Whimsy is Hard Work

Innovative paper-collage artist elevates simplicity

Portrait by Colby Rabon

Nearly two decades ago, Grant Penny arrived in Asheville in the midst of a successful career as a graphic designer. Something was missing, though. 

“After spending so much time on a computer, I was seeking something tactile and hands on,” Penny remembers. Painting and printmaking provided a bit of satisfaction, but then he “happened upon paper” and became a man of one medium.

Today, the artist’s paper collages are much prized for their sophisticated minimalist aesthetic, often served with a dash of whimsy. Crafted from a particular paper handmade in Nepal, Penny’s figurative designs are as much about negative space as the familiar shapes that appear against it: bicycles, traffic lights, electric fans, paper airplanes. 

More recent works center around house and home, but the subject matter is depicted in increasingly abstract ways — including his intricate Nests and Windows pieces and a series called Legs that emphasizes chair legs.

Golden Three

“Early on I was using dyed papers, but found the colors to be inconsistent and prone to fading,” Penny recalls, “so I began to paint and color-wash natural papers.” The background colors — soothing ochers, greens, blues, and reds that highlight the delicate texture of the paper — provide an expansive bed on which the images rest in easy conversation. Each piece receives several coats of a colorless acrylic to help deepen and protect the colors, and is then attached to a cradled wooden panel of birch or poplar.

Many of the pieces bear elusive titles, apparently unrelated to the images depicted, that Penny often adopts directly from his own lived experience. “They generally come from something that happened in my general orbit around the time of completing a piece, and I apply it to the work. It could be something said in conversation with my family, sometimes music, or just life in that particular moment.” Penny points to one collage in what he calls his House series that he named “Light Switch Learning Curve.” The title was born last spring when he moved into a new home with his wife Carly and daughter Emaline and they discovered a temporarily confounding arrangement of light switches. 

We Might Just Laugh Forever

“The titles make perfect sense to me, but I’m sure they’re rather obscure to the viewer,” he says. “I hope they at least find them interesting.”

The process of paper collage automatically produces a collection of remnants. Penny retains them for re-use in an ongoing series of works he calls Soup — another sly personal title derived from his childhood and his mother’s habit of saving up leftovers in a plastic container to later combine to make a simple meal. 

“It was always delicious because it was made from the meals we had enjoyed,” Penny says. “Comfortably familiar yet different every time, as it was never the same combination twice.” 

Orange Three

He carries on the tradition in his own kitchen as well as in his studio, where the leftover pieces of other works combine in unexpected ways. “I’ve completed six pieces [in the Soup series] so far, but I have tons of saved leftovers. It’s great fun to let loose with those wildly abstract pieces in contrast to my more controlled, minimalist work,” he says. 

Penny’s family history has figured significantly in his career growth. His soup-creative mother was also a respected painter, teacher, and graphic artist who made sure to expose her son to a variety of art forms as he grew up in Sanford, North Carolina, not far from Chapel Hill. Penny moved to Asheville in 2003, attracted by the city’s welcoming arts community.

Three from the Windows series.

The local scene helped spark his explorations in working with paper and provided those life moments enshrined in his works’ amusingly mysterious titles.

“I place a high value on humor in a lot of ways,” he says. “My intention is not for my work to be ‘funny,’ but often there’s a bit of a wink and a little smile in there somewhere.”

Delightful Like Yo-Yo Ma

Contemporary Paper Collage by Grant Penny, grantpenny.com. Penny is represented in Asheville by Mark Bettis Gallery at both locations (123 Roberts St. in the River Arts District and 15 Broadway downtown, markbettisgallery.com). Penny’s work will appear in the group show MONOCHROMATIC, opening in the downtown gallery Friday, Aug. 5, 5-8pm, as part of the Downtown Art District’s “First Friday” art walks, and running through Friday, Aug. 12.

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