This fall at Woodmere Art Museum, visitors are experiencing paintings that the artist hid for decades, not only from his colleagues, but also from his friends.

"When I had guests or friends, I would turn [the paintings] to the wall," Mt. Airy artist Peter Paone said of the paintings that make up Woodmere's latest exhibition.

"I wanted them to evolve in a way that they couldn't evolve if they went public," the artist told NewsWorks during a chat in the Woodmere gallery before "Wild Flowers: Paintings and Drawings by Peter Paone" opened on Saturday.

World-premiere work

Now, the show features 86 never-before-seen works in Paone's flower series. The bulk of the work (spanning about 35 years) is acrylic, but watercolors, drawings on Mylar, prints, and one oil painting also appear.

The paintings that were a secret for so much of Paone's acclaimed international career seem like still lifes at first glance, but all sorts of strange and alluring creatures come teeming out of the engrossing multi-layered pieces.

Strange still lifes

"I don't work from anything. I work from memory," Paone explained of his arresting, occasionally sinister compositions. There are no models or still-life scenes assembled in his studio, and there are no flowers in vases for reference. In fact, most of the flowers in this series aren't flowers at all. Some of them are animals, insects or human hands; others are squirming anemone-like creatures, birds, feathers or ribbons.

Worms, locusts, flies, moths and spiders crowd out the "flowers" in some images, or sometimes become them. With a touch of Van Gogh, Picasso, Commedia dell'Arte and something that is all his own, Paone often uses well-known rhymes, fables or fairy tales as a jumping-off point for the weirdly familiar narratives of the work.

"The viewer not only tries to figure out what the story is, but what is the flower?" Paone said of his "reality reassembled" styling. "A traditional flower painting is a still life. And there it is. It doesn't go beyond that. There's no difference between a flower painting and a painting of three lemons."

"I didn't want to copy nature, I wanted to join it," the artist added. 

A local artist's rise

Paone was born in South Philadelphia in 1936. He graduated from the University of the Arts, then known as the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, in 1958. Along the way, he became an assistant to the legendary Philadelphia printmaker Benton Spruance. His career soon drew him to New York, and he traveled extensively throughout Europe as he continued to paint and show in galleries across the world, also working in art forms as diverse as ceramics, sculpture, ivory miniatures and most notably, prints.

"Everyone's dying to go to New York, and then everyone's dying to get out of New York," he said. His own residential exodus came in the mid-1970s, when he returned to Philadelphia and settled in his Mt. Airy studio.

But it's been a long time since the local public has been able to see his work in person. His last Philadelphia-area show was at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1983, where Paone also taught for over 30 years.

Galleries as art stores

Meanwhile, he's seen a sweeping change in the art landscape over the last few decades. Galleries used to foster one genre or artist for years on end. They were crucial advisors to fine art collectors and other industry arbiters. Today, galleries have become less focused, according to Paone. Collectors have grown more independent, and auctions are on the rise. Now, "galleries are stores that sell pictures...if they don't have it, they can get it."

"I think it's just a different generation that wants constant change," Paone added. "Now, if you last two seasons, you're pretty good."

Mother Goose and vampires

As to his own work, the artist takes a long view. Several of the pieces, including those in his Mother Goose series, took 10 years or more to develop. Early versions of the paintings, featuring the artist's meditative adult rendering of different nursery tales, might have been cast aside for a decade before Paone resurrected the boards for flower paintings, applied directly on the older paintings. These dual images inform each other, as the looming figures add a human element to the otherworldly bouquets.

In two paintings of his "Sins of the Vampire" series, the vampires are "alluring women" instead of pale guys with fangs. They rise out of a field of flowers, insects and clutching hands. These symbolize offerings, like Catholic prayers given in hopes of eternal life. One vampire's body fades away as she dons a cape of bees and moths, clutching tiny, naked breasts in graceful hands.

His 2003 "Peacock," the centerpiece of the exhibition, is "somewhat of a self-portrait," since Paone's last name is derived from the Italian word for peacock. The delicate feathers that top the bird's regal blue head are actually thorns, and its body merges not into a blue-and-green sweep of feathers, but a riotous, miraculously suspended garden that harbors all sorts of creatures. It's a metaphor for life's journey and the things we accumulate along the way.

Woodmere Art Museum's "Wild Flower: Paintings and Drawings of Peter Paone" runs from Sept. 28 through Jan. 19. There will be a free open house reception on Saturday, Oct. 12 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information or to register for two upcoming lectures with Peter Paone, visit the Woodmere's website.