Excerpt from interview with Rochelle LeGrandsawyer, May 13, 2010
Rochelle LeGrandsawyer Let’s begin by talking about how you chose Pomona College.
Peter Shelton I was born in Ohio but I grew up in Arizona. I was the kind of kid that was always making stuff. I don’t know that I necessarily thought of it as art, but I was always intensely involved with building and making things. I was also the son of a disabled vet and a working secretary mother. They’d been educated at Oberlin College but had the shit kicked out of them by World War II. So the big emphasis was on education. Even though my father was a man of poetry and art, there wasn’t much encouragement to be an actual artist. I loved anatomy as a kid, so my father would say, “You like art and like to draw, so maybe you should be a medical illustrator.” And my mother’s father was a small town doctor, so I ended up at Pomona as a premed student.
But there were so many distractions. In my freshman year in the fall of 1969, it was complete chaos. There were several antiwar moratoriums, and I watched students trashing the Claremont McKenna College’s ROTC offices. The whole school kind of broke down at one point because of the antiwar stuff. It was really hard to keep focused on class, so kids just stopped going. The faculty got together and asked, “How are we going to get these students through it?” Basically, at the end of the second semester they switched everything to “Pass/Fail” because people simply weren’t focused on school.
RLG Was protesting really significant for Pomona students at the time? What I found in the Student Life newspaper was very mixed—sometimes it seemed like students were rioting 24/7, and sometimes it seemed like everyone was sunbathing on the quad.
PS Honestly, I wouldn’t say a majority of students were actively involved in protesting the war. There were some extreme people out there advocating destruction of school property, and many others who were marching and doing other things peacefully. But in some ways things just carried on Suzy Cream Cheese normal: there were fraternities, the football team, that sort of thing. But I also remember being part of a pile of people protesting in the middle of Frary [Dining Hall]. We had stained ourselves to look bloody, as if we were a pile of dead bodies. Some students actually came up and dumped peanut butter and jelly on us in contempt. What we were doing was a little intense, but on the other hand, it showed that not everybody held the same view. But now, in retrospect, I wonder whether all people think they were a part of antiwar activities in some way.
RLG When did you get involved with the art department?
PS I started taking art classes right away at the same time as my premed classes. The very first semester I took a fundamentals class from Mowry Baden; I think it was called Issues in Art. Mowry basically went through periods of Modernism up to the present day and described the central values and interests of those eras. Then, we would all make something in the mode of those kinds of works. Second semester, I had Guy Williams for drawing. He had us making drawings with typewriters. No models! I ended up taking art classes all the way through college.
In my sophomore year, I went off to eastern Kentucky with a man named Guy Carawan, who was the folksinger in residence at Pitzer College. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Guy and a couple other people were very involved with adapting new lyrics to what had previously been working or religious songs. For example, he is credited, along with folk singers Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton, and Zilphia Horton, with the lyrics for “We Shall Overcome,” which he taught to the young people of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], and it spread from there. Anyway, Guy put us in these home-stay situations; I lived with a couple of different coalminers way up in the mountains of Kentucky, where we learned about mountain culture, music, and politics.
In my junior year, I wanted to work in the theater department because it was really an amazing place then and the community of it appealed to me. I acted in Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” and designed a play for Stanley Crouch during my junior year. So after premed, I was briefly an anthropology major my sophomore year, a theater major my junior year, and I finally went back to the art department in my senior year.
RLG It doesn’t sound like art was particularly central in structuring your Pomona experience.
PS Honestly, I think my education was the whole mix of things. Initially, I found my experience in the art department to be pretty dry. Mowry was a very articulate guy and a real character. He would show up wearing these funny jumpsuits that he got at Sears, with Beatle boots, his head shaved bald, wearing octagonal glasses, and smoking cigarettes in this very urbane way. He was a wonderfully provocative teacher with a personality that seemed a little tough to me at the beginning.