OPINION: Meet Steve Penley, the da Vinci of the GOP

If you’re an eagle-eyed politico around Atlanta, Washington, or New York, you have probably spotted the art of Steve Penley, the Georgia-born artist who paints American icons in sweeps of bold yellows, reds, and blues.

A visit to GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Capitol office will turn up three Penleys — massive canvases of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and George Washington crossing the Delaware.

The Atlanta funeral last year for the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Iskason featured a large Penley portrait of the senator placed prominently at the altar where a photograph would usually go. And if you watched Fox & Friends on July 4th, you likely saw a live shot of Penley painting a huge American flag and telling the hosts all about it.

A Penley painting can go for up to $35,000 and they’re snapped up by Republicans and Democrats alike. But Penley’s conservative politics, along with friendships with everyone from McCarthy to Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade to Gov. Brian Kemp and Herschel Walker have made him the rare art celebrity in Republican circles.

His subjects are invariably drawn from nostalgic American imagery and iconography ― Reagan, JFK, the Statue of Liberty, the flag.

“I’ve always had a sense of America being a great place to be and I’ve always kind of felt like we were really cared for. We are really just so fortunate,” he said.

How did the son of a Macon piano store owner become the da Vinci of the GOP? I went to his Buckhead studio to find out, which is also where Kemp and Walker held rallies this year at the artist’s invitation.

He introduced himself wearing a gently rumpled tweed jacket and paint-splattered pants and shoes, like an Ivy League professor who had been through a hurricane and a paint spinner.

His hulking studio space is lined with canvases of all sizes, depicting everything from flags to flowers to a wooden cutout of Ronald Reagan throwing a football as a college student.

He started painting when he was “little bitty,” and decided to pursue art at the University of Georgia since it was “absolutely the only marketable skill I had.”

After what he described as five years of classes at UGA and eight years living in the Kappa Sigma fraternity house in Athens, the not-so-typical fraternity brother moved north with a buddy to make a go in the New York art world.

Penley was back in Georgia two years later and had a chance encounter with Robert Steed, a high-profile lawyer with King & Spalding, who saw one of his paintings at an Atlanta restaurant and commissioned one.

Penley’s connections to his Republican power-player pals started in two ways. The first was through Coach Vince Dooley, himself an artist. Dooley used to visit the classes at UGA’s School of Visual Arts, including Penley’s. As a high-school athlete himself, he said he was the only art student to recognize the coach in class.

The two met again later and struck up a personal and professional relationship that lasted until Dooley’s last days. The two collaborated on multiple books, with Dooley handling most of the prose and Penley illustrating. They include titles on college football, UGA history, and Dooley’s garden.

“I wish people could have known that he was so much bigger than football. He knew everything about everything,” he said. “I was lucky to have him.”

He later met Walker through Dooley, and more heavy honchos through Fox News.

“I’d always planned on seeking Fox out because I knew I needed a visual platform,” he said. “So when they first came online I made a goal just to connect with them.”

He started as a guest on national holidays and then began collaborating on set design for Fox News focus groups with the pollster, Frank Luntz. They traveled the country together during presidential elections like a traveling circus. It was during these trips that Penley also met Fox’s mostly Republican guests.

With his paintings broadcast to millions through Fox, viewers started reaching out for commissions, too.

As conservative as some of his clients are, Penley’s own politics are so far to the right he jokes that Kevin McCarthy is “my liberal friend” and says he considers all Democrats, “Marxist-slash-fascists by definition.”

He’s also quick to declare his shortcomings — things he thinks people will criticize him for anyway, including being “probably a true idiot” when he was younger.

“I am kind of close-minded and I’m frustrating for people to talk to because the things I believe, I believe in outright until somebody can prove it differently,” he said. “But on the other side of that, I don’t judge people personally for what they believe. If I did, I’d have no friends.”

Along with his canvases, Penley also has huge murals at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta and on the side of a parking deck in the Dallas Art District. And thanks, in part, to Fox News, he has a client base all across the country.

As for the politics of today, he said he’s worried for the country. He counts Democrats and Republicans among his close friends, but he readily says he can’t be objective about Kemp or Walker because he’s known them both for so long. He’s also not voting for Raphael Warnock.

“I don’t care if it’s a serial killer, I want somebody that’s not a Marxist in that Senate seat,” he said.

He’ll keep turning out art that people want — the Churchills, the Teddy and Franklin Roosevelts, the bridges and American triumphs. They pay the bills and he’s running a business, after all. But the paintings also tell the story of a certain kind of American exceptionalism that Penley and his collectors want to keep alive.

“I’ve dedicated my career to rebuilding America in the eyes of people,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle.”

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