In August 1933, a talented 20 year old Tacoma artist set out for Paris. Her name was Peggy Strong and on the road between Laramie and Medicine Bow Wyoming, with her boyfriend Harry Laning driving, they blew a tire. He was unhurt in the crash but Peggy woke up with her spine severed. She never walked again but she never stepped off the road to searching for and making art.
By 1936, Strong was studying figure drawing and portraiture in Detroit with Sarkis Sarkisian and in 1938 her Woman in Green was included in the National Exhibition of American Art at Rockefeller Center in New York. From there she joined artists like Thomas Hart Benton and Jacob Lawrence as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration working in a stylized realism. In her studio work she explored an expressionistic, abstract approach to figures and began to grin and evolve her own pigments and ideas about color. In 1939 she was included as one of 60 women artists in the Golden Gate International Exhibition at the San Francisco World’s Fair.
Strong found residencies around the country but worked primarily and prolifically from her studio in Tacoma. Her portraits in particular became increasingly blended with social commentaries and observations about privilege and equity. In 1940 she completed a massive 18 foot long mural for the Wenatchee Post Office and then during the Second World War finished a set of murals on the theme of Paul Bunyan in the Troops in Transit Lounge at Tacoma’s Union Station (Now at UPS). In the late 1940, Strong moved to San Francisco, where she had achieved such notoriety. Her work began to convey moments of despair mixed with her steady reflections of the human figure. She died in June 1956 at her brother’s home in Eugene at only 44. Here’s a look at her work.
Filmmaker Gene Wakenshaw is the sister of artist Peggy Strong and here she talks about the Wenatchee mural
For more on Peggy Strong see David Martin’s essay in the Winter issue of Columbia Magazine, WSHS.