Sitting in the back of her “T. Pennington” gallery on Main Street in downtown Waynesville, the acclaimed colored pencil artist discusses her strategy for completing a timed piece of art for “Quick Draw.” A fundraiser for art education and art-related scholarships in the local schools, the annual event will be held on June 4 at Laurel Ridge Country Club in Waynesville. To date, Quick Draw has raised a total of $112,063 for grants and scholarships.
“Keeping art in the schools is extremely important, which is one of the reasons I love participating in Quick Draw,” Pennington said. “Art enriches peoples’ lives, and there are so many incredibly talented artists living in this area. I couldn’t imagine walking through a home without art, and how empty and bare everything would be.”
Originally from Asheville, Pennington fondly remembers coming to Waynesville as a child. Her affection for the community eventually led her to relocate here. Having no prior experience in art, Pennington crossed paths with her destiny by way of, well, being sick.
“I was pregnant with my son. And I was really sick during the pregnancy, so I quit my job and was bored to death at home,” she said. “I started to take some watercolor and acrylic classes. I did that for awhile, but wanted something more detailed, something that had more defined lines and features.”
Then, one Christmas, a friend gave Pennington her first set of colored pencils. It was as if a lightning bolt had struck her, a sudden epiphany, where now she had a clear vision of what she wanted to do with her life, all from the moment the pencils were into her hands.
“It was the greatest gift I’ve ever received,” she said. “I enjoyed it so much, right from the start. I fell in love with it, and haven’t done anything else since.”
For the first few years, Pennington hit the road, participating in numerous art shows, all the while honing her craft and dazzling folks that just couldn’t believe her extremely detailed drawings were done by colored pencil.
“Nobody did colored pencil, which worked in my favor because it was so unusual,” she said. “And everyone along the way was amazed it was done in colored pencil. But, for me, it’s what I did, and continue to do.”
In 1985, Pennington opened her gallery on Church Street in Waynesville, which is now The Classic Wineseller. Nine years later, she moved around the corner to where she remains today.
“Honestly, when I opened the gallery I had no business plan,” she said. “I had $500 in my bank account and all that I knew was that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I was working three jobs and quit them all to open the gallery. My mother was scared to death for me, bless her heart.”
But Pennington persisted, only to become one of the most recognized and sought-after artists in Western North Carolina and around Southern Appalachia. She’s been commissioned by the Biltmore Estate (17 years and counting), U.S. Forest Service, Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, and countless other organizations.
“To be able to make a living doing what you love is just phenomenal,” she said. “I never taking anything with this for granted — I’m very lucky.”
And amid her years flourishing as an artist, Pennington also takes a lot of pride and joy in the Church Street Art & Craft Show. With the 32nd annual event this fall in Waynesville (Oct. 8), the storied festival has grown alongside Pennington (one of its founders), to where tens of thousands flock to downtown in search of art right from the hands of the some of the finest creative minds in the region.
“The show feels like a child to me, one that I nursed and brought along, only to stand there and see how it’s grown into something really special,” she said.
Pennington emphasizes how blessed she feels to continue to do her work. Looking back at the steps she took to today, it’s quite a serendipitous thing, one that might even put some goosebumps on your arm while perusing her gallery, standing there in awe of just how defined and mesmerizing Pennington’s works are. It’s as if her hands are some kind of camera, sketching down the details of the landscape, only to develop into a finished product, something of artistic splendor and intrinsic value.
“I will keep on drawing as long as I can, even when I’m 85 and still able to hold up a pencil,” she smiled.