Out to Africa - Olivia Pendergast presents 'African Vailet' at Turchin Center



Article Published: Nov. 5, 2009 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Out to Africa - Olivia Pendergast presents 'African Vailet' at Turchin Center


When Holly Pendergast changed her name to Olivia, the aspiring artist figured she was starting a new journey in life.

As it turns out, hers would be a literal journey.

Visitors to Appalachian State University's Turchin Center for the Visual Arts can share the journey with Pendergast's exhibit, "African Vailet," opening Friday, Nov. 6, and running through Jan. 16, 2010.

The exhibit is the result of four months spent in Malawi, Africa, which inspired her to create a series of large-format figurative paintings.

Her style has been likened to that of Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani, whose emotional paintings of figures with elongated features have defined the style.

Pendergast's exhibit is named after a Vailet, a 13-year-old girl she befriended in Malawi, along with her entire family. Though Pendergast started traveling and painting in Africa in 2008, her latest trip spanned February through May 2008, when she found herself introducing Malawian children to the joys of art.

After presenting them with a drawing board, paper and crayons, Pendergast was delighted to see the children so eagerly take to art - something to which she can personally relate.

Currently a resident of Seattle, Wash., Pendergast has been an artist since she can remember. The daughter of Boone residents Dan and Carol Pendergast, she was born in Florida, she moved to a farm in Sugar Grove at the age of 9, enjoying the pleasures (and work) of farm life, while also attending Cove Creek Elementary School.

"I've always done art, since I was really a little kid," Pendergast said, adding that her family, including sisters Heidi and Heater and her brother, Daniel, knew she would be an artist.

It was behavior her parents encouraged, buying her art supplies for Christmas and birthdays. Then again, it's also in her blood, as her grandfather, William Edwards, was an abstract painter, while her uncle, Ken Edwards, was a painter and sculptor.

"I had an insatiable appetite for any kind of craft or art," Pendergast said. "If I had clay, I'd make pots. If I had wood, I'd build something. If I had paint, I'd paint something."

Her grammar school teachers even noticed, often assigning young Pendergast the task of designing thematic bulletin boards. Later, she would sell her crafts at a booth in Valle Crucis' Apple Barn.

She graduated Watauga High School in 1988, as a student of art instructor Shelton Wilder, whose support was an impetus for her then fledgling career.

"I'd kind of hide out in the art room at lunchtime, because it's where I really fit in," she said. "All I wanted to do was art."

Wilder would encourage his students to enter competitions, boosting their confidence and gaining them deserved recognition. "He encouraged me to fully being an artist," Pendergast said.

In 1988, she received a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, which she called a "dream come true - five years of nothing but art in every respect of the word."

Though she majored in illustration, Pendergast took every fine-art course she could possible schedule. College, though, turned out to be a blessing and a curse. She was taught certain techniques and how to see art in a practical manner, which she said "disemboweled my artistic nature."

After graduating in 1993, and afraid of becoming a starving artist like her grandfather, Pendergast moved to Los Angeles, where she worked for five years in the film industry as a conceptual and special effects artist on such films as Sphere, popular television series like Star Trek: Voyager, and tons of commercials.

"I left school with a lot of knowledge of how to be an artist, but was afraid to explore my own curiosity about art," she said, adding that she didn't paint for years afterward.

Nonetheless, Pendergast kept hearing a call to paint, and, after resisting it as long as she could, moved to Park City, Utah, where she originally intended to snowboard, but ended up revitalizing her artistic career.

With her partner at the time fully employed, Pendergast could afford to forego day jobs and resume painting. She ended up selling 14 paintings in three to four months. Local galleries grew interested, including the Phoenix Gallery, which still represents her. Pendergast was elated, "just seeing that I could do it."

"I was so poor for a while - the thing I'd wanted to avoid, the starving artist," she said. "I embraced it. I knew I'd have to pay my dues to become successful, and it was really hard for four or five years."

This success took a tremendous amount of self-promotion, and once her desired career started rolling, Pendergast said the sky was the limit. Competitions, museums, publications - any venue that presented itself, she would embrace.

During this time, her paintings concentrated primarily on landscapes, until a weeklong residency program in Vermont indirectly introduced her to Modigliani. Taking a break from landscapes to paint people, Pendergast was approached by a fellow artist who asked if she knew of Modigliani.
Pendergast sought some of his work and poured over several collections, finding herself openly weeping over the material.

"Art was how I processed the world," she said. "I felt colors and wept easily over beautiful objects or moments that broke my heart. I didn't know I'd be able to paint like that - I was totally moved by his work, a softness and gentle observation of humanity that just broke my heart. Picasso said, 'Borrow, don't steal,' so I borrowed Modigliani's style and it morphed into my own, and I'm just letting it do its thing."

Pendergast still doesn't quite know why her figures elongate, be it long necks or limbs. "I just know when I do otherwise, it feels wrong," she said.

Determined to continue painting people, Pendergast sought subjects in Africa. Her present partner was working in Malawi, so it was there they'd rendezvous for several months in 2008.

They were robbed the very first night, offering both a dismal glimpse of Malawian city life.

"It got easier, and I spent the entire time painting while I was there," Pendergast said.

She would return to Malawi in 2009, this time residing in a small village called Nkhotakota, located near Lake Malawi.
"This time, being in a village, I got to know the villagers, spending time with families and playing Frisbee with their children on the beach," she said.

She introduced the children to art, including Vailet, while teaching young adults to paint with the materials they had available, like monochromatic painting, she said, "so they could do this on their own."

Her paintings at the Turchin Center reflect Vailet and her family, representing those she encountered in Nkhotakota. Pendergast's journey changed her outlook on art - not necessarily her artwork, but how it could benefit mankind.

"Is art unto itself enough?" she asked herself. "Is doing art for art's sake enough, or should I be using it to make a political statement or help others?"

Pendergast has chosen to help others, providing libraries for primary schools in Africa. "If children can read, they can make broader decisions about their lives," Pendergast said, having learned of an organization called Libraries for Africa, through which people can donate collections of books to be shipped overseas, where librarians have been trained in their upkeep and disposal.

To raise money (and books) for this effort, Pendergast raffles her paintings, with the cost of raffle tickets being two children's books for each. Further, any profits from her Turchin Center show will go toward another shipment of library books for a school in Lesotho, Africa.

Pendergast will attend the Nov. 6 opening, before departing Nov. 9 to visit Africa and parts of India. The opening is welcome to the public and free of charge, running from 7 to 9 p.m. as part of the Downtown Boone Art Crawl.

The Turchin Center for the Visual Arts is located at 423 W. King St. in downtown Boone. For more information, call (828) 262-3017. For more information on Olivia Pendergast, visit http://www.oliviapendergast.com.

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