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?
She admits to being an "art glutton," but that's not what inspires her to cram every inch of her house with works by artists of color. "We were so absent from the major art scene for so long—not just African-Americans. I have been involved in trying to change that all my life."
Even though she came from a prominent family in Mobile, Alabama, she couldn't escape the racism that surrounded her. "Just the kind of rage that gets into you, you have to do something with that," she tells me. "And I saw the arts as a ticket to opening up worlds for kids. Their purchase of a train ticket to a broader life. And I thought, 'What better revenge in an unjust world?'"
Cafritz has not only served on Ellington's board of directors but over the years taken in teenagers—as many as eight at one time—and repurposed basement space as bedrooms. She has helped jump-start artistic careers, even as she chaired the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, headed the D.C. Board of Education, and served as an arts critic on an Emmy-winning program. "I find that these kids' work, be it in theater or visual arts, is informed by our history, but it doesn't necessarily carry the baggage of our history. And that's a real difference. I think as we go forward, they'll be able to express a lightness of being, the way young people from our communities never have been." Her loyalty to these artists is evident. One watercolor portrait of a young boy, by a young man named David Jamison who died of AIDS, is particularly close to her heart. Pieces by up-and-coming graduates appear alongside works by more established figures.
"I think that everything you do has to have some kind of purpose," she says. "Artists have a particular responsibility, because they have a special eye on the world, a very special take that the rest of us need to see and hear."
Cafritz believes that art must be an integral part of society. The cultures of minorities have always understood that, she says, "because in the absence of other things, like money and power, art has been one thing that we could be enriched by, cling to, support, celebrate." In her dining room, with its genteel Oriental rug and antique table, she points to sculptures by Ellington students and teachers as well as by artists with a global reach. Dominating one wall is a shimmering, tapestry-like piece by Nigerian artist El Anatsui. It's made of salvaged metal bottle caps—discarded things, their value finally recognized. Before it, Cafritz has placed The Wanderer, a model of a slave ship with dazzlingly patterned sails, by the Nigerian-raised Yinka Shonibare. Nearby, Deborah Grant's stark image of a straight-backed chair, Where Good Darkies Go #11.
"I just think they kind of talk to one another," Cafritz says, explaining why she has grouped these pieces. No one can tell her where to put her art: She just listens for that silent conversation.
On the main floor she made mostly cosmetic changes, including curtains and paint for the dining room. She turned an upstairs area into a game room, a place where she could relax with her two sons (the older one, Zachary, is 24). On one wall, she hung one of her favorite political statements, a painting of George W. Bush as a toy cowboy shooting up the environment. "The house is more reflective of my singular personality," she says. "Before, it was more reflective of my married personality."
Nowhere is that singular personality more apparent than in Cafritz's bedroom. When I ask to see it, she hesitates, then says, "Oh, o-kay," walking me up to the landing, where it is impossible to ignore a gigantic baby by Max Streicher and a painting of a woman in a Gauguin-like tropical landscape by Loren Holland. The minute we enter the bedroom, Cafritz flops onto the bed, a modernist rectangle chosen by Siskin. He helped her rethink the space, he told me, but mostly watched with admiration while Cafritz made her unpredictable choices. "I wanted a banquette, but that's not who Peggy is. Peggy is a woman of huge style. She picks her furniture like she picks her art. It's about the color, the shape. Everything works and nothing works. It's not about working. It's not about going together."
"I like mixing things up," Cafritz says. "What rules my head is my arrogant notion that I have a good eye." Lounging on her bed, bolstered by a profusion of cushions, she is in her element. The room is buttery with sunlight, the furnishings beyond quirky: There is a hanging bubble chair, a rug that looks as if there might be a goat beneath it, a chaise bought from an antiques dealer. While the downstairs has a dignified aspect, up here the mood is playful—as is Cafritz herself. "Everything is new," she says, "and now it's quite girly." She thinks about that. "Well, you might call it haute girly. It's my den of blank. But this is where I get most of my work done."
The master bathroom is her pride and joy, with its lovely mosaic tile, fabric art by Shinique Smith, and paintings on layered tulle by Irfan Önürmen. "This used to be two bathrooms," Cafritz says, "and I greedily made it into one"—including miles of closet space. She grins. "If I ever fall in love, I guess I could make this into two sinks…."
I ask what will come next. "I feel guilty if I'm not civically engaged," she says. "I was always taught that each generation has a responsibility to bring people along who are not as favored by virtue of birth. I don't know what my next phase is, but I can assure you my bond with art will never be severed. I love artists. I love, as I form my own thoughts, being informed by artists.
"People will say, oh, pull the plug, this aging is terrible. But one of the pleasures [of] aging is the ability to witness change. And change happens everywhere. It happens in the country, it happens in community, it happens in the family, and it happens individually. So I'm not afraid of the future. I'm very excited."
She gets a devilish look in her eye. "You know what else I want to say? That I'm single. And I'm available!"
I leave her in her bedroom—she is getting ready for an appointment—and walk downstairs. In the kitchen, a pot of shrimp curry sizzles on the stove. A little boy, the son of Mary Ann De Vera, the housekeeper, plays in the entryway. Cafritz's dogs, Gumbo and Hugs, run to greet Cooper, a tall, handsome teenager with an Afro and a British accent (he attends the British school here). When I ask him what he thinks about his mother's collecting, he looks amused. "Some of the art I really don't like. It depends on the year. There's a naked baby upstairs!"
Voices fill the front hall as a young Ellington graduate, Felix Osuchukwu, and his wife, Brendell, enter lugging a metal bust and two large canvases. Cafritz leans over the banister to talk. She compliments a painting, asks to see the bust from several angles and tells him it's fabulous, but suggests he remove the metal heart he's using as a base, "and then I might buy it!" They quibble—he doesn't want to make the change, but he'll consider it. She smiles warmly. This isn't really an argument, just part of the ongoing conversation that is the saving grace of art.
Next:Get Peggy's tips on how to start collecting