Mr. Demerest-Smith Goes to Washington

Cicero Prep July 1, 2024
Mr. Demerest-Smith in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Brighton Demerest-Smith, a studio art teacher and fine arts master teacher at Cicero Preparatory Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, undertook an incredible summer opportunity that led him across the country to Washington, D.C. As part of his extensive research on the artist Agnes Pelton, Demerest-Smith was granted access to invaluable resources, an experience that is sure to have a significant impact on his teaching during the school year.

Agnes Lawrence Pelton was a modernist painter who was born in Germany in 1881 who moved to the United States as a child. Pelton is known for her portraits of Pueblo Native Americans, desert landscapes, still lifes, and abstract paintings. She died on March 13, 1961

Mr. Demerest-Smith with his college mentor

“My history with Agnes Pelton’s work goes back to 2009,” Demerest-Smith shared. “My college mentor, Dr. Michael Zakian, was the first art historian to write a comprehensive survey of her work in 1995 titled Poet of Nature. I studied with Dr. Zakian at Pepperdine University and became very close with him.”

Michael Zakian's "Poet of Nature" book cover

In 2019, Demerest-Smith and his wife, Chelsea Demerest-Smith, who is also a faculty member at Cicero Prep, accompanied Dr. Zakian and his wife to the Phoenix Art Museum for the opening of Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist. Sadly, Dr. Zakian passed away in January 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, and Demerest-Smith honored him by delivering the eulogy at his funeral.

Mr. Demerest-Smith with his wife and his college mentor and his wife

When Demerest-Smith started graduate school in 2022, he knew he wanted to advance his mentor’s research and continue both Dr. Zakian’s and Pelton’s legacies. His dedication led him to collaborate closely with leading Pelton expert Michael Kelley. Kelley’s insights were instrumental for Christie’s Auction House when Pelton’s painting The Fountains (1926) was sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $3.4 million in March of 2023.

The painting, "The Fountains" at MoMA

The Fountains (1926)

In November 2023, the Phoenix Art Museum granted Demerest-Smith access to their Pelton paintings, Messengers (1932) and Day (1935). “The curator of American Art has been graciously peer reviewing my research and has been incredibly encouraging and supportive of my project,” he said. “I am so very thankful to her and the Phoenix Art Museum registrar.”

The painting, "Day" (1935)

Day (1935)

One of the most significant milestones in his research came in April when he was granted permission by the Archive of American Art at the Smithsonian to examine the Pelton Papers on site. “Only one other scholar, Dr. Erika Doss, has had the privilege of handling these papers since they were donated in 1971,” he noted.

The Pelton Papers at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Demerest-Smith made the trip to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. in late June. “It was an amazing and surreal experience to handle her sketchbooks, archival photographs, handwritten poems, and letters by this important and newly remembered American artist,” he said. Handling these boxes of fragile, century-old documents was exciting but also nerve-wracking. “Some of [the papers] looked like they could crumble at any second.”

Mr. Demerest-Smith at the Smithsonian American Art Museum looking through the Pelton Papers

As a lifelong student of the arts, Demerest-Smith said he finds immense fulfillment in this work. “It is exhilarating to be in the middle of this resurgence of interest in Agnes Pelton and personally fulfilling to know I’m continuing my mentor’s work and making significant contributions to art history.”

Mr. Demerest-Smith and the painting, "Messengers"

Messengers (1932)

The insights and experiences he has gained this summer will undoubtedly enrich his classroom, where he can offer his students at Cicero Prep a deeper understanding and appreciation of the arts. This summer excursion shows the invaluable work our teachers do beyond the classroom to enhance our scholars’ classical education throughout the school year.

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