It's been a quarter of a century since Marta Peluso's sister started what she still calls her New Book -- a curious memoir that includes entries on her fantasies, the Special Olympics and, above all, the soap opera "Guiding Light."
Peluso had shot photos of her sister before the New Book began. As the journal entries proliferated and topics expanded, Peluso realized she could create a visual accompaniment that would chronicle not only her sister's life but also the life of a woman with Down syndrome.
"She's very uninhibited," Peluso said, noting that her sister has been an eager participant in the long-term project. In fact, her sister will often ask, "Have you been working on our book?"
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Having taken 30 years already, you'd think Peluso would want to complete the project. Yet as much as she wants to publish a book about her sister, when she resigned as director of the Cuesta College Art Gallery a few years ago she found herself unfulfilled.
"I had more time to do my artwork, but I wasn't doing it as much as I thought I would," she said. "There was a feeling like: This is it? I'm not going to do anything else with my life?"
So a year ago this month, Peluso returned to the full-time work force by becoming director of ARTS Obispo, a nonprofit agency that promotes local art.
She's still trying to get the New Book project published, but she's also working to heighten the identity of ARTS Obispo, formerly known as the San Luis Obispo Arts Council.
"At my first board meeting I suggested we change the name," Peluso said. "I thought there is a real identity problem with the Arts Council because people are always confusing the Arts Council with the Art Center because the name's too similar."
It was a bold move for the new director's first meeting, and it was typical of Peluso's ambitious personality, cohorts say. It was also a hit with the board of directors.
"We all kind of sat up and went: ‘Wow,' " said board president Toni Bouman. "To us, it kind of infused the new sense of energy and vitality that we were looking for."
One of four children, Peluso grew up in Pennsylvania. In a roundabout way, her life was shaped by the Vietnam War.
In 1970, her 21-year-old brother -- a former University of New Hampshire scholarship football player -- died of appendicitis while in basic training for the National Guard in Fort Dix, N.J. (Peluso thinks he would've survived had he been near better medical facilities.) Not long after that, a friend serving in Vietnam sent Peluso a camera -- a 35-mm Petri -- along with a telephoto lens and flash.
Once she had camera gear, she decided to take a photography class. Art and English degrees would follow, along with teaching gigs at Cal Poly and Cuesta. While teaching at Cuesta, she ran the art gallery, a position she held for 16 years.
"When I first started, there was no phone and no computer or typewriter," she said of the gallery. "I was like: ‘I need a phone to do this job.' "
Peluso eventually built up the gallery, bringing in artists from outside the area to exhibit and lecture, and obtaining grants (her first, ironically, was from the Arts Council). Friend Leslie Sutcliffe, also a Cuesta art teacher, said gallery openings were always packed during Peluso's tenure, a testament to
Peluso's abilities in promotion.
"She gained a reputation throughout the community," Sutcliffe said.
Not only did Peluso push the envelope with content, Sutcliffe said, but she managed to follow through on her ideas -- as she did when she brought well-known artists William T. Wiley, Terry Allen and Mike Henderson to Cuesta.
"She took so much positive energy to the gallery and made things happen that never would've otherwise," said David Settino Scott, a local artist who exhibited at the Cuesta gallery.
As a teacher, Peluso introduced students to the works of the great photographers (Diane Arbus and Edward Weston are two of her favorites). She always stressed that students should be creative.
"I'm really hot on trying to get people to be able to create their own voice with their work, not to mimic other things they see," she said.
Her own work reflects that philosophy.
Peluso primarily works in black and white, with little manipulation. Some of her work features more typical subject matter -- like, say, an Italian street scene. Others represent loftier projects that tell stories.
The project with her sister includes roughly 80 photos, paired with more than 1,000 papers Patti Peluso has written (Marta calls them Guiding Light Papers) that capture Patti's life and the complexities of her personality. ("As my father said, it's like living with a big kid."). In some photos, Patti attends weddings, in others she holds babies or swims in a pool.
By spanning such a long period of time, Sutcliffe said, the project shows the stages of Patti's life.
"It isn't like she got to age 7 and stopped," she said. "Her life continues to evolve and change."
Marta regularly talks about her sister, Sutcliffe said, often forwarding Patti's e-mails to friends.
"Patti's Down syndrome isn't a heartbreak," Sutcliffe said. "She's kind of brought something special to Marta and Marta's family."
Because early collections of Patti's photos were serious, some mistook the portrayal as sad. So Peluso has been more careful to integrate a bigger picture, knowing Patti represents a larger set of people.
"My sister's life is not sad," she said. "She's a really delightful person."
Peluso is hoping to find a publisher for the book, but if no one offers her a book deal, she said, she'll publish it herself.
Family also inspired another Peluso project. After both of her parents had major surgeries, Peluso photographed their scars.
"I was always drawn to the photographs, but I didn't know what to do with them," Peluso said. "So I started photographing people's scars."
At first it was just scars of friends. Then word spread, and soon strangers were offering to show Peluso their mended wounds
(Peluso once left a party having taken photos of 12 people's scars.)
"I would have middle-aged women that would show me scars on their butts and let me photograph them," Peluso said.
Some scars were fairly simple; others represented frightening, life-threatening moments.
"Pretty much everyone has scars," Peluso said. "I realized that everyone has a story with these scars."
A busy schedule
Though she has prepared a mock-up of her "Guiding Light" book, and she still teaches a photography class at Cuesta, most of Peluso's work today centers around ARTS Obispo.
Before Peluso's arrival, the Arts Council was headed for several years by Kate Stulberg, who left to raise twin daughters.
"Kate was fabulous," Bouman said. "She just had her finger on the pulse of so many things, both in the county and outside the county ... so it was very hard to find somebody to replace her."
Peluso -- having gallery and teaching experience in the area -- proved a good fit.
"She's fascinating to watch," Bouman said, "because she comes up with ideas that at first blush you think: Hmmmm. Then she executes and really nails it."
The council has a $200,000 annual budget, most coming from grants, foundations and the Open Studios Tour, which spotlights artists in their element. ARTS Obispo also puts on regular Art After Dark tours, obtains funding for local programs, publishes a quarterly newspaper and runs its own gallery, ARTS Space Obispo.
Even though the work is challenging -- the staff has just two full-time and two part-time employees -- Peluso is happy to be working again, advancing the art of others.
"I think there was always that part of her that needed a connection with the public at large," Sutcliffe said.