Paul Penny was always an anomaly, right to the end. That’s how his son Chris Penny remembers the prolific Lawrence artist and jack of all trades, who died peacefully in his sleep Oct. 28 at age 92.
The elder Penny was known around town for his paintings of Lawrence landmarks and scenes, and as a longtime fixture at the annual Art in the Park festivals, which his mother, the late Addie Underwood Penny, helped found in 1961.
“He was indifferent to those who might want to control him or set standards that he didn’t buy into,” Chris said. “He would just do things his own way.”
For Penny, that meant living as a “starving artist” throughout his life, Chris said, while making sure his family always had enough to eat. Unlike his brothers who followed in their father’s footsteps (Myrl Nuzum Penny was the founder of Penny’s ReadyMixed Concrete Co.) by going into engineering, Paul Penny took after his artist mother, studying art at Lindsborg’s Bethany College after a stint in the Navy during World War II.
While honing his artistic talents in college, Penny also played on the football team, “which is not typical,” his son notes. Again, Paul Penny was an anomaly.
Professionally, he was most proud of his paintings. But ultimately, Penny was a “family man,” Chris said, who supported his family with odd jobs (delivery driver, property manager, various construction posts) while painting and selling pieces in his free time. He supplemented his modest income along the way with hunting, fishing and gardening, sometimes cooking up and eating frogs, snapping turtles and even roadkill.
After he retired and began collecting social security at age 62, Penny devoted himself to painting and exhibiting his work pretty much full-time. His pieces made their way into the Crown Center Art Show, Wyoming’s Wind River National Art Show and even the “Who’s Who in American Art” directory, for a few years.
But Penny’s art also popped up frequently in surprising places — namely, the Hy-Vee grocery store and Burger King on Sixth Street, and also in the now-shuttered Riverfront Mall, where Susan Craig first stumbled upon Penny’s paintings more than 15 years ago.
She was an immediate fan.
“If you’ve seen them, you don’t forget,” Craig said of Penny’s paintings. His portraits — of the men he had coffee with every morning, a routine he maintained for about 30 years up until his recent decline — especially impressed her.
“I don’t know how many people went to Burger King to see Paul’s paintings instead of going there to eat, but I was one of them,” Craig, an artist herself, likes to joke.
After admiring Penny’s work from afar, Craig was delighted to learn the artist was a fellow congregant at Lawrence’s First Christian Church. They soon became friends, and Craig said the older man became something of a father figure to her, having lost her own dad as a teenager.
“He was the kind of guy that I would walk into the fellowship hall after service and he would stand up, hold his arms out wide and say, ‘Come on, give me some sugar,’” Craig remembers with a laugh. “He was a big hugger, loved every one, a gentle man — a very gentle man.”
He was also “very generous with his talent,” Craig said, and enjoyed lending his time, mentorship and encouragement to fledgling artists like her. Penny, she said, was a master of light, of form, of color and perspective — all, especially that last trait, necessary in painting architecture, which Penny excelled at.
Family vacations and out-of-state hunting trips were inspirations for some of Penny’s pieces, but Lawrence remained his primary muse — right up to the end. Penny, his family said, began slowing down after suffering a stroke several months ago, but still remained mentally sharp well into his 90s.
“I think that his art is Lawrence,” Craig said.
“Yes, he did several huge paintings of Colorado and Utah, the Grand Canyon,” she said. “But the things I will remember are the Lawrence paintings — the bridge, the courthouse, the river, things here in town that you’ll recognize or maybe remember, if it’s something that isn’t here anymore.”
There aren’t many Lawrencians of Penny’s generation left in this town, Craig notes.
But Penny’s paintings remain. Chris Penny said there are hundreds, if not thousands, of his father’s pieces “in existence around and about.” Many are right here in Lawrence, displayed in private homes and businesses.
Chris Penny isn’t sure where his father’s works might be publically displayed at the moment, but guesses there are probably a few paintings hanging in somewhat unexpected places. Even at his father’s recent funeral, staff from Warren-McElwain unearthed a painting Penny had done years ago of the mortuary.
It was a surprise, the younger Penny recalls, “and a nice little treat.”
Just before his father died, Paul Penny asked Chris if he’d manage his body of work after he passed. Chris is now toying with the idea of a retrospective, but said he hasn’t committed to anything yet.
“In terms of his career, one thing that came to my mind is he would always say when he was asked, ‘What’s your favorite painting?’ and he would say that his next painting was going to be the best painting he ever did,” Chris said. “So, he had a very hopeful attitude.”