Power Players: Portrait Of The Artist

Steve Penley has a bias that shows up in his art, but he is unapologetic. “My bias is toward the greatness of America rather than cynicism,” he says. “As an artist, I give my perspective. Perhaps it’s over the top, but you have to illustrate what you believe. I probably have a tendency to see the good side of things first, and then question.” And if that puts him in the category of “Pollyanna,” so be it.

Penley, 46, describes his painting style as “realistic expressionism,” using strong brushstrokes with vibrant colors, often on large canvases. A critical and commercial success, Penley has exhibited paintings in galleries in New York, Washington, DC, Atlanta and Macon. (Since 2004, he has done several original cover portraits for Georgia Trend.)

In February he traveled to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, capturing the scene on behalf of The Coca-Cola Company. He has produced three coffee table books of his artwork, two entitled Penley, the third called The Recon-struction of America. A fourth book, Vince Dooley’s Garden: A Horticultural Journey of a Football Coach, is scheduled for release this month and features Penley’s paintings from Dooley’s garden.

Though his work includes landscapes and other still life subjects, Penley is best known for painting iconic figures from history such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan and even rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. He believes a counterculture hero like Hendrix is uniquely American. “A character like him could only come about in a place that respects the individual, or at least says they do,” says Penley. “There’s a lot of flair in America and uniqueness found in our music and arts. So many cultures are static for centuries, but the creative spirit in America bled into every other field.”

The creative spirit was nurtured in Penley from childhood. He was influenced by television, comic books, a love of history and the South. “I think Southerners have a little more connection to the land; they’re a little more rooted to tradition,” says Penley. Born in Chatta-nooga, Penley moved to Athens when he was five years old and later to Macon, where he attended high school.

He attended the University of Georgia eight years in all, and did a two-year stint at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Art school was an exercise in frustration for Penley, however. “I was taught that realism was a waste of time; it was trite,” he says. “Art schools teach you to conform. They’re conformist in their non-conformity.”

During his two years in New York, Penley spent most of his time working odd jobs. “It was a creative period in the sense of what I saw every day but I had no physical time to paint,” he says.

By the time he moved to Atlanta in the early 1990s, Penley was the stereotypical starving artist waiting for his big break. The break came when a friend from Macon opened a restaurant and needed artwork. He turned to Penley, who created five large paintings that included images of Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. “I was so broke I was painting with Home Depot latex,” recalls Penley. After the restaurant opened, a customer asked about the paintings and the artist.

“My friend called me and said, ‘A guy from [law firm] King & Spalding came and wants to talk to you about doing a painting,’” says Penley. The “guy” was attorney Bob Steed, a now-retired partner at King & Spalding and an avid art collector. Steed commissioned Penley to paint a portrait of his wife, Lu – herself an accomplished artist – a job Penley says helped get his career started. When his best friend from college days, Rob Matre, opened the Matre Gallery in Atlanta, it became a natural home for Penley’s work.

These days, Penley paints either in his home studio or at his studio in an old grocery store in Carrollton. He has a fondness for large canvases. “I like to work as large as people will let me,” he says. “I think it’s a Texas mentality!” He listens to audio books while he paints and considers himself blessed to have found an artistically satisfying niche that also pays the bills. And as a free-market capitalist who also happens to be an artist, Penley finds nothing wrong in that.

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