Steve Penley is an artist who’s proud to wave the red, white and blue -- particularly, in this politically color-coded season, the RED! Here’s Erin Moriarty of “48 Hours”:
It’s probably fair to say that these days, there may not be a lot of people who share Steve Penley’s enthusiasm for politicians. “Oh, I love these guys,” he said.
You love them?
“These guys are, I mean, on both sides, a lot of the guys I got to be friends with. They’re great guys!”
Penley doesn’t just paint them; politicians are also among his best customers. He estimates that his work hangs in as many as 20 Congressional offices (primarily on one side of the aisle). Three pieces hang in the office of House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California.
Moriarty asked, “How do you feel about being called ‘the Republican Party’s favorite artist’?”
“It’s flattering,” Penley replied. “I mean, even in a magazine article they write about me where they’re slamming me a little bit, I was kind of flattered they took the trouble to bash me!”
Penley is a fifty-two-year-old Georgia artist who makes a living painting iconic American images, both statesmen and symbols.
His Statue of Liberty is his best seller, along with George Washington, Ronald Reagan, and bottles of Coca-Cola. “That’s America! We built this nation on trade, you know? This is great!”
There’s nothing overtly partisan about Penley’s work. When political pollster Frank Luntz interviews voters of all stripes for CBS News, Penley’s paintings hang in the background.
And yet, it seems that people who consider themselves conservative see something more in Penley’s work.
“When I see that Statue of Liberty, I see freedom in that picture,” said Republican Congressman Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia.
He says that Penley’s painting of George Washington speaks directly to his conservative constituency. “We believe in personal freedom. That’s a big thing for us. We don’t think that government needs to be involved in our business,” Westmoreland said.
“And you see that in his artwork?” Moriarty asked.
“Oh, absolutely! I mean, the Statue of Liberty? That just shouts freedom!”
And it doesn’t hurt that Penley himself frequently expresses his own conservative viewpoint during appearances on Fox News, as when he stated, “I think people feel so alienated about their country and feel like they’re alone in being patriotic.”
Penley had once hoped to make his mark in the New York art world, but after two years at the School of Visual Arts, he left disappointed and disillusioned. “I walked into a gallery one day and there’s this giant pile of dirt,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘It’s an installation piece,’ you know, in that real snobby way that they talk to you. So that made me think there’s no place for me in the art world, I’m never going to make it. So I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”
Penley finally found a niche by combining art with his love of history. His “obsession” with Winston Churchill, he said, “kind of brought me in the historical icon painting.”
His large paintings now sell for just under $20,000.
“This sounds really bad, [but] it is true: I’ll paint the ones that sell,” Penley told Moriarty. “Because I can’t be wasting a lot of time painting pictures of Benjamin Harrison. Who knows who he is?”
And Penley is content with his work, even if his recognition as an artist never goes beyond the halls of Capitol Hill.
Moriarty asked, “Do you hope someday that you’ll have a piece in MoMA, or the Whitney Museum in New York?”
“I’d rather be rich,” he replied. “I’m serious, I’d rather have the money. But yes, I’d like it. But I don’t know they’re gonna give me that.”
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