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06 Jun 2014

Assembling a Life in Art: Meet Peggy Vermeer, 89, the Founder of the PS Art Museum's Children's Art Program

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Peggy Vermeer: "It started with designing paper dolls, and when I went to high school, I discovered I could be an artist." Peggy Vermeer: "It started with designing paper dolls, and when I went to high school, I discovered I could be an artist." Brian Blueskye

When I first walked into Peggy Vermeer’s home in Palm Springs, I was immediately impressed: At 89 years old, she’s still sharp as a knife—and the artwork on the walls is simply mesmerizing.

Vermeer has quite a history as a local artist. She’s well-known for her assemblage art, although she has also done some abstract painting and papercraft. However, she’s best known for what she has given to others: She was the very first teacher at the Palm Springs Art Museum and was the founder of the children’s art program. In fact, she’s still a docent at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Peggy said she’s often recognized around town due to her time as the children’s art teacher at the museum.

“I had a man who came up to me and said, ‘Oh, Peggy. I was in your art class, and I’m 41 now.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much!’” Vermeer said with a laugh.

Vermeer’s interest in art developed as she grew up. Her mother served as an inspiration.

“It started with designing paper dolls, and when I went to high school, I discovered I could be an artist. My mother was an artist, but she didn’t practice it,” she said. “I just started doing it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Vermeer credits Robert Rauschenberg as the artist who inspired her the most. However, she was inspired to start working in assemblage after she met assemblage artist Michael deMeng in Idyllwild.

“It’s found pieces of ordinary objects put together to form an art piece,” she said. “We used to go to the illegal dump to get shot-up old things. Assemblage is putting junk together, really. It can be anything at all. It’s not following any rules; no rules or regulations.”

Sure enough, when you look at the works in Vermeer’s home, there are no rules or regulations. One of Vermeer’s pieces that caught my attention was a piece that featured a raven in a bird cage—positioned on top of a vintage Corona typewriter (below). Another interesting piece is a bust with a Walkman embedded in the chest; it also includes a door with a mirror, an image of the Mona Lisa, and … a broken crack pipe?

“My friend, Brother Andy, he found (the crack pipe) in the street. He was taking a walk, picked it up, and brought it over.”

Vermeer said she doesn’t have any problem finding objects.

“People bring you things,” she said. “Sometimes, you look around your own home, and there it is. You never know, and that’s why you can’t throw anything away.”

When I brought up a work that was in her kitchen, she told me it was assembled from a mannequin she purchased off eBay, a broken shower glass door, gesso paint, acrylic paint, plumbing sealant and some lighting. Vermeer definitely has an advanced knowledge of tools and various skills that would make the average handyman quite envious.

“When I go down to True Value, they run and hide,” she said, laughing. “I’m always asking them for impossible things. I’ve learned how to solder, and I’ve learned how to burn things with a blow torch. I learned a lot of it from Michael deMeng. I took a lot of his online classes.”

She discussed how one of her pieces made it into the Palm Springs Art Museum—and in the process, she reportedly became the first local artist to have her a piece in the renowned museum.

“Last year, I entered one of my pieces into the artists’ council shows. It didn’t win anything,” she said. “Donna MacMillan, the patron of the arts in the valley, bought it and donated it to the museum. (The judge in the contest) said, ‘It isn’t really art.’ … It had lights, a head, and he decided it wasn’t real art because it wasn’t a painting. But the museum was very pleased about accepting it.”

Vermeer is most definitely an original—and she’s not in the mindset of trying to impress typical upscale art patrons. She said she is always out to learn new things and discover how things work. She supports Debra Ann Mumm’s murals project in Palm Springs; she speaks highly of the art scenes coming out of Slab City and the Joshua Tree areas. She also has a high opinion about many artists in the Palm Springs area.

“We have some really interesting artists here in the desert,” she said. “They’re striving and struggling to get shown.”

She also said that she’s been fortunate in her life.

“I was very lucky that I inherited some money. I had a good brother, and I thank him daily,” she said. “What I earned at the museum was nothing.”

She shared some advice for those who want to take up art.

“You can’t make a living as an artist alone; you have to look at it as a hobby,” she said. “… It’s nice to sell, but it’s a struggle. When you commission something, you’ll have a wife who loves it and a husband who doesn’t like it. So you learn if you do a commission that you get paid a certain amount of money that’s non-refundable.”

When she looks back on her life so far as an artist, she said she has no regrets.

“I’m very happy I was an artist,” she said. “I’m glad I got the opportunity to work at the museum, and I had freedom they don’t have now. I couldn’t function there now, because it’s too structured.”

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