The real thing

Steve Penley uses bright colors and wide brush strokes to make his art pop

The real thing

Artist Steve Penley poses in front of a print of one of his paintings on display in the World of Coca-Cola's Pop Culture Exhibit. His style was inspired in part by UGA art professor Jim Herbert.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

It can be intimidating to follow Andy Warhol.

That's what artist Steve Penley (M '88) learned this year when his paintings replaced those of Warhol's in the World of Coca-Cola's Pop Culture exhibit.

"I'm afraid that it's going to point out to everyone that I'm a sham," Penley says of following Warhol as the featured artist in the Atlanta exhibit. "It's a little scary."

But Penley is no sham. His work has been commissioned by numerous individuals and businesses, including Coca-Cola, with which he has had a relationship for more than 15 years. Last summer he traveled to Beijing during the Olympic Games to develop a piece of art that combines Chinese and sports symbols with classic Coke images.

The current World of Coke Pop Culture exhibit includes paintings of historical and cultural icons, including such figures as Teddy Roosevelt and counter-culture icon Jimi Hendrix. His message: America is great.

This fall, Mercer University Press published The Reconstruction of America, a compilation of Penley's art and thoughts on the United States.

"It illustrates what's great about being an American and living in America—all the great things our country has done," he says. "In a time of great criticism, I want to remind everyone of what our country has contributed."

Penley's fascination with history began with Winston Churchill and was fueled by the writings of historian David McCullough. His most recent subject is Ronald Reagan.

Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"

Courtesy of Linstrum + Matre Artworks,

He loves heroes. Though the founding fathers had faults, he says, they also did many great things for this country.

"They may have had slaves, but they also established a government that could abolish slavery," he says. "They were imperfect men with perfect ideals."

His American icons, landscapes and still life works are created with thick, brisk and colorful brush strokes, a style that emerged almost accidentally. After a brief stint in New York, a friend of Penley's asked him to whip up some paintings to decorate his new but bare restaurant. In haste, Penley developed his swift strokes.

Influenced as a child by television imagery and comic books, Penley naturally became enthralled with pop culture. Unlike many artists who create satirical works of cultural icons, Penley stays true to the images that people recognize.

"We need more than Hollywood and tabloids to turn to for wisdom," he says in a statement on his Web site. "The values and visions of my generation become visible in its art."


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The Reconstruction of America
Mercer University Press
November 2008

About the Author

Lesley Onstott is a senior journalism major and former editorial assistant for Georgia Magazine.