Steve Penley’s portrait of Lady Liberty.
The 52-year-old Georgia artist makes a living painting iconic American images, symbols and statesmen. His Statue of Liberty is his best seller, along with George Washington, Ronald Reagan, and the Coca-Cola bottle.
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Steve Penley’s depiction of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware.
Politicians are among Penley’s best customers. He estimates that his work hangs in as many as 20 Congressional offices (primarily on one side of the aisle). Moriarty asked, “How do you feel about being called ‘the Republican Party’s favorite artist’?”
“It’s flattering,” Penley said. “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!”
Portrait of the Artist
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 to CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty. “I said, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘It’s an installation piece.’
“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 found a niche by combining art with his love of history – and his celebration of American icons actually began with a Brit, whom he painted to decorate a new restaurant back in Atlanta. “I was obsessed with Winston Churchill at the time. So Churchill kind of brought me [into] historical icon painting,” he said.
Steve Penley’s poster for a Tea Party rally.
Thomas Jefferson, from Steve Penley’s 2008 book, “The Reconstruction of America.”
“I concentrate on the American icon,” he said. “And I use these American Icons to tell my story of America, and to tell the story in a way in which younger people, of course, will know what we have.”
“I think one quality - if I have a quality - is that I recognize what I have here and how lucky we are to live in America. And every day you wake up in this country it’s like a gift from God. It’s hard to use the subject matter like this without getting too sentimental and overly quaint, so it’s a fine line. I try to keep a little bit of a rough edge on it. And a little bit messy - try to keep it cool, if that makes sense.”
President Abraham Lincoln, from Steve Penley's 2008 book, "The Reconstruction of America."
President Theodore Roosevelt.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Steve Penley's portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
John F Kennedy
Steve Penley's portrait of President John F. Kennedy.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Steve Penley's portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Steve Penley’s poster for a 2010 right-wing political rally.
“It’s a funny thing, too, in politics … Jack Watson, Jimmy Carter’s second chief of staff, is a freak Democrat. He read one of my books, and he read the text in it. And he said, ‘Steve, that was a great book, I agree with everything you said in it.’ That book, in my mind, was such a Republican conservative manifesto. But everybody sees everything through a prism. And he read those words through his prism, and it sounded great to him.”
Steve Penley’s portrait of President Ronald Reagan.
Though he is often called the Republican Party’s favorite artist, Penley says he doesn’t try to preach politics through his art. “Most of my customers, and I hate to say it, they’re rich people. And I love rich people. They’re my favorite people in the world. That’s a joke, but of course, if you’re an artist, if there weren’t any rich people out there, you’re gonna have a hard time.”
And he doesn’t discriminate about his customers. “Oh, my gosh, I would sell my art to that dog walking up the street if he had any cash on him!”
Penley’s portrait of Ronald Reagan.
He may be a favorite of conservatives, but Penley denies his art is partisan. “It’s not meant to be. I don’t do these paintings to try to alienate anybody. And it would be silly.”
Portraits of the 44 Presidents of the United States.
Steve Penley’s portrait of the Founding Father.
“George Washington is not a person to us, he’s an image, he’s a symbol of something. And so when we think of an image of George Washington, we’re not thinking of that guy. We’re thinking of the symbol and what he stands for. So I’m trying to take that thought process and bring him into my way of seeing that image.”
The Real Thing
Penley called the Cola-Cola bottle “the perfect American icon. When I was a kid, my grandfather was a Coke bottle delivery guy in Chattanooga. I used to ride in the truck with him. And we used to pick up the return bottles and deliver the new ones. And so it’s a part of my history in the South.
“And like everybody down here, it’s just a part of the fabric of our families and our way of life. I’m probably overstating it, but when you think about the Coke bottle, it’s kind of an ambassador of good will - almost a symbol of America that we pass out to the world as a good gesture.”
But he’s not ashamed of “selling out” by painting commercial products for money. “I’m part of the action. That’s what I wanna be. I don’t wanna be sitting here in a little hole with nobody knowing about me, and I’m just sitting here cutting ears off and doing opium or something like that.”
"We The People"
“Your artwork is very optimistic, and it seems to almost clash with the current [political] climate that seems to be so negative,” said Erin Moriarty.
“I’m optimistic about the American ideal,” Steve Penley said. “I think we live in this great place. The American ideal is a perfect ideal. We don’t live up to it, nobody can. But I’ve chosen the ostrich mentality pretty much about politics and news and everything else. I just bury my head in the sand if I don’t like something. That’s the only way to survive nowadays.
“All I’m going to do is keep painting my paintings and hope that something in them makes [audiences] connect even more with what the American ideal should be, at least the way I see it, from my perspective.”
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By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan