Theme/Style – Social Realism, portraiture, political satire, illustration
Media – Oils, watercolors, lithography, drawings, charcoal
Artistic Focus – Phyllis “Pele” de Lappe was an artist, editor and instructor committed to political activism and social justice. From the beginning of her artistic career in the early 1930s, de Lappe devoted herself to making images of working-class people, and was widely respected in San Francisco Bay Area progressive communities. Her works demonstrate both her tremendous drawing skill, especially in her ability to capture faces and figures, and her commitment to the dignity of the “common person.”
Career Highlights –
- A fourth-generation San Franciscan, Pele de Lappe was born in 1916, the daughter of illustrator and commercial artist Wesley de Lappe, who encouraged her artistic pursuits.
- de Lappe enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts at age 14, where she studied with Arnold Blanch, and as a young teenager was befriended by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who were staying in San Francisco while Rivera painted murals both at the school and at the San Francisco Stock Exchange.
- de Lappe left San Francisco to live in the artists’ colony of Woodstock, New York, and eventually moved to Manhattan, where she studied at the Art Students’ League from 1931 to 1933 and both assisted with and posed for Diego Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural.
- de Lappe returned to San Francisco during the 1934 maritime strike, which she actively supported. The series of portraits she executed the following year, depicting longshoremen who had participated in the strike, now hang in the San Francisco headquarters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
- de Lappe also drew caricatures and political cartoons for the Union’s publications, after which she continued her association with newspapers, contributing cartoons and illustrations to the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as acting as arts editor for the San Francisco Communist Party paper People’s World and working for the African-American-oriented West Oakland Beacon.
- de Lappe exhibited with the San Francisco Art Association in 1936 and 1937, and in 1939 she exhibited at the New York World’s Fair and had a solo show in Washington D.C.
- de Lappe was an art instructor at the California Labor School during the 1940s, and co-founded San Francisco’s Graphic Arts Workshop in the early 1950s.
- de Lappe married and was later divorced from lawyer Bertram Edises, who became prominent as a defender of left-wing causes. A long-time resident of Berkeley, de Lappe eventually moved to Petaluma, California in the 1990s to join her friend and fellow artist Byron Randall. While living in Petaluma, Pele published her autobiography, Pele: A Passionate Journey through Art and the Red Press.
- de Lappe’s work is in the collections of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; the Woodstock Art Association, New York; and the Library of Congress.
- Just weeks before her death, the Huntington museum in San Marino, California interviewed her for their major American print exhibition, which showcased her work and recordings of her voice. Pele de Lappe passed away in Petaluma, California in 2007.