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Creator, Protector, Nurturer: Peggy Cloy

A Life of Making Safe Spaces

Peggy Cloy has created safe spaces for others for decades, taking on the pain and tragedy of others while learning to navigate her own. The adversity that would bring depth and meaning to her art would bring purpose to her own life while enriching the lives of others. This mission began in Michigan.

Peggy Cloy sits in front of her work

Born in 1941, Peggy grew up in Midland, MI, upper middle class, the daughter of a physician. It was a happy household with two parents modeling a healthy relationship and laughter at the dinner table. She was inquisitive, introspective, curious, creative, and throughout her childhood, Peggy was encouraged to explore the complex ideas in her head, to ask challenging questions, to trust her instincts. 

I always had permission to express myself in any way,” she said. 

Her dad taught her how to drive a pickup and fly planes. An art teacher she had from junior high through high school recognized her talent and told her she could take her work as far as she wanted. It was a childhood full of safe, nurturing spaces.

Having graduated high school a year early, the University of Michigan became her training ground. She began to study the mechanics, fundamentals, and linear steps taken in drawing, painting, and sculpture. It’s like dance, she said, which she also studied at Michigan: If you know how to move your body, how to express shapes with your body, then you can do anything after that.”

Photographs of Peggy Cloy, taken over a period of decades

When Peggy arrived at the University of Michigan art school as an undergrad in 1960, she encountered sexism. There was a fear of women becoming baby machines and husband pleasers,” she said. It’s not that her all-male professors didn’t take her seriously — the parameters and barriers were unspoken. But she could feel them. I felt that I had to punch through something that was holding me back.”

Sure, successful female artists existed, but the status quo hung heavy: the chances of a young woman – this young woman, already married at 19 – making it full-time were slim. That maternal instinct would kick in at a moment’s notice.

The irony of it? The traits prescribed to women, especially then – caring, nurturing, protective, empathic – are precisely what Peggy would become. But instead of limitations, her instincts and constitution – her very womanness – became fuel.

Early adulthood was a transformative time for Peggy. Singular events and decisions helped her discover who she was, define her values and test her resilience. In her mid-20’s, out of graduate school, living in Ann Arbor and creating wildly, Peggy had been painting with a group of accomplished painters, all women. It was an education. She learned new ways to approach her work, and how enormous artwork could get, both in scope and size.

However, something beyond art sent Peggy down an unanticipated path. An older artist from the group was the aunt to two kids whose parents had just been killed. The kids had nowhere to go. Peggy and her husband had the means and it seemed like something Peggy could take on. It hit her one day: Why don’t we take them?” The space she was provided as a child she could provide to two others. She’d feel ripples from the decision for years.

By the early 70s, with her two adopted kids and a husband who’d joined the Air Force, the family zig-zagged across the country, living in Vermont then Washington state. At 31, Peggy became unexpectedly pregnant. Giving birth was transformational. I changed. Something in me changed,” she said. Some permission to really express the beauty and the tragedy around me. Life.”

But a major tragedy was right around the corner. Living in the Seattle area, Peggy had begun to establish herself as an artist. She was painting and sculpting, all sensual and full of color. She had a show headed for New York – two years of work being stored at a warehouse. On the day she was to receive her work the truck never arrived. The warehouse had burned the night before. Everything was gone.

I couldn’t paint for six months. I did not do any artwork. I couldn’t. I was just like … numb” she said. I didn’t realize I was grieving.”

While she knew she couldn’t reproduce that work, even if she tried, she learned something about herself: It was not the end product she got a rush from, it was the process, the formulating and creating.

I had come to realize that everything can be destroyed. Unless you destroy me, you can’t destroy the creative talent or creative process,” she said.

Peggy would come to prove this. Throughout the 70s, working with hand-cast paper, fiber and mixed media, sometimes massive pieces 14 feet wide, Peggy had begun to make her name. She had gallery representation. Her work hung in hotels, corporate offices, schools, and private collections. But the future she saw for herself didn’t include her husband. And with three kids, the soon-to-be-single mother would have to pay the bills and support her family selling art. More than that, she would have to start selling herself.

Counterintuitively, she dropped her gallery representation and started hustling. The very act of selling had to be creative, even theatrical at times. She knew that many who bought her art were also buying a piece of whatever they perceived Peggy was. She had charm. People were drawn to her.

Around this time Peggy began working with physically and sexually abused children after a therapist she knew approached her, thought she’d be good at it. Initially it was just one girl once a week but it blossomed as did the kids she worked with. Peggy had a gift. You listen to us and you believe us, they’d tell her. She’d take walks with them, an activity that helped them open up.

I used to walk with my father after dinner every night. That was a time to talk about things that you don’t talk about usually,” she said. One of the things I said to a lot of those kids is if you keep creating it will keep you from going crazy. Artists have all sorts of borderline stuff because of the way they think that is held in check because they process it through their art.”

Peggy would know. That power and depth she sought in her art in college was there now. But it did not come easy. She had to process not only the tragic pasts of her adopted children but the abusive pasts of the kids she worked with. And it began finding its way into her work. My art evolved because my life changed,” she said.

By the end of the 80s, having earned enough selling art to send her kids to college, Peggy was ready for her next adventure with a vision that would soon become Willowtail. The initial 40-acre property had three historic buildings, which she renovated for creative retreats and, years later, a bed and breakfast.

Her friend Lee Cloy, a property manager and tai chi instructor, moved to Willowtail from Seattle in 1999. The two soon married and Willowtail began to blossom as Lee began managing the property and its resources. After adding 20,000 acres, they redirected irrigation water throughout the property, making an oasis for birds, fish and other wildlife and led a four-year effort to save 80,000 trees from the devastating ips beetle. Peggy continued making space for other artists.

Peggy Cloy, wearing sunglasses and a hat, stands in a field of yellow flowers

By 2012 the Cloys had established the Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve and Education Center as a nonprofit arm of the endeavor to offer fully funded artist scholarships. Peggy scraped and scrapped for funding, securing grants and forming partnerships with local arts organizations and foundations.

At the end of the decade and nearing 80, Peggy sought a way to make Willowtail financially sustainable, to exist in perpetuity, long after she and Lee are gone. In 2018, Margi Gaddis, friend and longtime supporter of Willowtail, purchased the property and leased it back to the nonprofit, stipulating that the Cloys would remain on the property and continue the mission of Willowtail and its operation. Peggy’s dream would live on, though her mission to expand Willowtail’s reach is as strong as ever.

It’s like I’ve got this giant thing I’m shaping here and it’s constantly moving,” she said. It’s interiors, gardens, wild things, everything.”

You could liken Peggy’s thirty years at Willowtail to a giant sculpture or installation, one that honors and protects the land, that fosters dynamic, creative growth, one that sparks change in those who visit. Call it her masterpiece.

The mission I had in my head has never changed,” she said. Willowtail pulls in everything that I am.”

Story by David Holub.