Pepper, American sculptor who made Italy home, dies at 97

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Beverly Pepper

FILE — In this Dec. 2, 2014 file photo U.S. artist and sculptor Beverly Pepper poses with her latest sculptures part of the ‘Curvae in Curvae’ series on display in front of the Ara Pacis Museum in downtown Rome. Pepper, an acclaimed American sculptor, died Wednesday at her home in Todi, Italy. She was 97. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

MILAN (AP) — Beverly Pepper, a fixture of the Roman “Dolce Vita” and renowned American sculptor who made Italy her home and backdrop to many of her monumental steel creations, has died. She was 97.

Her son, John Pepper, made the announcement on Facebook, saying she died Wednesday. No cause was given.

Beverly Pepper and her husband, the late Curtis Bill Pepper, a long-time Southern Europ e bureau chief for Newsweek, were part of Rome’s “Dolce Vita,” of the 1950s and 1960s. Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Francesco Maselli were frequent visitors to their Rome apartment, along with Kirk Douglas and Gore Vidal.

“The Dolce Vita wasn’t so sweet,” John Pepper told the Italian newspaper Il Foglio in a story published Friday. “It’s true, Fellini, Antonioni and Maselli came over on Sundays. But it was very simple. They were all poor. My mother made spaghetti and meatballs, and ragout.’’

He said Douglas, who like his mother was descended from Russian Jews and who died on the same day as her, often flirted with his mother.

Her talent for cooking translated into a series of cookbooks, including “See Rome and Eat,” that her son John recalls helped support the family during lean days.

Pepper spent decades in the Umbrian hill town of Todi, south of Florence, where she attracted an international crowd and was the center of a series of initiatives, including a sculpture garden inaugurated just six months ago. The area was wittily dubbed ‘’Beverly Hills.’’

Born Beverly Stoll in New York City, Pepper became art director of the Decca record label at age 19 and by 24 was running a Madison Avenue advertising agency, making the princely sum of $20,000 a year.

She set out to be a painter, studying in Paris with Fernand Leger and Andre Lhote. But Pepper began forging sculptures in Italian steel mills in the early 1960s after visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia and being struck by the inadequacy of painting. She was influenced both by Khmer statuary and Japanese Haniwa funeray statues.

‘’She was very versatile, moving from marketing to cooking to being a hostess to going to a very male world, which was tempering steel and welding, which she initially didn’t know too much about,’’ said long-time friend Dennis Redmont, former Rome bureau chief for The Associated Press.

Best known for monumental outdoor sculptures, hersoaring columns of weathering steel, which with time acquire a rusty patina, graced major public areas such as New York’s Federal Plaza. Her sculptures were included in exhibits in Paris’ Palais Royal and Florence’s Fort Belvedere, where she was the first American and first woman to be shown — not for the first time.

A 1953 story by The Associated Press reports that one of her paintings, showing an elderly couple eating from the same dish at a long dining room table, was shown in Rome alongside works by Goya, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso. Pepper was the only American and the only woman asked to exhibit.

Moved by the 2009 earthquake that destroyed the city of Aquila, killing more than 300, she built an open amphitheater, dubbed Amphisculpture, for the city, which was inaugurated in 2018.

‘’She was a brilliant conversationalist,’’ Redmont said. ‘’Until a few months ago, she was regaling people with stories about her movie experiences and her adventures working in the Italian art world.

Pepper was survived by her son John, a theater director and photographer, and daughter, Jorie Graham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, as well as three grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Her husband, Curtis Bill Pepper, died in 2014.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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