CHATHAM – After painting for more than 80 years for others, what does a successful artist do when she is just painting for herself. She paints for others.
Marguerite “Peg” Falconer, 94, has a half-finished painting on an easel in her studio. When it is finished, she hopes to give it as a gift.
That is typical of Peg Falconer, according to friends who have known her for years.
“She’s a giving person. She was always giving back to the town in one way or another,” said Richard Costello, co-owner of Chatham Squire, who has known Falconer since she moved to town in 1968. “She’s as good as gold.”
When asked to describe what Falconer was like back then in the ‘60s, Costello is characteristically blunt. “She was hot,” he said.
He remembered her as seeming very European, wearing an Oriental smock. “She’s always been elegant. Elegant is the word,” he said.
The two business neighbors shared customers because people would sometimes come in to the Squire to have lunch while they thought about buying a painting. “If you bought a painting from Peg, it was the best investment you ever made. You couldn’t ask for better. She’s a wonderful artist,” Costello said.
Her realistic paintings of picturesque scenes around Chatham and the rest of the Cape reflect what today looks like an idealized view of the region. There are no strip malls in a Falconer painting. It is that old Cape Cod of song and memory that customers over the years, many customers over many years, wanted to buy as a cherished memento, an image they would take home with them to remember the Cape.
Many of her favorite scenes—of Mill Pond, Oyster Pond and Stage Harbor Road in Chatham, and Back Beach, now known as Lighhouse Beach—look not too different today than they did back then, but some of those landscapes have been forever altered by development or erosion.
“Most of the stuff she painted is gone,” Costello said.
After all these years in town, Falconer is well-known in Chatham for her artwork and for being, as her longtime friend Barbara Pelletier put it, “a very congenial person.”
Pelletier, a weaver, opened a gift shop in Chatham, the Blue Giraffe, around the time Falconer opened her gallery.
Pelletier said the key to Falconer’s success was her style of painting. “She really has a terrific eye and she’s able to capture the quality of light here on the Cape. She basically did Cape Cod scenes; something people could put in their house to remember being down here.”
Falconer said she looks closely at the light when she picks a scene to paint. “On a foggy day, you get a lot of light from the sky.” She said she finds “the contrast of sunlight and shadows very interesting. It creates a design of contrasting colors.”
Her daughter Susan Eldredge attributes her mother’s success to ”the integrity around her work and her devotion to her art. She’s never deviated from it. She’s always been true to it. She really was dedicated heart and soul to her art and that’s the key.”
For her part, Falconer is typically modest about what attracted people to her work. “They seemed to like my style of painting. A lot of people would say they liked the tranquility of my scenes and I enjoyed painting something tranquil. I liked painting different sources of light. The Cape light is wonderful.”
She added, “I feel fortunate that I could earn a living doing something I wanted to do.”
On a recent morning in Falconer’s studio, which is set up with two easels and numerous paintings, finished and in process, stacked along the walls, the artist, dressed in one of her favorite smocks, held a palette knife up to that one canvas and looked at it straight on.
The colors in the painting, heavy with burnt Sienna, are a darker palette than she is known for. The lines in the painting are looser, more playful. It is a scene that she remembers with details furnished by her imagination, just as she has often done.
Her eyes are not what they once were, but she can still face off with a painting, scrutinizing it and planning adjustments and additions. She talked about an area she wants to adjust and some perspective elements she wants to fix.
“I usually work from dark to light, but I might put in the sky first,” she said.
On her palette, she has her favorite colors: veridian green, cadmium red and ultramarine blue squirted out and ready for use. She arranges them just so, descending from darks to mediums to light. It’s an order she knows well, so she can easily choose color she wants even if she can not immediately see the name of the color on the tube of paint.
This squaring off with the canvas, the decisions about what will go where and how she will give interest to the viewer, these are all decisions she has made many times before.
“It’s so nice to let the viewer find their way,” she said.
Falconer opened her gallery on Chatham’s Main Street in 1968.
From June 15 to September 15, the gallery was open seven days a week from 10 AM to 10 PM and sometimes later. If there was a customer in the studio, they would stay open.
For more than 30 years, Falconer kept that schedule, painting 12 hours a day in the gallery as curious passers by would come in and ask about her process, her daughter said.
Early Chatham Memories
Born in Boston in 1919, Falconer grew up in Quincy. Her father worked as a compositor, setting the type at a printing press. Her mother was very artistic and Falconer remembers they painted together when she was a teenager.
Her cousins lived in Chatham and her family used to visit every summer. Her earliest memories of Chatham from those childhood summers was going out in her uncle’s boat. It was a rough trip and her mother, who was pregnant with her younger sister, had to lie down in the boat.
Another time, she remembers there was a shipwreck offshore and the children went to the shore to investigate the wreckage. “I was always going to do a painting of it,” she said.
She always liked art. “I always liked drawing, sketching and coloring,” she said.
She has fond memories of her second grade art teacher, Miss. Ash, who encouraged her in her work.
“Her soft voice and brown twinkly eyes, slight of build, I just loved her.” She couldn’t wait for the day once a week that the art teacher would come to the class.
Years later, she saw Mrs. Ash again when her former teacher, by then elderly, came into the gallery unexpectedly.
Though about 50 years had passed, Falconer knew immediately who it was.
Miss. Ash’s brown hair was now all white.
“I recognized her walk and her voice,” Falconer said.
She also remembers what Miss. Ash said. “She said, ‘Marguerite, I am so proud of you.’”
Falconer entered drawing contests as a child and won many items, including once winning a bicycle.
Because of her gift for painting, her parents signed her up for classes at the Museum of Fine Arts where she studied from about age 8 to 11 years old.
“I was in seventh heaven there,” she said. “I especially liked the Egyptian gallery and also the Japanese art.” It was during that time that some of her watercolors were accepted into an exhibition in London. “I was disappointed they never gave me back my watercolors,” Falconer said.
During the Depression, her mother worked as a seamstress, sewing wedding gowns and trousseaus for brides.
To help with the household finances, Falconer held a number of jobs during the Depression. She worked for the Quincy Milk Board, where she handed out chits for milk, and for John Hancock printing.
During the war, she worked as a secretary at Quincy Shipyard and later as a nursing assistant. It was around this time that she met at church the man who was to become her first husband Charles Falconer. He served overseas in World War II, and when he returned from the war, they moved back to Quincy and later Braintree.
In those years, Falconer became more and more involved in her art. During one class, her instructor suggested she teach art, and she began teaching at the Brockton YMCA and evening art classes in Quincy. She began to teach even more classes, in Bridgewater and North Quincy. At an art exhibit of her and her students’ work, a friend suggested she exhibit her paintings in a gallery.
Through family on the Cape, she learned of a new gift shop opening on Main Street in Chatham and she asked if they would like to try selling her paintings for the summer. It turned out a retail space was available to rent. By the end of that first summer, the paintings had sold out, and Falconer’s life in Chatham was sealed.
“I knew I’d have a market here if I stayed here,” she said.
She rented gallery with an artist friend from Quincy, Daniel McElwain.
They called the gallery, McElwaine Falconer Studio and split all proceeds fifty fifty.
On summer days, she would rise early to drive around the Cape, looking for new scenes in paint. She would be at the gallery from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. painting those scenes and running the gallery.
Falconer taught classes in the winter, which became more and more popular.
Deciding that her town needed more arts activities, she was one of the founders of the Creative Arts Center in Chatham. She also volunteered in various ways over the years, including serving on the Chatham Architectural Review Board, being a judge for the July 4 parade, and helping at her church, St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Chatham.
Her devotion to the town stemmed back from happy childhood memories, said her daughter.
“She always had a love of Chatham, since she was a child. It was a very special place for her; and I think that comes through in how she captures Chatham in her work,” Susan Eldredge said.
Thinking back on all the people who came into her shop over the years to buy paintings, one of Falconer’s favorite memories is of Robert Redford, who at the height of his fame in the 1970s, purchased a painting of a barn that she had displayed in the gallery’s window.
Falconer said the irony is that the barn in the painting was located behind the home of famed stage and screen actress Julie Harris who had a home in Chatham.
She remembers Redford calling her at the end of the day asking if she wouldn’t mind staying a little bit late so that he could come by and pick up the painting.
She told him she wouldn’t mind at all, not at all.
Falconer’s work can be be found at Gallery Antonia in Chatham.
– Laura M. Reckford