In Dianne Penny’s Athens studio, one wall is covered with oil paintings of fruits and vegetables — a chopped cantaloupe, a bunch of beets, a sliced avocado — arranged on different surfaces. On another wall is a lone painting of a haystack in the middle of a field.
Penny sees a thread of similarity running through her works.
“I painted that haystack in the 1970s, and I didn’t paint again until the early 2000s,” said Penny, who has lived in Athens 30 years. “What surprises me is that they’re so much the same, with an isolated form in the center. I went right back to where I had been."
Those who’ve seen Penny’s recent paintings in the Mercury Art Works gallery at , in the current juried exhibition at the or last fall’s show at have ascribed all sorts of characteristics to her still lifes. While viewers may see passionate pears, sexual peaches and allegorical avocadoes, Penny sees just the form and shape of the food itself.
“People tell me all sorts of things,” she said with a laugh. “I do think these objects have a sort of power, because they’re so bold. But for me, they’re not cerebral at all. It doesn’t really matter what the object is.”
What matters, said Richard Olsen, a retired University of Georgia professor of painting, is that Penny keeps painting, displaying "a rugged determination to continue. The subject matter isn't important, it was just there for her to paint," he said. "The reality of it is how she painted the painting."
Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, who painted still lifes and landscapes for most of his life, counts as one of Penny’s favorite modern artists. Bottles and vases populate his paintings.
She hasn’t always focused on single objects in her artwork. As a child growing up in Decatur, Alabama, Penny painted and drew everything — the trees and hills around her, her friends and family, pets and houses. She came to the university’s art department in the 1970s and took painting and drawing classes, but majored in graphic design.
Penny worked as a graphic designer in Atlanta for several years before eventually returning to Athens to study painting with Jim Herbert, Elaine de Kooning and Richard Olsen, and painting with Robert Croker. After marrying Smith Wilson, an Athens contractor specializing in historic preservation projects, Penny took a job at the . The books and publications she designed were stylish and lovely.
She left the university to take care of her two daughters, Elizabeth and Catherine, doing freelance design projects on the side. She didn’t start to paint again until her children were young women—and a new studio was finished above the family’s garage.
“For me, a big part of painting is having a place of my own to do it,” Penny said. “My studio has made all the difference. I can go in there and just paint.”