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Finding Herself Late in Life : Art: Kate Pedigo started painting 20 years ago. Now the Eagle Rock resident’s work is the focus of a retrospective at Occidental College.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If Kate Pedigo had any artistic ambition as a child, it was smothered by her junior high school art teacher, who mocked her work in front of the entire class.

“She bellowed out, ‘This line is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg,’ ” Pedigo recalls.

It was more than 40 years before Pedigo picked up a paint brush again. But when she did, at age 60, she found that she had a knack for painting and drawing.

That knack has blossomed into a full-fledged vocation that has dominated her life for the last 20 years. On Sunday, she celebrated her 80th birthday with the opening at Occidental College of a retrospective art show scheduled to run until Sept. 5.

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Pedigo is primarily a narrative artist whose whimsical paintings, such as “Give Me the First Kiss, Daddy,” “First Date” and “The Costume Party,” depict memories from her life. Painted in a naive style and colored by an almost childlike sense of wonderment, the works evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for times gone by.

Pedigo is known in Eagle Rock and other areas of northeastern Los Angeles for her whimsical canvases and was commissioned to paint a historical mural in the old Eagle Rock City Hall.

“She does not have the recognition she deserves,” said Hendrik Stooker, senior curator for Occidental College’s department of art history. He hopes that the exhibition, which features 30 oil paintings, drawings and collages, will bring Pedigo more acclaim in the wider Los Angeles art community.

Stooker compares her to Grandma Moses in style and in the fact that both began painting late in their lives, after the deaths of their husbands. “I believe that Kate can be discovered as a truly serious artist, an artist we should remember always, not just a Sunday painter,” he said.

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But Pedigo sees less import to her work.

For her, painting has been a means of self-fulfillment since her husband’s death, a way to establish an identity separate from his.

“I paint to please myself,” she said.

But she is not a driven artist. In the last year, as she prepared for her retrospective, she completed only one work. She did say, however, that she plans to spend more time painting once the show is over.

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Almost as much as the painting itself though, Pedigo said, she enjoys the people she has met through her painting and the many art openings she attends. She is also a member of several local art associations and community groups, such as the Eagle Rock Chamber of Commerce.

“I have made myself a new life in the art world that I enjoy very much,” the Illinois native said. As a painter, “you’ve always got things to do. You’ve always got something to talk about.”

During Pedigo’s 29-year marriage, her life centered entirely on her husband, a man she met while on vacation in California and who asked her to marry him three days later.

“When I left home, I thought I’d be able to do just exactly what I wanted to. It was the biggest surprise of my life,” she said.

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Pedigo cooked, made her husband’s clothes, gardened and accompanied him when he traveled to meetings in his job as a public relations representative for Yellow Cab. They never had children. When he died two years after his retirement, she was left with a giant hole in her life.

“We had been together 24 hours a day,” she said.

Pedigo began painting at the urging of a longtime friend, Carl McWade, who acknowledged that “somebody could have steered her to needlepoint and she might have done just as well.”

McWade, who had worked in advertising art for many years, was impressed with the composition and color balance of photographs that Pedigo took while traveling after her husband’s death. He encouraged her to pursue what he said seemed to be a natural talent.

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“What I saw in her slides was composition and color, the way she framed her pictures, the way she balanced her colors; it was more than just an amateur,” McWade said. “It was somebody that seemed to know what they were doing in a very learned way.”

When Pedigo went to the first session of an art class at a local park and found out how many different materials she would need, she decided that it was too much trouble.

“I thought, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not going to carry all of this around,’ ” she said. But McWade continued to pressure her and the next time the class was offered, she enrolled.

After that, she enrolled in classes at the Otis Parsons Art Institute to learn technique. It was there, standing alongside many budding young artists, that Pedigo saw her first nude model.

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“I was really floored, but I had already paid my money so I figured I better go through with it,” she said.

McWade said he believes that “the challenge of it appealed to her.”

Her intimidation later became the subject of a telling painting called “You Can’t Draw Either,” which depicts a woman holding a canvas dwarfed by giant paintings, easels and a painting teacher.

In the years since, she has completed dozens of oil paintings, and has also published a collection of pen-and-ink drawings accompanied by stories of her childhood in Illinois and Indiana. She also has hundreds of drawings, and her sketch pad is her constant companion on outings and trips.

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Pedigo paints in the tiny kitchen of her Eagle Rock apartment. She uses the sink to hold her paints and the refrigerator to hold any sketches that she might be working from. When she is not working, her apartment is immaculate and shows no signs of messy artist’s clutter.

Pedigo said she likes to paint because “you feel like you are creative.”

She also has a desire to leave a record of the past though her pictures. This same urge motivated her to write down stories her husband told her about his childhood and to make a 10-part videotape in which she talks about both of their lives. She has given a set to her younger brother and two sets to the Highland Park Library.

Sometimes, Pedigo says, she wishes that she had started painting sooner so that she might have had more time to develop as an artist.

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“I might have done real well,” she said.

For the time being, Pedigo shows no signs of quitting her art. She is in perfect health, which she attributes to steering clear of stress.

“I wear comfortable shoes and I never owed anybody any money,” she said. “That makes a lot of difference in your inner feeling.”


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