My name is Colleen Pendry and I am originally from the suburbs of Washington D.C. I live on a small piece of Heaven in Rockbridge County, Virginia with my husband of 32 years and our assortment of furred and feathered friends – four rescue dogs, one cat, three goats and fourteen chickens. I received a BA in Studio Art (Painting) from Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA and a MFA from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. I am currently a professor with Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, VA where I teach Drawing, 3-D design, and Art History and Appreciation.
I think I have always been an artist in one capacity or another. I remember when I was a kid, taking those “art tests” found on the cover of matchbooks. I must have drawn hundreds of those matchbook characters over the years. My mother was a writer and a folk singer and my father a jazz musician and storyteller. They encouraged creativity very early on, and for that I am eternally grateful!
My current work fragility, is an ongoing series which began following the death of my mother in March 2008. I remember my mother being in institutionalized in the early 60s when I was about five years old. A diagnosis of “tantrums” seemed apt during that time. She told me once that she had some poems and memoirs for me, but it wasn’t until after her death that I received the faded, nicotine-stained manila folder, stuffed with her past. A past I never really knew. Her writings are intense and seem to reveal, in fragments, the taboo of mental illness and her literal way of coping with the silence. The timelessness of these pages ultimately lead me to a place from her past – the former Western State Lunatic Asylum.
In early February 2010 I was granted access to the sprawling, once iconic campus of Greek Revival style buildings built from 1827–1842. In its inception, the asylum was perceived as a resort-style facility at the cutting edge of rehabilitation and healing for the mentally ill. By the mid 19th century those utopian ideals vanished and the buildings came to be a formidable warehouse for the poor, ill, and transient.
For two years, with camera in hand, I walked the halls, basements, and attics of the abandoned relic, documenting my steps. In the winter it was bitterly cold, and I found myself following the light through an endless maze of doors, corridors, and stairways.
While painting has always been a foundation in my work, it seemed not enough. Over the next few years I sought out new media and new techniques that would push the work further in an effort to capture the essence of time and space, emotion and memory–bringing the depth of solitude into tangible form.
In early 2013 I had watched a documentary on objects and memory, centered around the building of the 911 Memorial. At the same time, I was reading the Psychoanalysis of Fire by French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, and The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter. Shortly after, I began to strip down works in progress hoping to reflect the emotive and sometimes treacherous process of memory. I asked myself, how do we remember? A face, a song, a verse, a single word, a smell, a taste, a space, a color? An iteration of all the senses perhaps? And what are the tangible things we hold so dear when experiencing the euphoria and harshness of reminiscence? A stained photo, a tattered poem, a trinket? Then it came to me…
During my final few days of photographing the asylum I filled three paper bags with green paint fragments scraped from the walls of the asylum, later placed in a drawer in my studio. For months I had recurring dreams of windows, doors and those deteriorating green walls. I found a strangely comforting familiarity in that specific green.
After combing through hundreds of images, I chose those imbued with the notion of time and place. I printed each image on t-shirt transfer material and–after much trial and error–was able to peel the image away from the paper backing, revealing a hauntingly skin-like transparent image, which I then bonded to the paint fragment with beeswax and flames. These images ultimately became the subject matter of the fragility series and the paint fragments, ironically, the “trinket”. The copper wire was re-purposed from other works which became not only a base to cradle each piece, but a depiction of the instability of the past.
Outside of the fragility series, other memory projects include:
And, as my parents did for me, I am encouraging my grandson to embrace his creativity and have turned him loose with a camera. We are working on a project together titled Below the Horizon Line. He is four.
Colleen Pendry’s two fragility pieces won an honorable mention in our Small Works exhibition. Stop by the gallery before the end of the year to see Colleen’s artwork in person!
Check out our previous installment of Inside the Artist’s Studio, a post by enamel artist Katharine Wood.