San Francisco’s de Young Museum hosts an unusual residency over the coming month, as artist Peggy Gyulai turns an exhibition space into an artist’s studio, in which visitors can watch what she describes as “a living, breathing, working artist interpreting the lyrical qualities of music on canvas”.
Peggy’s works of art are, literally, inspired by music, but this doesn’t mean that she simply paints to the sound of background music. Her involvement with the music is far deeper. “Music is the source of inspiration for my paintings,” she says. “Forged by the composer from air and sound, music has motion, shape and emotional substance. As I paint, I listen over and over to understand the essence of each sound world, and try to feel its particular beauty, emotion and its unique character. I listen for architecture and form. Then I try to put all of that on the canvas.” Peggy’s paintings, therefore, are artistic interpretations of the pieces of music which fill her studio while she’s working.
This unusual artist chooses to work primarily with great masterworks. “They’re the ones that speak the most clearly,” she says. “There’s so much material, so much to draw from, so they’re easier to work with. A simple tune is much more difficult,” she explains. “It’s more refined. Eric Satie’s Gymnopedies, for example – there are no bells and whistles – the music is very pure, and there’s no hiding behind flashy brush strokes.”
Peggy, originally from the East Coast, was studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when she experienced her ‘lightbulb’ moment. She discovered that “the way we perceive a piece of music unfolding over time is not unlike the way we experience a landscape unfolding as we see it”. She describes how later, when working in her own studio, “ideas about combining abstract painting and landscape gradually merged into a style of painting, with music as both a subject, object and inspiration”.
Her breakthrough came when the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned a series of large paintings in celebration of its Centennial Season in 1999-2000. Subsequently working with the Philadelphia Orchestra Education department, Peggy presented to audiences at the Philadelphia Museum of Art – where she was artist-in-residence in the Art Futures program in 2002 – and also to audiences at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
Peggy has had a number of solo shows at Philadelphia’s Pentimenti Gallery, where she collaborated with Steinway Artist Rieko Aizawa to produce a collection of works inspired by the music of Debussy, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art for a show inspired by holy music. Since relocating to San Francisco, Peggy has exhibited at the SF MoMa’s Artist Gallery, at the city’s Nieto Fine Art Gallery, and from 2010-2012 she was Painter-in-Residence with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Peggy currently has works in 86 private and corporate collections worldwide.
Each week of Peggy’s current residency at the de Young will have a different theme, so the paintings that develop will reflect the music to be streamed into the ‘studio’, and she’ll be working on more than one painting at a time. The theme for the first week is Reflections, featuring the music of Debussy – which has already inspired many of her works – as well as the music Erik Satie, and jazz pianist, Bill Evans.
For the second week, Peggy has chosen Night as her theme. Her plan is to work with the virtual choir of Grammy® Award-winning composer and conductor, Eric Whitacre, on his composition entitled Sleep, and also with a piece by Bay Area contemporary composer, John Adams – his City Noir which he wrote for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Weeks 3 and 4 will feature an interesting mix – music by Bela Bartok and by violinist, Gloria Justen, formerly Concert Master of the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra and member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who now plays for the San Francisco Symphony. Gloria will collaborate with Peggy to create a new work for an electro-acoustic ensemble, which she will both write and perform. In addition to actively working on this piece in open rehearsal, Gloria will also perform a selection of the Bartok Violin Duos with one of her students, and selections from her own compositions.
In the historic tradition of artists’ and musicians’ compositions in the form of painters’ etudes and miniatures – Peggy will create a series of small paintings inspired by Bartok’s Bagatelles – she has 7 of them already in progress.
For the final week of her residency, Peggy plans a grand finale – two works for large orchestra – paintings inspired by Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Debussy’s La Mer. She will revisit the great wave of La Mer, having previously created a large version of it during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Centennial Season.
During the entire residency, Peggy’s ‘studio’ will be a workspace in every sense of the word – just like her “everyday messy studio”, she says. Anything and everything from which she derives inspiration will be thumbtacked onto the walls – ideas for the future, works by other artists, various items which she’s had on her studio wall since she was at art school.
There’ll be a video of Peggy’s collaboration with members of The Musical Arts Quintet, and an activity section where anyone – of whatever age – can sit down with the materials provided, and allow the music to inspire them to create their own works of art. The results are likely to be fascinating.
Peggy Gyulai’s residency at the de Young Museum in San Francisco runs from July 31st to September 2nd.
All images © Peggy Gyulai