Peter Strindberg, valley artist, dies at 80

Alex Schwartz
Peter Strindberg, left, joined a group of artists in the San Geronimo Valley that call themselves the “Bagel Boys.” He dove into abstract painting after retiring from a career as a contractor.  
11/16/2017

Peter Strindberg, a San Geronimo general contractor and abstract artist who lived on the links, often got together with friends over a tin of sardines and found solace in promoting empathy, died on Sept. 26 following a battle with cancer. He was 80 years old. 

Since moving to the valley in the mid-1970s, Peter built hundreds of homes across the county through his company Strindberg & Co. He wore a full goatee and when he wasn’t overseeing the construction of multimillion dollar houses, he was often found at the driving range of the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course, where he once renovated the course’s clubhouse. He turned his attention to art in his later years and expanded his expression with the help of a group of artist friends he cultivated in the valley.   

“At home, Peter did the cooking and cleaning. The copper pots above his stove were carefully polished,” John Wheelwright, a longtime friend, said. “As of late, he focused almost entirely on sculpting and painting. He painted as though he thought he’d never get it all done. Perhaps he had seen the future.”

The Swedish name Strindberg translates to “offspring of the mountain,” and it described Peter’s ancestors, who migrated from the Swiss Alps into Stockholm in the 18th century. Peter’s grandfather, the prolific playwright August Strindberg, was a lifelong influence.

Peter was born on Aug. 4, 1937 in Rockville Centre on Long Island, the fifth child of eight. His father, Robert, worked as an oil burner technician and his mother, Elsa, died shortly after the birth of Peter’s youngest sibling. 

Along with his brothers Willard and Paul, Peter went to live with Herman and Christine Dettleff, a German couple who lived in New Hyde Park. Peter was around 5 when the Dettleffs moved upstate to Walden and bought a house along the Wallkill River. According to Willard, the couple never officially adopted the boys, leading them to forever feel like foster children.

The brothers fished, picked berries and explored uncharted islands up the river in rowboats. One time, in true Tom Sawyer fashion, they collected wood to build a hut they could crawl under to “live our fantasies,” Willard said. 

Peter’s older brother Paul was mentally handicapped and Peter would defend him from bullies who would steal his hat to toss into a tree. Peter later said this defensive role led to pugnacious behavior in his teenage years, but he learned to shed it during an introspective experience following an experiment with psychedelics in his 20s.

In high school, Peter and a friend got into trouble for burglary. The Dettleffs felt they couldn’t manage him and sent Peter to live with his father, who had remarried, in Hartford, Conn. There, Peter found himself again butting heads with the law and a judge gave him the ultimatum: jail or enlisting in the service. Peter chose the Navy.

He was stationed at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, where the Hindenburg had fallen two decades earlier. After he got out in the mid-1950s, he moved back to Hartford to live with Willard. They both worked in nursing care for the Saint Francis Hospital before Peter left for a stint as a successful shoe salesman. Willard remembered how his brother excelled socially.

“Peter made a lot of friends and people tended to like him,” he said. “He did a certain amount of reading, but he always had a lot of friends. He was also an extraordinarily good-looking guy. I can recall being at a party; Peter walked in and I observed that almost every woman turned around to look at him. (Our father was that good-looking, too.) So Peter had a lot of ladies.”

By 1964, Peter had his seamanship papers and indulged his passion for travel. He spent six months in Hokkaido, Japan before settling in India for almost two years. His first stop in a new city, he later told a friend, was always the American embassy, where he would schmooze with the receptionist. 

“I’d bring her coffee or tea once a week, so they liked me,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “They would find me all these different things.”

In India, he worked on the set of the 1969 Bollywood comedy “The Guru” as a stand-in for British actor Michael York. Later, his charm scored him a ride back to the States on a ship. Indian culture, particularly its cuisine, left an immense mark on Peter, who would continue to cook Indian food throughout his life.

Upon his return, Peter moved west and attended community college outside Carmel. He soon relocated in Marin, where he met Nancy Gilboy while they both attended the College of Marin. The couple later married and raised two sons, Nils and Rorik.

Peter began to explore his artistic sensibilities at the College of Marin, especially in sculpting and glass blowing, but his desire for a more financially stable existence led him elsewhere.

“He was living in a house with a bunch of hippies,” Willard said. “In this interim, he got involved with carpentry. Peter was very enterprising in this.”

Peter moved his family to the valley in 1975 and rented an apartment from Mr. Wheelwright along Papermill Creek.

“Peter was a world traveler and that’s what he liked doing, but he realized he needed something steady,” Mr. Wheelwright said. “He came to the valley to build things and as he gradually got better, he passed his test for a contractor’s license.”

Peter’s venture into contracting began with shingle installation, but his skills soon grew. If he came to a problem that he didn’t know how to solve, he’d cut work early for the day to research the issue and return the next day to complete the job. Willard said Peter refused to make money off of his workers and instead offered them “sweat equity,” with the wealth of a job spread equally among them.

“Peter treated people well, both honestly and fairly,” Willard said. “A great number of young men worked with him and he encouraged their growth. I think they modeled themselves after Peter because they felt they were well nurtured. He was funny in his own way because of the way he treated things humanely; he didn’t talk down to people. He admired the Mexican workers and what they did and how hard they had to work for what little they got out of it. When they worked for him, he didn’t want to make that the case.”

Strindberg & Co. proved successful, but the work left Peter unfulfilled. He confided in his brother that he wanted to pursue art—and, upon his retirement, he did. 

“About five years ago, a storm hit the house and I knew Peter was a contractor,” Harry Coen, a Woodacre artist and friend, said. “While he was doing the work, he saw my art studio and that’s how it began. It was love at first sight.”

Peter joined a group of artists in the valley who call themselves the Bagel Boys. They meet every Tuesday morning at the Woodacre Market to discuss art, share stories and encourage each other’s work. Peter once shared an idea for a piece he envisioned, called a “sound sculpture,” that replicated the melody of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as wind passed over it. He would invite the group to his house to unveil his latest paintings, inspired partly by Jackson Pollock.

The gang’s newest member, Karen Worth, remembered the first time she met Peter, earlier this year. “We were drawing together and my first impression was, ‘Okay, he has a bald cap, he’s a physical guy and he mentioned playing golf,’” she said. “I thought he’s not going to be interested in me. But I was wrong about that. He was very interested in what I had to say in a very genuine way, not just a polite way.”

Bagel Boy Jack Kamesar met Peter a few years ago and was quickly struck by his demeanor. 

“He talked about being Swedish, his biking and writing. It was really quite interesting, and then suddenly, I could feel his character,” Mr. Kamesar said. “You felt drawn to it. But he was kind of in the sideline. He would stand off to the side a little bit and didn’t talk about his art form. The darkness  in him was always somewhere around the corner. Not secret, but the feeling that it’s hidden.”

Peter was diagnosed with tongue cancer and underwent surgery last summer. He was determined not to let his illness dictate his life, forbidding his brother Willard from nursing him, and his moxie impressed his friend and arts collaborator Skip Henderson. 

“We were all here [in Woodacre] one day, when Peter came in after he had surgery on his tongue,” Mr. Henderson said. “He called our attention and said, ‘I do not want you asking me how I am. I’ll let you know what I want you to know.’ That essentially enabled us to continue our relationship with him without imposing his illness in the middle of it.”

Last September, on a Tuesday morning as his friends gathered at the market, Peter passed away in his sleep inside his San Geronimo home. 

Peter once explained his approach to life using the framework of T.S. Eliot’s 1949 play “The Cocktail Party.” He called it a touchstone of his life, and it had to do with both aloneness and empathy. 

“I cried when I read that for the first time—it’s only a play—but I cried because I realized that each and every one of us are alone,” Peter said. “The distance between you and I is like the distance between stars. We’re separated by our dermis, so it’s very difficult for us to understand what other people are going through. That’s what T.S. Eliot was discussing: the loneliness of being a human being. But on the other hand, to help and to give is one of the best things a person can do for his own self-esteem. The most selfish thing one can do is to give.”

 

Peter is survived by his wife, Nancy, his sons Nils and Rorik, his brother Willard and many nieces and nephews.