Tucked away in a strip of storefronts along West Paces Ferry Road is the studio of internationally recognized artist Steve Penley. Large, colorful portraits gaze out from behind plate glass windows. Paintings of various sizes are stacked in every direction throughout the loft-like space. The floors are spattered in every imaginable color. Easels are set up everywhere, art lines the walls and rests on every surface. Near the front door is a sitting area with a couch, chairs, and a bench, all positively drenched in paint.
From the outside it appears as if you’re entering a store front but stepping inside is like walking into an immersive art experience, and in a way, Steve Penley’s art studio is both. On the rainy afternoon we met for our interview he emerged from a back room in paint-stained jeans and a plaid jacket, his hair slicked back and his pockets full of paint pens. Picking up a guitar, he reclined back onto the couch and strummed absent-mindedly as we spoke about art, business, and the life of an artist.
Steve is an impressionist artist who calls Buckhead home. He was born in Chattanooga and later his family moved to Macon where he attended middle and high school. Though he enjoyed drawing growing up, he never painted seriously until he was in college. According to Steve, that’s because his stepmother didn’t want him to make a mess inside the house, though he admits that he was intimidated by the idea of working with paint and used his stepmother’s rule as an excuse not to attempt it.
In the course of our conversation it was often hard to discern the sincerity of Steve’s words. He delivers his stories in a flat monotone voice, peppering in sarcastic wry quips and only admitting that he was kidding after the joke lands and is accepted as truth. His sense of humor is dry and sometimes brutal, and his opinion of his work comes across as being at once humble and overly confident. Though he lives surrounded by numerous paintings, sells his work all over the world, and his pieces appear in many of the most prestigious homes in Buckhead, Steve doesn’t necessarily hold himself in high esteem.
Some of the explanation for the dissonance between how the world views Steve’s work and how he views his own is likely due to the unpredictable path that led him to becoming an artist. Though he has an innate, natural talent for artistic expression, his career was launched by an opportunity to make money and fueled by a short deadline, two factors which remain the major motivators for his work to this day.
After Steve graduated from college one of his friends wanted to open a restaurant and needed artwork for the walls. With a short deadline before the restaurant’s grand opening he had to move quickly, painting colorful works with broad, loose strokes of his brush. This was a big deviation from his initial entry into the world of painting in which he constructed realistic and representational pieces that often took months to complete. The result of this new technique was a series of bright and vibrant pieces which expressed a sort of frenetic, exuberant energy. And his client? He loved it. This would become the launch of Steve’s painting career.
“Nothing flows for me, it’s all a battle,” said Steve, gesturing broadly at the pieces around him. “Painting is a battle. I always get frustrated because it never comes out on canvas the way I saw it in my head.” He admits to being a chronic overthinker, and says that a piece is only really complete when someone buys it and takes it away. His tendency to continue working on paintings can sometimes, in his words, ‘ruin it’ which is why he has a large back room that is full to the brim with pieces that are not available to the public. “They are never done. Every painting in here I could keep working on,” he explained. He paints his pieces quickly, noting that the rapid-fire process is more fun and helps to distract him from self-criticism along the way.
The subjects of Steve’s works are almost exclusively rooted in Americana. Steve also holds an affinity for Coca-Cola due in part to having grown up with his grandfather who delivered for the bottling plant back in Chattanooga. That connection led him to working with the company for more than two decades and culminating in the completion of a large-scale piece across multiple walls in the World of Coke Museum in downtown Atlanta in 2008.
Many of Steve’s pieces depict presidents, significant moments in American history such as astronauts landing on the moon, military endeavors, and pop culture icons like Muhammad Ali and Ernest Hemingway. He also paints landscapes and flowers which adorn the walls of many Buckhead homes.
“I think this is such an amazing country that we have the benefit of living in, and for people not to recognize that is just a crime,” said Steve. His favorite subject in college was history so he began painting what he knows: historical figures. Today many of his presidential portraits hang on the walls of politicians’ offices and he has written multiple books about his political viewpoints, notoriety which earned him a controversial appearance on Fox News that served to further his painting career even more.
“I’m not naïve about America and its past, but I also see the best in it. I don’t have an agenda, I’m really just painting paintings.”
During our interview we were briefly interrupted by a prospective buyer who quietly perused the artwork on display with the help of Michelle, Steve’s assistant. Before leaving the client apologized and politely interjected a few kind words, recalling a pleasant interaction from years prior and commending Steve’s work. “You’re doing great stuff and a lot of people appreciate it,” said the buyer on his way out the door. “Thank you sir, I appreciate that,” replied Steve, “thank you for coming, it was great to see you.” He turned back to me. “What a nice guy,” he remarked.
It is clear that while Steve’s art successes continue to keep him busy, often working for days on end and painting through the night, he maintains a sense of humility about his work and doesn’t take the business for granted. “Even still, I just can’t believe people are being so nice to me. It really is so nice it almost makes me teary-eyed. It’s a very surreal thing.”