This enterprising, improvisational mode extended to her art practice. In the 1950s, Pepper painted mostly at home, often using her young daughter as a model. Memories of Pepper and her exacting gaze recur in Graham’s poetry, from the young woman holding a basket of lemons calling out to her child in “Cagnes-sur-Mer 1950,” her voice seizing “the small triangle of my soul,” to the elderly artist holding mortality at bay with her charcoal and paper in “Mother’s Hands Drawing Me.” If Pepper “wasn’t the kind of mother who did bedtime rituals,” as Graham puts it, her work ethic was thrilling (and influential). The two remain close and speak daily by phone. “If I had to choose between a force of nature and a warm, fuzzy presence, I’ve been accustomed to love the force of nature, and to get my nurturing from there. But I ended up with a force of nature as a daughter,” she says. Graham recalls how her mother, dressed for an evening out, would return to her basement studio while she waited for her father, burning holes into her long white leather gloves. Sometimes she enlisted her daughter’s help with the soldering. “I would just hold whatever it was and close my eyes, and I was terrified of the little sparks that strike you,” Graham remembers. The artist and the poet have collaborated once: When Pepper designed the “Sacramento Stele” (1998), four 18-foot-high monoliths surrounded by redwood trees outside the California Environmental Protection Agency building, she asked Graham, a vocal environmentalist, to contribute. The result, “Also Blooming,” has never been published and exists only in the words incised into the pietra serena stone.
AS SHE TELLS it, Pepper became a sculptor during a seven-month trip through America and Asia in 1960 with her 10-year-old daughter. She was 37, and she needed a fresh perspective. In Japan, mother and daughter dove with pearl divers; in Varanasi, India, they waded the Ganges amid the ashes from the funeral pyres. But what especially gripped Pepper’s imagination was the mid-12th-century Khmer temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, engulfed at that time by the elephantine roots of banyan trees. For 10 days, Pepper returned to the site to sketch the trees grappling in a kind of death match with the ancient carved heads and doorways — sculpture not simply as object but total environment, in concert with time and nature. When Pepper returned home to find that a grove of elm trees had been felled near her home in Rome’s Monte Mario, she bought them all and carved them into writhing biomorphic oblongs.
Two years later, Pepper was among a handful of sculptors chosen, along with Alexander Calder and David Smith, to participate in the Festival of the Two Worlds’ exhibition “Sculture Nella Città” in Spoleto, for which the selected artists fabricated new work in Italian steel factories. There was one problem — Pepper didn’t know how to weld. No matter: She approached a local blacksmith and learned from him. In the factory in Piombino, she worked three shifts a day alongside industrial laborers, who called her Bev. On many subsequent factory floors — smelly, hot, dirty — Pepper found her artistic being: She discovered the potential of Cor-Ten at U.S. Steel in New Jersey in the 1960s; she experimented with ductile iron at John Deere in Moline, Ill., in the late 1970s, where she made her iconic “Moline Markers Ritual” (1981), 13 delicately textured totems, a chess set for deities.
Another lesson from the factory floor: the ability to speak, with directness and humor, across social barriers. This is a skill that she would rely on in public commissions, which, in those predigital days, involved flying in — dressed, as always, in jeans and cowboy boots — and making a presentation in front of a board. “Beverly is like a flexible stone,” says Dale Lanzone, who has worked with Pepper over the past three decades on more than a dozen major site-specific works, public and private, currently on behalf of Marlborough. “She has the appetite to remake the world.”
This is a story not of “dogged determination” but of how the force of her talent might be powerful enough to explode our own assumptions about an era.
Sixty years after her fateful trip to Angkor Wat, Pepper can no longer lift heavy tools or walk the terrain of her earthworks, yet that appetite to create and the scope of her vision remain undiminished. So what propels an artist in winter to go on, largely unrecognized, through the decades? As she approaches her centennial, Pepper is undeniably still making some of the greatest work of her career. How, and why, does this woman of steel do it?
But perhaps these are simply the wrong questions to be asking of an artist who has always had to find ways to realize her grand projects without wealth or fame. Perhaps defying the insurmountable obstacles she faced as a woman to create her body of work is its own triumph. As in monumental sculpture itself, perspective is everything: the faultiness of what we call art history, with its false dream of meritocracy, reflects the limitations of the people who create it; it is, after all, not carved in stone but a living chronicle to be reinterpreted, blasphemized, blown up and rewritten.