When Yakima visual artist Penn O. Shelton was a precocious 5-year-old, she picked up a New Yorker magazine and became instantly enchanted by an “itty bitty” picture of a painting by Jackson Pollock. “Man, I want to do that,” she recalled saying. And with those simple words the die to her life’s work was cast.
At 67, Penn’s passion for painting still drives her daily life. “I don’t paint things the way they are, but the way they feel,” she explained, standing surrounded by large canvases that take up most of the living room of her 1960s mid-century modern home. Her subject matter varies from Eastern Washington landscapes, animals and portraits to fanciful flying ladies, but one thing is for sure, her work never fails to capture the imagination.
Intelligent beyond her years, she skipped the eighth grade and graduated from high school at 16. Too young to stop going to school, she enrolled at nearby Western Washington College (now Western Washington University) in Bellingham. Penn wasted no time diving into as many art classes as she could fit in her schedule, including oil painting, watercolor, pen and ink and art history. Uncertain about Penn’s future as an artist, her mother advised, “If you want to be an artist, you’re going to be poor and you need to buy property instead of renting.”
After three years of college, Penn took a break from school and moved to San Francisco in the heart of the turbulent late ‘60s. She spent several years working as a temp for a variety of businesses and in her free-time taking advantage of everything the city by the Bay had to offer. “In San Francisco I met several practicing and teaching artists,” she said. These acquaintances helped her realize the possibility of art as a full-time profession.
Penn’s biggest fan is retired journalist Phil Shelton, Penn’s husband of 44 years. “I met Phil at our family home on Chuckanut Mountain. He was representing our church and came on a fundraising mission. Oo la la! Such a dazzling smile. I was a goner,” Penn recalled with a laugh. After they married, the couple lived in Bellingham where Phil wrote for the Lynden Tribune and Penn worked in her second favorite job as a librarian. Eventually they migrated to the east side of the mountains, and made Yakima their home in 1980.
Still determined to pursue art as a vocation, Penn remembered art teacher Larry Hanson’s advice that she should become an illustrator. She discovered that Yakima’s J.M Perry Technical Institute offered an illustration course and she quickly enrolled. “I did art for 12 hours a day,” Penn said, adding that she loved every minute of it.
After zipping through the coursework in 18 months, Penn began working as a professional graphic artist and illustrator. Over the years her work became very popular with Yakima businesses like the Yakima Herald-Republic, St. Elizabeth Hospital, Tree Top and Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, to name a few. She admits the pay was great and work was steady, but over the years, her love of painting began to compete for her time.
“I started to paint in earnest in 1989,” Penn recalled. In the beginning she worked at home, but soon she needed more room and purchased the perfect building for an art studio downtown at 109 S. Seventh Ave. Finally, she had the space to work on several large and small canvases at a time. Once a month she’d host a studio show to promote her own artwork, alongside pieces done by other local artists.
Penn admits that the friendships she’s made in the local arts community have greatly benefited her career. She is especially grateful for the special bond she has had over the years with Leo Adams, Yakima’s most renowned artist. From the beginning, Adams guided her development as a painter, helping her create her own style. Consequently, Penn has mirrored the encouragement she received from Adams by mentoring individuals starting out on their own artistic path.
Today, Penn’s work is known for its variety of subject matter. But her paintings of horses and whimsical faces have definitely caught the public’s attention. “It started when I was 8 years old. I came across two gorgeous bays and fell in love,” she explained. Today when she starts painting her equine subjects, she experiences something almost mystical. “I start with gold (paint) topped with ivory-black. The brushstrokes or something in the movement in my wrist action seem to create the horses all by themselves. The horses just show up and place themselves (on the canvas).”
Her small face paintings came out of a particularly difficult round of cancer treatment she underwent several years ago. “Each face is like a gesture,” Penn explained. With minimal lines or detail, her portraits of both men and women somehow capture a definite point of view and personality in each face. She remembered selling more than 24 face paintings when Joe and Irene Simon had their gallery at 32nd and Summitview avenues.
Today, Michelle Wyles, owner of Garden Dance on North Front Street, regularly displays Penn’s work for sale.“I think Penn’s art is intelligent and quirky and makes you smile,” Wyles said.
Over the course of her career, Penn has won awards from many regional juried art shows, including the Larson Gallery and Allied Arts. She also enjoys working on commissions — a recent commission featured a mother and her two grown daughters sitting on a floating branch, each with a white dove perched in their hands and big smiles on their faces. Pure Penn O. Shelton!