Manitou Music poster features kaleidoscope of color

By Katie Dunn

Sun contributor

“Color is my day-long obsession, joy, and torment.”

Those are the elucidating words of French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet (1840-1926).

The Leelanau Peninsula, with its saturated colors and resplendent landscape, has long been a magnet—and perhaps, even a torment—for countless artists. This magical corner of northern Michigan offers a rich, resonating color palette: from the azure blues of Sleeping Bear Bay to the chartreuse fields of Port Oneida to the lavender orchards flanking Center Highway.

George Peebles of Grand Rapids is one such artist who has long been drawn to Leelanau County, and who so masterfully depicts its terrain with his vibrant, bold oil paintings. In recognition of Peebles’ enormous artistic talent, the Glen Arbor Arts Center (GAAC) has selected his work, Empire Bluffs, as the image for the annual Manitou Music Poster.

The idea of pairing the GAAC’s annual Manitou Music Series Manitou with a poster featuring a painting of an iconic local scene began percolating in the early 1990s. Essentially, its purpose has been to promote and commemorate the Manitou Music Series, as well as to raise funds for the art organization.

1994 marks its nascency, and Suzanne Wilson, Glen Arbor’s venerable, pioneering artist, was the very first to have her work enshrined in the poster.

Historically, the GAAC’s Manitou Music Poster Committee selects original paintings that offer a quintessential view of the Glen Lake region and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Since its inception, the Manitou Music Poster has included—and, in a sense, anointed—such creative luminaries as David Westerfield, Joan Richmond, Richard Kooyman, Kathleen Dunn, Greg Sobran, Jim Frixen, Stephen Duren, Margo Burian, Lou Heiser, Sally Wille, and most recently, Randi Ford, among others. Now, Peebles himself resides in this rarified creative space, and rightfully so.

Empire Bluffs—like the whole of Peebles’ body of work—is distinctive for its blazing, almost electric color. It is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of sorts. Indeed, the employment of high-octane hues is very much Peebles’ signature. That his work is so deeply color-driven is especially remarkable given that Peebles is colorblind. Specifically, Peebles experiences deuteranopia, also known as red-green colorblindness.

The National Institute of Health (NIH)—through the National Eye Institute (NEI)—defines deuteranopia as an inability to perceive green light, leading to difficulties in distinguishing between reds, greens, yellows, and oranges. It is the most common category of color vision deficiency.

Happily, Peebles does not consider his colorblindness a disability; for him, it is not an impediment whatsoever to his creative process. Rather, Peebles exudes a certain nonchalance about—and also an abiding comfort with—his colorblindness. Peebles is very straightforward about it: “I paint because I love to. The colorblindness does not interfere with my joy of painting. I’m not missing out on anything. I am comfortable in my own skin.”

Remarkably, Peebles was not diagnosed as such until he was 34 years old—more than a decade and a half after studying art at the Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University in the 1980s. It was somewhat of an epiphany for Peebles, and yet he was characteristically very much nonplussed.

“It explains why color class in college was a challenge,” he explained. “Painting class was just as much a challenge, using palettes—I didn’t understand the color concept. As a child, I couldn’t see the apples and cherries on the trees when the rest of my siblings could. When [observing] things every day, it just becomes the norm. I love my color combinations in my paintings.”

For Peebles, his colorblindness compels him to approach his palette in an intuitive and experimental manner.

Peebles does not paint in plein air or from photographs. Instead, to capture the essence of the natural world, Peebles paints from memory and from his own imagination.

“My paintings just create themselves,” he shared.

“George Peebles’ red-green colorblindness adds an interesting twist to his story,” said GAAC gallery manager Sarah Bearup-Neal. “The understanding of color—one’s facility for using it to express a detail, dimension, emotion—is fundamental to the making of visual art. When one’s perception of color is compromised or challenged, one wonders: How does the artist do their work? George Peebles doesn’t let his colorblindness get in his way—at all. He fills in the red-green blanks with color choices that are all his own, and brings new vibrancy to a place in the park so many people have experienced. He makes us look at it anew.”

To be sure, Peebles is not the first painter to experience colorblindness. William Turner (1775-1851), one of Britain’s most distinguished landscape artists, may have been colorblind. It has been a persistent topic of speculation and scholarly discussion. Most characteristic of Turner’s work are his innovative techniques, use of vivid colors, and dramatic landscapes that seem to capture light and atmospheric effects in uncharted ways—particularly with some of his later works.

Likewise, Peebles’ Empire Bluffs is rendered in exceptionally unexpected color choices that ultimately make his paintings wondrous and compelling. Peebles’ use of color may very much be novel to those with typical color vision because his perception of certain hues differs. This difference has led to Peebles’ selection of colors based on their contrast and luminance, rather than their conventional associations or naturalistic appearance. Peebles’ unique employment of color adds an extraordinary dimension to his artwork. It prompts viewers to see the landscape through Peebles’ own visual experience, challenging their perceptions of this very familiar, iconic scene.

Bearup-Neal expounded on why Empire Bluffs resonated so deeply with the Manitou Music Poster Committee that it warranted Peebles’ place in the pantheon of Manitou Music Poster artists:

“Although George Peebles’ painting is a depiction of a very familiar vista in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, he communicated its dual personality—a sprawling dune path on top of a steep slope. One misplaced footstep, and it’s a dramatic roll down the dune. George Peebles sets up some good tension that way. But his color choices and his signature, sweeping brush strokes, brings something visceral to the viewing. You can feel the dune and the lake. You remember the heat and the wind on top of that open, exposed bluff. And, obviously, the view: There’s no shelf life on the enjoyment and awe one experiences on the Sleeping Bear Dunes. George’s painting is a reminder of that.”

Peebles is an authentic Michigander, born and raised in Grand Rapids. The youngest of seven children, his parents introduced him to the Sleeping Bear Dunes in the early 1970s.The Peebles family “camped on top of the Sleeping Bear Dunes for many summers,” Peebles said.

From those formative, indelible memories of the Sleeping BearNational Lakeshore, Peebles’ affinity for the area grew. He now generously shares his singular vision of the Sleeping Bear Dunes shoreline in all its natural glory with his iconic painting, Empire Bluffs.

The GAAC’s selection of Peebles’ work for the 2024 Manitou Music Poster powerfully demonstrates that colorblindness—like any disability—is not necessarily a hinderance. Rather, it can be a profound asset.

“Generally speaking, people who are engaged in creative work often push through the impediments; they’re compelled to practice and make–because creative work is part of their DNA,” Bearup-Neal said. “Think about Beethoven, who began to experience hearing loss at age 28, and was deaf at age 44. Over time, he compensated by developing techniques to feel the notes and music in body. And there was all the music in his head, too. I’d bet he had no choice but to make his music, and we are that much richer for his drive.”

As is the GAAC’s 2024 Manitou Music Series for George Peebles: richer for his abounding, unique creative drive.