Morning Sun
  • Patrick's People - Delightful discovery

  • It’s easy to overlook “The Pepper Pot Quintet,” the painting hanging in the lobby of the Crawford County Historical Museum. Even volunteer Mark Dulek, who has been assisting curator Denzel Davidson, didn’t really notice it for months.

    • email print
  • It’s easy to overlook “The Pepper Pot Quintet,” the painting hanging in the lobby of the Crawford County Historical Museum. Even volunteer Mark Dulek, who has been assisting curator Denzel Davidson, didn’t really notice it for months.
    “I had dusted it, but never delved into it,” Dulek said. “Then I was painting the place and took everything down. Denzel told me that the painter, Waldo Pierce, was famous.”
    Curious, Dulek Googled the painting title and the artist, and found the fascinating story of Waldo Pierce, who really had been famous, and the moving story of how the painting came to be.
    The original “Pepper Pot Quintet” painted by Pierce was used for a 1949 calendar put out as a promotional item by Pepsi Cola.
    That calendar picture was a favorite of Cecelia Theis, a popular music teacher at the old Central and Forest Park Elementary Schools, which were later combined to form the present-day Westside Elementary School. She had often performed in a quartet that included her three sisters, Barbara, Frederica and Marguerite, and occasionally they brought in their father, Charles O. Theis, to form a quintet.
    Cecelia even cut the picture out of the calendar, mounted it on drawing paper and hung it in her classroom.
    Sadly, she died unexpectedly in March of 1951. A committee was formed at Central School, headed by the late Mrs. Dom Piraro, who asked sister Barbara, a teacher at Roosevelt Junior High School, to suggest a suitable picture as a memorial for her sister. It would be paid for, at least in part, by a memorial fund collected by the children.
    Barbara didn’t think a portrait would be the thing, since students in coming years would have no memories of Cecelia. Mrs. Piraro suggested a musical subject, and that’s when Barbara thought of “The Pepper Pot Quintet.” She wrote to several businesses dealing with art, and Marguerite, who taught in Kansas City, walked for miles trying to find a reproduction of the painting. They had no success, and Barbara decided she would try to contact the painter directly.
    All she knew was his name, Waldo Pierce, and that he had been born in Bangor, Maine, so she wrote a letter and addressed it to “Waldo Pierce, famous artist, Bangor, Me.”
    Astoundingly, in a letter dated May 5, 1951, Pierce replied from his home in Searsport, Maine.
    “I am sorry about your sister,” he wrote, adding that he had no copies of the painting. “I thought if you’d like a watercolor of the quintet I could make you one for whatever the students wanted to give...I really don’t care how little in such a good cause...and they’d like to put in something to feel they’d contributed, etc.”
    Page 2 of 2 - It was like Pierce to have a soft spot for children. Married four times, he had five children and was totally devoted to them. Fortunately, he was no starving artist and well able to support such a large family. Born on Dec. 17, 1884, he was the son of a wealthy Maine lumber baron and attended Harvard, where he was a football star.
    “In 1915 he joined the American Field Service and drove an ambulance on the French battlefields during World War I,” Dulek said. “Pierce was decorated by the French government with the Croix de Guerre for bravery at Verdun.”
    He was quoted as saying that he never worked a day in his life, but he did paint every
    day of his life for around 50 years and was sometimes called the “American Renoir.” He painted a portrait of his good friend Ernest Hemingway for the 1937 cover of “Time Magazine,” and in 1938 painted two murals for the U.S. Post Office in Troy, N.Y.
    Pierce vacationed with Hemingway, but the grumpy author was no fan of the painter’s children, and in a 1930s letter compared them to untrained hyenas who never obeyed, destroyed everything and didn’t even answer when spoken to.
    “He can’t leave the children,” Hemingway wrote in the letter. They have a nurse and a housekeeper too, but he is only really happy when trying to paint with one setting fire to his beard and the other rubbing mashed potatoes into his canvasses. That represents fatherhood.”
    There was quite a correspondence between Pierce and Barbara Theis. Dulek said the museum has copies of the letters and of the evelopes, which Pierce decorated with watercolor sketches, including one of his little daughter Karen practicing piano.
    On Aug. 11, 1951, he wrote that the painting was done.
    “It’s a good gay pic and a typical chamber music scene,” he wrote. “I knew all the players and liked to sketch them while they were practicing....I hope you like the pic..it’s like the Pepsi Cola one but better to my mind.”
    Pierce very kindly donated the frame for the painting.
    “It’s a good heavy one so I’ll take care of the insurance express etc..you’ve had so much patience I don’t want to stick you with any extra expense,” he wrote.
    The painting, for which Pierce was paid $30, hung for many years in the Westside music room. Dulek said it was donated to the Crawford County Historical Museum around 1997.
    “I think it tells a great tale and is a unique artifact,” he said. “It’s one of the jewels we have out here.”
      • calendar