The Arts

The artist becomes the subject in Jackie Penny’s memoir

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jackie Penney at work last week in her Cutchogue studio.

For old timers here, just the name of the artist — Jackie Penney — conjures images of the North Fork’s fields, sea and sky. Eel-grass tickling the surface of one painting beckons the eye toward Robins Island. In another, a pair of slatted Adirondack chairs casts shadows on grainy sand.

Now, in her self-published memoir, “Me Painting Me: A Memoir,” Ms. Penney shares her remarkable story about a difficult life eclipsed by her gutsy determination to be an independent woman.

“At 82 you can do whatever you want,” said the still feisty, iconic painter and fine-art teacher.

In a recent interview, Ms. Penney offered a preview of her memoir. An accompanying exhibition of her original paintings and reproduction prints (giclées) is on view at Cutch-ogue New Suffolk Library through Aug. 31.

Q. Why did you write your memoir?

A. I wanted to do it for a long time. Who am I? People don’t know. I think I’ve had a wonderful life but it didn’t start out that way. As a child you are scarred easily. There were two marriages, alcohol and dysfunction. I was stabbed in Mexico. I had no support. I divorced. Then everything changed, looked different. My colors became cheerful.

Two or three years ago I saw an article about a memoir-writing course with Sarah Bloom. It was wonderful. I wanted to do it for myself.

Q. What made your early life so difficult?

A. If I had to describe my childhood as a color, it would be gray.

My mother came from France. My father, an opera singer from Ireland, died when I was 4. Making a living in the 1930s wasn’t easy. My mother used all her resources, including my brother and me, to make money. We were Powers child models. I don’t think that was a bad thing for my mother to do, but it was tiring and it made me sad.

Five months after my father died my mother remarried and we moved to Florida … Rhode Island, Connecticut and back to Port Washington, where we started. That husband died. Husband No. 3 had alcohol abuse issues. It’s hard to describe what this does to young people, but I spent most of my time in the woods, by myself. At 16 my angel, Sandra Forman, a neighbor for whom I baby-sat, took me in. I left home to live (and work) with her.

Q. When did the bells and whistles go off that foretold you would be an artist?

A. I never thought I was an artist, and there was nothing at home — no toys, pencils, paper. But I remember one exhilarating moment, when I was in school, standing by a window looking at beautiful clouds. I’d set my crayons on a radiator and when I looked, I felt a palpable thrill seeing liquid color run down the radiator. [She referred to a painting, “My Head in the Clouds,” an abstract work that sparked the memory.]

But one teacher did encourage me, and so did Sandra Forman, who “knew” I was an artist and urged me to take every course offered. I was stunned when I got a scholarship to Phoenix School of Design. Norman Rockwell went there — that’s why I went. It gave me a great background in drawing. I was free in art school.

Q. So you pretty much fell into art by luck and circumstance. Did you continue your art education?

A. I went to Black Mountain College for the summer. What a stimulating place that was! I met Bucky [Buckminster] Fuller, who photographed me on a model of his geodesic dome to show how strong it was. (I weighed about 98 pounds!) I then studied at the Chicago Institute of Design but had to come home and get a job. I presented my portfolio at the Madison Avenue advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald and Sample. They laughed and said, “We don’t allow women in the art gallery.” They hired me as a receptionist.

I got married.

Q. Black Mountain College was an avant-garde school. Did contemporary abstraction ever appeal to you?

A. When I first saw Picasso’s works, I found them disturbing, especially his violent treatment of women. I am basically a realist who has developed a popular style. My heart is in nature, though I do many different things. In fact, the people at the library said, “We know what you do. What else do you do?” Many of these other things are included in the show.

Q. Can you cite some examples of different themes and abstraction in your works?

A. “Still (Life) of the Party” is not happy; it’s austere and dark. The balloons are melting, bottles overturned, cigarettes stale in their ashtrays. It’s about alcohol abuse and how it affects your life. “Dancing in the Light” is a still life that tells how I feel when I paint. A pair of artist’s mannequins dance on a shelf with colored glass, crocheted doilies and flowers. Stripes of light go through the painting. It’s about the importance of the “negative” background elements that create the painting. And “Old Andruski Barn” is a myriad of rectangles, some positive, some negative. They’re everywhere.

Q. Did your love of light draw you to the North Fork?

A. No. I came in 1958 to spend time with my family, and finding time to paint was my biggest problem. My first husband, Bill, and I rented a cottage in Cutchogue and it was instant love. You could drive down the road and buy home-made bread. I loved the special light in Cutchogue and New Suffolk, where I would [in later years] take my students.

Q. How important was teaching for you?

A. It’s been my joy. People come into my world and bring me energy. Every once in a while extraordinary human beings walk into my life, gorgeous sponges who can’t get enough of what I teach. It’s exhilarating, and that feeds me.

Q. You dedicate your memoir to women who ‘fought for our lives and freedoms.’ Why?

A. The women’s movement gave me the chance to escape being a model of my mother. I became more aware of the contributions made by the women in my life, starting with my mother, who plays an integral part of my story. My daughter, granddaughter, daughter-in-law and friends are strong, confident women who are unafraid to be who they are. Because of the heroic, liberated women, many men now champion women’s equal place in our society. The men in my life, including my son and grandson, are among them.

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