Woodmere Art Museum

(above: James Toogood, "The Woodmere Art Museum," watercolor on paper, 18 1/4" x 26," gift of the artist)

Philadelphia, PA

215-247-0476

http://www.woodmereartmuseum.org/



This essay is reprinted with permission of The Woodmere Art Museum. It is an exhibition catalogue essay for a Penelope Harris Retrospective exhibit showing at the Museum September 16 through November 18, 2001.

 

Penelope Harris

By Bill Scott

 

I stayed away from painting flowers for years," says Penelope Harris, "because I did not want to be perceived as a female painter who painted pretty pictures. Then, as I got older," she continues, "I said to myself, 'To hell with that.'" It is absurd, as she is also an avid gardener, that she had never dared until now to paint flowers, especially those that she herself grows. Recently, however, she has even begun to choose which flowers she plants in her garden based on what she anticipates she will want to paint when they are in bloom. In describing her newest works inspired by tulips, poppies, calla lilies and even dandelions, she proclaims, with humorous exasperation, "I paint realistically from life but, in the end, it feels as if almost all of it comes from my head because, as I'm painting, the leaves wilt, the flowers change color and everything moves!" (left: Brunch, ca. 1995, gouache on paper, 32 x 27 1/2 inches,

Penny always wanted to be a painter. Early on, however, her parents never encouraged her to follow in their footsteps for, as artists themselves, they had experienced the many disappointments too often encountered by a life in the arts. They feared the instability of such a life might lead their daughter to a wildly sad existence. Perhaps worse, she recalls with a smile, they thought she might move to Greenwich Village and live a life of "sin and debauchery!" Determined to be in the arts, but feeling she could never be as good a painter as either of her parents, she studied interior decoration. The desire to become an artist, however, was ever lurking. She married and lived in a tiny A-frame cottage in the Vermont woods and six years later, her husband brought her and their young children to live in his native Philadelphia. Today Penny makes her studio in an A-frame room (only a bit smaller than her former Vermont home) on the third floor of her Evergreen Avenue home, just a few blocks from where the modernist painter, Arthur B. Carles, once lived in Chestnut Hill. However, it wasn't until the early 1970s, when her children were all in school that she took a painting class at the neighboring Woodmere Art Museum. Encouraged by her success there she decided, at age 35, to take the even bigger plunge to study more formally.

I met Penny in 1974 when, as first year students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, we attended Roswell Weidner's figure drawing class. She successfully adopted Mr. Weidner's dictum that all areas of a picture be active and alive while also seeking the advice of other instructors like John Hanlen, Ben Kamihira, Jim Lueders and Elizabeth Osborne. Penny was soon at the vortex of a small group of students who in snow, rain or shine all basically lived in their studios in the Academy's former school annex, the Peale House, on Chestnut Street. At first, she shared a studio with her longtime friend, Harriet Martin. It was there that she veered away from figure painting a bit and started doing the complex and meticulously detailed still lifes which continue to fascinate her. She often brought her young springer spaniel puppy into her studio, hiding him in her paint basket whenever she entered or exited the building (for the school did not allow animals). As she needed to keep its presence secret, whenever an instructor came to her studio to see her work, she hid the dog in a closet. I once remember Penny and Hatsy doubled over in laughter (while also sighing in relief) as they recounted how they had just cleaned off the bottom of one of our esteemed elderly teacher's shoes without ever telling him what exactly it was he'd stepped in while walking on the newspapers laid out all over their floor. At the time, I was more intrigued by a series of still lifes Penny was doing of dead fish and felt crestfallen when the school's administration forced her to cease painting them. Apparently, she had gone home one Friday afternoon, in her exuberant and inimitably bon vivante way, leaving her still life of dead fish intact, but unrefrigerated, for the entire weekend. The excruciating stench soon, of course, reigned over the entire eight floors of the building prompting another instructor, Louis B. Sloan, to send out a search party to evacuate the building.

Penny remembers how frequently I yawned and I remember how often she laughed when we briefly shared a studio for part of our last year at the Academy. We hired models there and painted from them together for hours on end, fueled by coffee, donuts and slices of fruit pies from a nearby bakery. Our most elaborate project was a Henri Rousseau-like arrangement that we anchored with a large folding screen decorated with dense green foliage forms. And just in front of it, inspired by exhibitions we had recently seen of works by Balthus and Matisse, we posed a standing orange-haired nude model. We each painted six by nine foot canvases from this set-up and were startled and slightly bemused when, after seeing them, one of our instructors, using the exact same model and props, took our idea and replicated it verbatim in her own studio. (right: Pomegranite on White Plate, ca. 1990, oil on museum board, 19 x 20 3/4 inches, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ross L. Campbell)

Penny's father, Lloyd Holman Parsons, had died before Penny came to the Academy but her mother, Audrey Buller, became her staunchest champion when she commenced painting. Her parents were born in Montreal but met in New York City in the 1920s when they were students of Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League. Thereafter, they spent their lives painting side by side and socialized not only with Miller but counted the painters, Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh and the Eakins scholar, Lloyd Goodrich, as their closest friends. They were among the most prominent of realist painters, exhibited at top galleries, and saw their paintings acquired by the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time of Penny's birth, however, they realized they would no longer be able to afford to live in New York City so they relocated to Little Compton, Rhode Island, where Penny and her sister were raised. By the time Penny was at the Academy, her mother had quit painting. She sometimes visited Philadelphia, however, and we considered her a cherished guest on the rare afternoons she spent with all of us in Penny's studio. Most of the students had frequently gone to New York City and Washington, D.C. to see exhibitions in the museums and galleries. I remember how Penny's mother listened attentively to our rambling responses to everything we'd seen while finding ways to gently offer us technical help, regale us with encouragement and share soft spoken (but what I now realize was) sage professional advice. Penny's own goals in painting dovetail beautifully with those of her mother, who once wrote that her aim was "to give as much weight and simplicity as possible to my main forms, using color and detailed ornament as an extension of the basic form."

I remember one Monday morning in early Spring getting a ride into school with Penny and as we drove along Kelly Drive we passed an area, just west of Boathouse Row, where there are picnic tables. We both glanced over at them and commented incredulously at how many blossoming flowers there were. Then, we realized we were not looking at flowers at all but at scattered trash left during a weekend riverside celebration. Ever since then, I realize, my own work has become an increasingly nearsighted form of realism while Penny's has become more eagle-eyed and articulate. Supporting her love of detail is an undeniably romantic vision with which she creates atmosphere and breathing space. She has said, "I'd love to paint with a bravura like Sargent's, but it's not natural to me." However, without any hint of apology, she unabashedly proclaims, "I simply see the wonder in things."

When Penny was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, she suspected it might have been triggered by her constant exposure to pastel dust and paint toxins. So she quit making art entirely for quite awhile and, although cancer free now, she still refuses to work with anything other than colored-pencils or the aqueous medias: watercolor, gouache and acrylic. These materials give Penny a new opportunity to paint many of the objects and props that have appeared in her earlier works and which are now scattered about her studio: painted ceramic masks, china dolls heads, an antique child's dress, a Venetian blue glass vase, a stuffed rooster, stuffed speckled hens, a shaving brush, dried flowers, pheasant feathers, a wren's nest and a wasp's nest.

The day I recently visited Penny, she had just finished painting orange parrot tulips. Most of this particular still life had been finished months earlier. However, she had waited until now to finish it so that she could paint from these specific flowers. Once they bloomed she had to rush to paint them -- a task that was more easily achieved by her use of fast drying water soluable paints -- before the petals all fell to the floor during a sudden burst of humidity. Poppies are another flower that Penny loves for, as she has said, the "tissue-paperlike texture of [their] blooms makes them especially appealing to me. Look what happens," she added, "when there's a breeze -- those poppies look just like butterflies. In the garden, so many elements -- shrubs, trees and walls, for example, are formal and structured -- poppy flowers are free and full of movement."

Her sense of wonder is always there but her extraordinary humor also occasionally seeps into her work. She might intentionally push one's understanding of her paintings, not just by the juxtaposition of objects placed on the shallow plane of her set up, but with the choice of a title, such as the tongue-in-cheek yet eponymous "Artichokes and Old Lace." However, in searching for the subconscious meanings in her work, one realizes how easily Penny flirts simultaneously with the decorative, the exotic and the elegiac. The well thought out equilibrium of her compositions reflects her long time interest in the symmetry she finds in early Italian Renaissance and Flemish paintings.

Paintings from the last few years additionally reflect the influence of a recent trip to India. Before her departure she had been inspired by an exhibition of Indian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rajahastan," she says, "is mostly earth colored, but the Indian people (as though starved for a missing vitamin) splash the most ravishing color everywhere. Against this monochromatic background," she continues, "their gorgeous use of color, intricate patterning and acute observation of nature are truly startling." Now, as she irrevocably opens up or changes the space in a painting by placing an unexpected turquoise next to a lime green or an acidic yellow across from a jolt of alizarin crimson, one sees how she continues to be captivated by the visual inspiration offered by that trip.

Passion, sensuality, exuberance and joy are the emotions she brings to life in her paintings. She realizes the value of art (and specifically painting for her), is that it has the ability to help all of us to feel free as we strive to expand and grow within the limitations of our lives and work. "I'm terrified when I start a painting, because" Penny says with unnecessary worry, "I'm so full of hope for what I want it to

 

About the author

Bill Scott is an artist residing in Philadelphia, PA. His art has been exhibited across the United states in solo and group exhibitions, both at museums and galleries. His work is in corporate, private and museum collections nationwide. Scott's awards include: 1989, Philadelphia Museum of Art Purchase Award from the Cheltenham Art Centre, Cheltenham, Pa. (Juror: Ann Temkin, Curator, Philadelphia Museum of Art); 1979, J. Henry Scheidt Memorial Traveling Scholarship from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (five months of independent study in Paris, France). Scott attended in 1974-78 the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. He studied in 1974-1979 informally with Jane Piper, Philadelphia, and in 1981 informally with Joan Mitchell, Vetheuil, France

 

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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