The taxi driver is hopelessly lost. As we crawl up the winding road in a leafy Washington, D.C., enclave far from the bustle of the capital, we search in vain for the house in my photograph, a pristine gray building with a columned portico. And then we spot it, discreetly tucked behind a grove of trees. Pulling into the driveway, I visualize the house's interior: classic furnishings accented by works of art with unimpeachable pedigrees—a sleek, minimalist marriage of antique and new.
Wrong! The front door opens onto an explosion of form and color: a larger-than-life portrait of a ticked-off woman in a fox stole—is the whole composition made out of painted pencils? A gargantuan fabric sculpture, also of a woman—"is that a sock dangling from her skirt? And what is that hanging over the front stairs? An enormous sheet of hair?"
Peggy Cooper Cafritz is still upstairs, her housekeeper says, so I make my way into the great hall. I note the traditional-slash-exotic decor: a grand piano crowded with photos of children and friends, including Bill Clinton and Colin Powell; Chinese wedding trunks retooled into coffee tables; a sofa plumped with kilim throw pillows. Then I look up, and it's as if my eyes are on springs, bouncing from a massive painting of a blue-lipped man—Mustafa Maluka's You Think I'm on Your Side—to portraits ranged around the marble fireplace. The room is electric with searching, raging, despairing, longing eyes.
Cafritz comes into the room, greets me, and sits down. An influential Washington arts and education activist who in 1968 cofounded a summer arts workshop that became D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public high school serving artistic teenagers with limited resources, she is a handsome, some would say formidable, silver-haired woman whose manner is slightly formal, though in an offbeat way, like the room itself. Something in her face suggests a sense of humor, but also limited patience with foolishness. She fixes me with a look—between a twinkle and a challenge—that reminds me of the woman in the fox stole commanding the entryway. What did she think when she first saw that piece?