Color his world: Artist paints again after 44 years

By Nancy Carver Singleton
Warm and whimsical rural scenes. Vibrant skies with distinctive clouds overlooking barns, fences, houses, pastures, roads and windmills. And the occasional tornado.
That’s the world Virgil Penner dreams —and paints.
“My art is constructed art,” Penner, 82, of North Newton, said. “I create the colors, the balance and the movement so your eye moves around.”
Penner’s Kansas Regionalism exhibit at Carriage Factory Art Gallery, 128 E. 6th St. in Newton, which opened just as the coronavirus pandemic shut things down, has been extended to July 18. There is an artist reception 7 to 9 p.m. July 11.
Many know Penner from his long career teaching and coaching at Bethel College. He then served as CEO of the Newton Chamber of Commerce, retiring in 2009.
But art was his first passion.
Penner says a couple of teachers exerted a big influence on him. One was Cora Nicodemus, his seventh and eighth grade teacher at the one-room Candy School east of Newton. She sent students outdoors 30 to 40 minutes twice weekly to draw or write a poem. “I think a lot of the kids who went through her program learned to be observant of the world around them.”
His art teacher at Newton High School, Marie Orr, pushed her students to create movement in their works. “She told me, ‘Virgil, a straight line has no movement. Bend your lines and you create a mood and a feeling.’ She always said listen to music. ‘What does it do and and what do you see? Why can’t your image bring feeling?’ ’’
Penner planned to attend Kansas City Art Institute, but his father died during Virgil’s senior year and he was needed on the family farm. Penner went to nearby Bethel, earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts. He later received a master’s degree in education from Wichita State University.
Penner quit painting in 1964. “I was teaching and coaching, we planned on having a family and we lived in a trailer the first four or five years of our marriage.”
In the 1960s he began making architectural renderings and continues those today. A typical house rendering contains thousands of lines. His wife Kaye, who died last year, counted 375,000 lines in his drawing of Newton High School.
The urge to paint returned in 2008 while he and Kaye visited art galleries in Santa Fe and Taos. “There are miles and miles of art galleries. It is art heaven,” Penner said. He bought $500 of acrylic paint and canvas in Santa Fe.
Since 2008 he has created about 375 paintings and sold more than 150. Most of his paintings are priced between $425 and $975 and can be found on www.virgilapennerart.com. Penner also has paintings for sale at Carriage Factory Art Gallery and takes part in about a dozen art shows a year.
He puts tornados in some paintings and these usually sell immediately at shows, which surprises him. “There is nothing warm about a tornado painting. You can have boards wrapped around boards, things wrapped around trees. They are fun to do.”
A buyer from Moore, Okla., whose house had been struck twice told Penner he would put his tornado painting in a four-foot space by the back door. “He said, ‘I will see it each day and remember to check the weather.’ ”

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