Writer Beth Powning and artist Peter Powning discuss their 'lifetime of being in sync'

·9 min read
Peter and Beth Powning, both 19, on their wedding day in 1969 at Beth's parents' farm in Connecticut.
Peter and Beth Powning, both 19, on their wedding day in 1969 at Beth's parents' farm in Connecticut.

(Submitted by Peter Powning - image credit)

You may know Beth Powning as a successful author and Peter Powning as a successful artist.

Beth has written some bestselling books, including The Sea Captain's Wife and A Measure of Light. Her next book, The Sister's Tale is due out this spring. Peter is an award-winning sculptor and ceramicist, whose public art commissions can be seen everywhere from Saint John's Reversing Falls to the Toronto International Film Festival building in downtown Toronto, and Elevation Place in Canmore, Alta.

But the Pownings have also had remarkable success together on a personal level. Beth and Peter have been happily married for 52 years. They were teens when they started out. They've had "rich lives" together. And they profess to be still very much in love. The Pownings agreed to talk about their relationship in honour of Valentine's Day, in an interview from their home south of Sussex. Here is a transcript, edited for length.

Q: How did you meet?

Peter: I had a friend from high school who went to the university Beth went to — Sarah Lawrence College outside of New York City. I hitchhiked a couple hours down there and we met and we hit it off. I hung around the next day and I spent most of my summer earnings taking her to see Thelonious Monk at the famous Village Gate in Greenwich Village and had a great time. The drinks were something like 15 bucks. This was in 1968. It was about what I earned in a week.

Beth: This friend begged me to go out with her friend. She badgered me and badgered me and badgered me and finally I said I would. We went out every single weekend after that until we got married — at the age of 19. She had lined up Jessica Harper to go out with Peter, this absolutely stunning actress, who, in later years, lived with Woody Allen. She had backed out so I was a stand-in. My outfit was basically a really ratty, blue, wool sweater, big, floppy bell bottoms and worn-out huaraches. That's what I chose to wear to meet this guy who I was determined not to impress.

Peter: She was being provocative in a way, challenging me to react. I grew up in a family with three siblings and all the things she was doing to put me off I thought were hilarious and I found it very attractive.

Q: Peter, how would you describe Beth when you first met her?

Peter: Great sense of humour. She was studying acting, so she was quite demonstrative and dramatic and she liked fooling around. She was a really good student — unlike myself. I just loved her right away. We had so much fun.

Q: Beth, what was Peter like back then and what attracted you to him?

Beth: We were on the train going down to Manhattan and what he wanted to talk about was his brothers and sisters and the family dog. And I thought, oh, it's just so unpretentious. They had a dog named Sparky. And my father had a horse named Sparky. There were all these ways in which I felt very comfortable with him. He loved his family.

Peter Powning
Peter Powning

Q: How would you describe your relationship?

Beth: Really good friends. I see something and my first instinct is, Hey, Peter, look at this — knowing the person you're going to share it with is going to appreciate it in exactly the same way. If you use a certain word that person is going to understand all the deep implications and associations. We just went out in the woods and built a bridge together, hammering and hauling things. You know that the other person would like you to hand you that board and the other person is going to take it. It's just a lifetime of being in sync.

Peter: What she said. But also partnership. We're both in the arts. We've never worked for anybody else. So we're kind of each other's sounding boards. After being in this pandemic, if anything, it's made us tighter.

Q: What is something about yourself that someone else might find weird or annoying, but you just get about each other?

Submitted by Peter Powning
Submitted by Peter Powning

Peter: I look at things from odd angles and often find humour in places that other people don't find so funny. I think some of the time, Beth finds that very charming and other times it's like eye-roll territory.

Beth: I'm actually quite conservative compared to Peter. A new idea takes me a bit of time to think about and consider. And Peter is an ideas cauldron — a festering brew of incessantly percolating ideas. And I'm kind of like, whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, wait a minute. So that's probably an irritating aspect of my personality. I'm also extraordinarily active. I never, ever sit down, and I think Peter finds that quite annoying.

Peter: Never let a sleeping dog rest. But the other thing — about me sparking off ideas and being ready to charge off in all directions and you being the sober second thought, I think that's one of the things that works about us, because I'm a bit tethered, and you get drawn along in ways you wouldn't otherwise.

Beth: Yes, that's absolutely true.

Q: Do you spend a lot of time together?

Beth: We spend, right now, almost all of our time together.

Peter: But Beth goes off to work in the morning and so do I. I've got a studio that's not in the house. We meet for lunch and then we go back to work. We get out for a few hours outside everyday and usually we do that together.

Submitted by Peter Powning
Submitted by Peter Powning

Beth: We do have our own worlds. We've served on different boards and have different interests. I used to have to go on book tours, which would take me away for big chunks of time, and Peter would have to travel quite a bit with his commissions.

Q: How important is that — to have your own things?

Peter: I think it's important to have things that are our own pursuits and identities other than our professional careers. One of them has been mountain biking, since probably my 30s. That gives me a chance to push my limits and take the kind of risks I enjoy. Our lives include a massive amount of gardening — growing vegetables. And that is really Beth. She plans it, buys the seeds and does 90 per cent of the work. And the animals that we've had over the years — Beth grew up with ponies, and I don't think we've ever not had a pony.

Submitted by Peter Powning
Submitted by Peter Powning

Beth: I think it's really important to have a sense of who you are by yourself. Not meshed in the other person's personality. And I think that's a thing young couples struggle with. I know we did. It's nice for me to know that I am me by myself. And I think that strengthens the sense of being part of someone else's life.

Q: Peter, in what ways does Beth help you?

Peter: From the minute I get up til the minute I go to bed. I don't even know where to start. It's in too many ways to enumerate.

Beth: I would say the same thing. But at our age, you start to think, Oh, my God! What would I do without Peter? Try to do it yourself. Peter knows more about electricity and how the sump pump works and fixing what's wrong with the truck and on and on and on. It's endless and it's almost frightening.

Submitted by Peter Powning
Submitted by Peter Powning

Q: Have there been any major challenges that you had to overcome?

Peter: Oh, yeah. Personal tragedies, the barn and studio burning down when we were in our 20s, parents with dementia. I think that's one of our strengths, that we faced them together.

Beth: We've both lost parents to terrible, long, degenerative diseases. We lost a child, which I wrote about in the book Shadow Child. The fire, I think, was the first thing that kind of set us on our heels and made us realize that life had some hard things in store for us. Fortunately, they've been strengthening to our relationship.

Q: What have been some of the highlights of your life together?

Peter: A lot of laughter, a lot of good friends. We spent two springs in a row driving across the U.S. in a truck camper. That was a lot of togetherness. Going from national park to national park. It was a fantastic experience.

Beth: The moment our son was born, Jake. This little blue creature was put onto my chest and I looked at this little face and Peter was standing there. It's one of the highest points of your entire life. And a more mundane but cool thing, the summer before Jake was born we hiked almost 200 miles through the mountains of Switzerland carrying packs and sleeping in cow sheds and tromping along places where there was so much electricity in the air that Peter's beard stood out and my hair stood up in the air. We had a summer where we just wandered. That was wonderful.

Submitted by Peter Powning
Submitted by Peter Powning

Q: Are you still working on things as a couple?

Peter: You work on things every day. As a marriage matures, hopefully you work those things out. And I'd say we've worked most of them out.

Beth: There are things that are irritating and I realize them for what they are. I think, OK, this is not something to snap at or get into an argument about. As a younger person I would have gotten into an argument with Peter and nursed my annoyance and wandered around holding it inside. The older you get the more you realize what a waste of effort that is. And you just think, Let it go. Like, why does he leave his Crocs right there by the back door where I might trip? OK, I'll just put them under the stove.

Q: Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share about the institution of marriage?

Peter: A lot of our friends lived together and didn't get married. I think our parents were concerned about us doing that. Some pressure was brought to bear. That's why we got married when we were 19. We got married in a Quaker wedding in Beth's parents' barn with a small number of people. But I think that kind of public commitment meant something.

Beth: I do think it was helpful for us to know that we were within a structure. You know, you thought, you can't walk away from this. But on the other hand, we have many friends who have lived their whole lives together without being married. It's hard to say.

Peter: It worked for us.