Place Painting

arts-3-1524-pennimanEd Penniman’s ‘Santa Cruz Sweet Spots’ exhibit highlights his love of his native city

Few Santa Cruz artists can claim the deep local pedigree of Ed Penniman. His grandmother, Leonora Naylor Penniman, was a member of the famed “Santa Cruz Three”—which also included Margaret Rogers and Cor de Gavere—a legendary trio of plein air artists whose work dominated the local cultural landscape from the 1920s into the 1950s.

A fourth-generation Santa Cruzan on both sides of his family—his father’s lineage traces back to a prominent downtown business, his mother’s to Italian farmers and craftsmen—Penniman possesses a rich and firmly established sense of place, one that has framed his own artistic sensibilities for a half century.

These sensibilities have come to a beautiful fruition in his new show, “Santa Cruz Sweet Spots,” currently on exhibit through Aug. 7 on the fifth floor of the County Governmental Center. It’s a stunning collection of what Penniman calls “institutional-sized” oil paintings of familiar landscapes throughout the region.

Penniman has painted, quite literally, around the world—the South Pacific, Provence, South America, the Caribbean—and has developed an international following for his work. But in this most recent collection, he has brought his native love of place to a visual apotheosis.

Penniman has taken iconic locales that we all recognize—Cowell Beach, Pogonip, Elkhorn Slough, Schwan Lake—and both “purified and dramatized” them, as he says, with a highly refined sense of color and light. He has also simplified these familiar scenes in subtle ways, removing unnatural elements and visual distractions, bringing them all together in a stunning series of vivid compositions.  

“The inspiration for my art comes from the beauty of our natural world,” Penniman says. “These are of places that I remember as a kid and always appreciated. By showing these works in a single exhibit, I want to foster stewardship of our region’s beautiful sweet spots.”

Born and raised here, Penniman came of age before the arrival of the UCSC campus, when the county was still largely rural and Santa Cruz had a distinctive small-town feel. “I remember working in my nona [grandmother]’s garden, hands in the earth, loving the earth—and the chickens, goats, cows, and ducks that were all around.”

A graduate of the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles (and Santa Cruz High before that) Penniman went to work initially as a highly sought-out graphic artist—he has worked professionally in the field ever since—and his corporate clients have included international brands like Revlon, Max Factor, Jantzen Swimwear, Mattel Toys, Baskin Robbins, and, closer to home, Bargetto Winery and Salz Tannery. His design awards in the corporate world are numerous, as he focused his professional energies on developing branding and marketing services aimed at “enhancing value to product offerings.”

All the while he has been a prolific artist working in a variety of media, though in recent years he has focused on landscapes and nudes, most often in oil and watercolor.

Now in his early 70s, Penniman seems entirely at ease in his world and with his artistic passions. That it’s a hard-won tranquility is something of an understatement. At the age of 42, Penniman’s life took a startling and debilitating turn when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)—a polio-like condition in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system and for which there is no cure. In perfect health one day, he went to bed and woke up the following morning completely paralyzed, a full-blown quadriplegic, uncertain if he would live.

“The GBS put me through the meat grinder,” he recalls without bitterness. “It forced me to start looking at the world in a whole different way. I see things more clearly. You know, van Gogh could paint the air, paint the wind. It opened up my eyes and mind in ways that I could never imagine.”

Unable to move his feet or his hands, he began his recovery by painting with a “mouth stick,” a device he developed after using a similar device to turn pages while he was reading. He was confined to a wheelchair for several years.

The experience had a profound impact on his life. “I want to maximize my days,” he said. “My love of art transcends the physical world. Renoir had severe arthritis. He knew that the pain is temporal, but the art is eternal. And producing my artwork takes my mind off it.”

Three decades beyond his initial diagnosis, Penniman remains passionate about his craft. He is constantly at work, eternally engaging artistic nuances and creative concepts. The “Santa Cruz Sweet Spots” exhibit, while reflecting his most recent focus, also embraces a life-long love affair.

“My art is my muse and my mistress,” he smiles. “Nature is beautiful, and beauty is healing.”

“Santa Cruz Sweet Spots” is on exhibit through Aug. 7 on the fifth floor of the County Governmental Center, 701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. PHOTO: Santa Cruz artist Ed Penniman at work. 

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