -- Peyton wrote his first book, The Stone Canoe, which won the Minnesota book award for fiction. He went on to publish four more books in the next three years, all the while continuing to experiment with and create his art.
John Peyton's life was like a snowball rolling downhill: modest at the start, but ending in an extraordinary finish. The journey isn't yet complete. His legacy lives on. Daughter Beryl Peyton and her family maintain the extensive collection of his art. John's granddaughter, Kris Cameron, and her husband, Doug, make his work available through Hawk Ridge Art of Duluth, which offers originals as well as Giclee prints of John Peyton's work.
Kris talks fondly of a grandfather known as "Puppy John," who wanted nothing more than to paint and write. She remembers a man who studied the Ojibwe language, was an avid outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman, historian, philosopher, environmentalist, businessman as well as artist. "He was a brilliant man," she said reverently. "He loved Lake Superior. He loved being in it in a canoe."
And he was passionate about his work. "He always felt there wasn't enough time left," Kris commented. "He was a fervent historian. He felt there were stories he had to tell – through his writing and his art. He wanted others to know what he'd experienced firsthand."
Through his work, we do.
While his paintings tell their own stories, within his books, Peyton left us with the gift of his own words and descriptions for many pieces of his art. This adds another dimension to the canvas and makes the viewing experience even more complete, if that's possible.
Peyton's adventures in the wilderness were exciting, incredible and sometimes hard to imagine. He was the first to recognize this. "Maybe you won't believe everything I tell you," he wrote. "That's all right. No hard feelings. I wouldn't swallow some of this stuff either if I hadn't seen it. But credibility should not be the concern of an eyewitness. His job is just to tell what he saw."
At age 90, Peyton suffered a stroke, which made him physically unable to hold a paintbrush and put it to canvas. "That was the end of his art," said granddaughter, Kris. "Still he kept his computer and notebook by his side. He continued to write. There are two books that we've yet to publish."
During his 94 vibrantly lived years, Peyton saw great changes in the world. It was change that many would call progress. I'm not sure John would choose that term. In the last years of his life, he embraced the new technology of computer art, while continuing to be a proponent for doing some things the old-fashioned way. He was nature's biggest advocate, and felt the good mother would win out in the end.
"(F)or right now, the boreal forest seems to be holding its own against progress," he wrote. "My lifetime has stretched across a century of violence as masses of men surged against each other, fighting for space in a desperately overcrowded planet. But the cold, beautiful wilderness of the Canadian shield rests in quiet balance. Life and death go on in good order without management by government or civilization. A tree that dies, or an animal, or a man, goes into other forms of life or is dissolved and stored in the mother earth."
At age 94, John Peyton returned to the earth. Kris tells of spreading his ashes across the land where his farmhouse stood for many years. "And then the soil was turned," she said quietly.
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." HDT
In the woods and on the lake, John Peyton lived -- as an eyewitness, as a participant and in the truest sense of the word. His art and books are proof of that. Yesterday. Today. And tomorrow.