Arts & Culture

Marguerite Costigan is SLO County's new poet laureate

SLO County poet laureate Marguerite Costigan.
SLO County poet laureate Marguerite Costigan.

As a girl, Marguerite Costigan spent her days climbing the cliff behind her family’s rural Pennsylvania home, following an old tribal running trail through a green, leafy landscape lush with the fragrance of wild flowers and the songs of more than a hundred species of birds.

“Walking through this landscape was a real adventure,” she recalled. “You had to cross barbed wire and electric fences, dodge Holstein bulls and farm dogs, cross fields without damaging crops, and weave in and out of the hardwood forests that lined all the fields and covered the ridges.”

Yet she’d stay out until her parents sounded the old school bell signaling her to return indoors.

Now a poet, painter and printmaker based in San Luis Obispo, Costigan says her childhood “gave me the sense of time and love and the natural environment that still permeates my life and work.”

“I would say 75 percent of my life has been spent outside,” said Costigan, who was proclaimed San Luis Obispo County poet laureate earlier this month.

“When people say, ‘What is your house like?’ immediately I think of the environment. It’s the environment that’s important to me wherever I live.”

East Coast native

Born in New York City and raised on Long Island, Costigan discovered her affinity for the natural world at age 6. That’s when a psychiatrist instructed her father, a designer and watercolorist who had suffered a nervous breakdown, to leave the city for more peaceful surroundings.

So Costigan’s parents purchased a 150-acre farm in the northern foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. They rented part of their three-story stone farmhouse to the dairy farmers who grazed their cattle on the property.

“From the time I was 6 years old, I spent every moment I could outside (on) that farm,” Costigan said. “I was very much inpeople’s way and sticking my nose in things, which I got told (off) about quite often. It was wonderful.”

When she wasn’t “flying around the fields and the farms with a butterfly net,” chasing clouds of silverspotted butterflies as “big as your palm,” Costigan would pore over the biology books in her family’s library or take art lessons from her father.

“He wouldn’t let me touch color until I was 13 years old,” recalled Costigan, who worked with pencils and ink pens before then.

Later, she helped her father design greeting cards, wallpaper and wrapping paper, an experience that encouraged her to pursue art as a career.

She turned down a four-year scholarship to study English at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., to attend the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now part of the University of the Arts).

“Between biology, art and poetry art pulled the most strongly,” Costigan explained. “I had a better idea with where I could go with art. And I knew that wherever I was, I could always write.”

Half scientist, half artist

In 1970, Costigan moved to the Central Coast with her future husband, San Luis Obispo transportation planner-turned-writer/musician Terry Sanville.

“The juxtaposition and learning in this place just brought me alive,” recalled Costigan, then reeling from her divorce from a West Point cadet she wed during the Vietnam War. “It was like being born again.”

The move gave Costigan, who spent a decade as a commercial illustrator, a chance to try a different career. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Cal Poly and worked for 11 years as a medical lab assistant at the now-closed General Hospital before retiring in the late 1980s to focus on art full-time.

“I thought I could do day jobs that involved biology and then do my art when I had free time,” she explained. “And I discovered as many artists have that you can’t do anything you love that much part-time.”

That said, she has no regrets about the time she spent working in the science field.

“I’m half scientist in terms of thinking, and half artist,” she said. “And I feel guilty whenever someone says, ‘your artistic spirit’ or ‘your artistic soul,’ because I know that I am contaminated — very happily — by the other (scientific) side.”

An active member of the Central Coast Watercolor Society, Central Coast Printmakers and San Luis Outdoor Painters for the Environment, among other groups, Costigan has exhibited her work in watercolor and plein air painting exhibitions across the United States.

Her poems, meanwhile, have been published in regional and national journals as well as anthologies such as 2008’s “Poems for Endangered Places,” which features cover and inside illustrations by Costigan herself. She’s a regular participant in the monthly Corners of the Mouth reading series and the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival.

Kevin Patrick Sullivan, the festival’s co-founder, praised Costigan’s ability to find balance between the literary and the visual arts.

“That’s one of the amazing things about Marguerite, is her work is verystrong in both those worlds,” Sullivan said. “Marguerite has that capacity to blend emotion and science and all the eloquence of language.”

Only one factor has slowed the 69-year-old artist.

In 2004, Costigan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.

Although the disorder has yet to overtly affect her art, it has taken away her ability to go on the long hikes she once relished.

“Only once in a while do I mind it, when I look up at the mountains and go, ‘I used to climb up there,’” she said. “God, I miss them.”