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A Brush With Greatness: Meet Georgia Painter Steve Penley, Coke’s Unofficial Artist-in-Residence

By:  Jay Moye Jun 13, 2014
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Everything about Steve Penley’s home screams "artist" -- from the paint splattered on the floors and furniture (not to mention his clothes), to the easels, enamel-caked brushes and paint cans littering every room, to eccentricities like his black-and-white, litterbox-trained pet rabbit appropriately named Oreo, who's hopping around a screened-in porch when we arrive.

“We’d let him roam around, but he likes to eat the art,” Penley explains.

In a few weeks, the house in Carrollton, Ga. -- about an hour west of Atlanta -- will be gutted and renovated, so it’s currently being used as one big, habitable canvas. A temporary studio in what was once a foyer is bordered only by studs, which means you can see in from throughout the main level, as if looking into an open cage.

Inside, Penley is seated on a colorfully painted couch, sporting round, tortoise shell glasses. His longish, graying hair is combed back, and he’s wearing paint-speckled pants, a rumpled, long-sleeve shirt and low-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars. From the neck up, he’s GQ. From the neck down, he’s more Garden & Gun.

Steve Penley art

'It wasn’t like I ever wanted to be an artist... but I think I’ve always been one,' Penley said.

He hasn’t slept much the last few days, he tells us. Too much work (he’s not complaining). Plus he’s preparing a commencement speech to give that weekend at the University of West Georgia, just a few blocks away, and he’s clearly a bit nervous.

“A lot of my friends have this idea of what an artist should be -- hip and cool,” says Penley, who turns 50 in December. “I’m not really those things. The past few years, I’ve worked every minute I’ve been awake.”

And his hard work has paid off. Over the last two decades, Penley has emerged as one of the country’s foremost painters. He’s made his mark by reinterpreting American historical figures and iconography in his signature, instantly recognizable style. One icon he has painted perhaps more than any other is the Coca-Cola contour bottle.

“Every one of Steve’s paintings has this magical quality, this exuberance that jumps out at you,” said Ted Ryan, Coke’s director of heritage communications. “The colors are so vibrant, the style is so vivid. The energy and optimism marries up with what you think Coca-Cola should be.”

The brand's American roots, yet global reach and universal appeal, make it a great subject, Penley says.

“A Coke bottle is a common bond we all share,” he explains. “I manipulate it with my colors and my brushstrokes to help the public see it in a new way. I want people to take away a feeling of comfort, optimism and hope. Because to me, Coke is all of those things.”

Steve Penley
'Part of My Family History'

What is now one of Penley’s primary muses has been a constant fixture throughout his life. He was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., where his grandfather worked as a route driver for the first-ever Coca-Cola bottler.

“I remember riding around with him in the delivery truck and taking the bottles back to the stores,” Penley says over raindrops pinging the tin roof overhead. “I feel like Coke has been a part of my family history. More than anything else, Coke has always been there, so it’s a natural fit for me to do work for the company.”

He was born into an artistic family. His parents were both natural doodlers who could sit down and sketch just about anything. “My mom, when I was a kid, used to tell me over and over again that I was the greatest artist in the world,” Penley said. “That became imprinted in my head and somehow helped me have the confidence to do what I do now. And my dad was a piano salesman, which I think helped me want to paint for a living and have a product to sell.”

Penley started drawing when he was only three years old. Astronauts, airplanes and dinosaurs were among his earliest subjects. Growing up in Macon, Ga., he was inspired by MAD magazine co-founder Jack Davis’ cartoons, Norman Rockwell’s illustrations, Walt Disney’s creative process, and Bob Ross’ technique.

“It wasn’t like I ever wanted to be an artist,” he said. “As a matter of fact, when you’re a kid growing up in Macon, you don’t really want people to know you’re an artist because that’s how you'd get your ass kicked. It’s like saying you’re a shepherd."

He adds, “But I think I’ve always been one. Art is so much a part of me, I don’t even see it as me doing it anymore.”

Penley’s talent has rubbed off on his three young children -- son, Lyall, and daughters, Abbey and Parker -- all of whom paint. “They picked up a lot in osmosis; it’s part of their lives by default,” he said. “My daughters get upset when I get paint on their dollhouses, but fleas come with the dog.”

A few years ago, when a neighboring family was building a new house, Lyall asked his friend where his father’s art studio would be. “He assumed everyone’s dad had one,” Penley said.

Different Strokes

Penley didn’t pick up a brush until his freshman year at the University of Georgia. He loved college, but never felt at ease among his fellow art majors. “That first day I walked into class, everyone stopped and stared at me,” he recalls. “I was dressed like a prep, with loafers and a fraternity t-shirt. It was like walking from one world into another.”

The girl next to him was painting chickens with their heads ripped off. “Blood was coming out, and I was over there painting a mallard duck scene, which I of course got ridiculed for,” he said. “I figured I wasn’t hip enough to be an artist. I never thought I’d find a place in the art world.”

He describes his early style as “hyper-realistic”-- a hybrid of illustrations and paintings. “But I realized it took too long,” he said. “I had to figure out what I could do well and do quickly… which gives art spontaneity and intensity.”

After spending eight comfortable years on the UGA campus, his fraternity brothers staged an intervention. “They told me it was time for me to move on and find my place in the world,” he says, laughing. A friend encouraged Penley to move with him to New York. He had no money and no car, so it sounded like a great idea.

He got a job selling women’s shoes, thinking it would help him meet girls. “But it didn’t work because they see right through you to the shoes,” he said.

Penley was surrounded by some of the world’s finest art and limitless inspiration, but still felt out of place. “I walked into this hip gallery in SoHo one day,” he recalls. “The room was filled with this big pile of dirt. I thought it was under construction, but realized the dirt was actually the art piece. I didn’t think it was the place for me.”

Steve Penley

The Coca-Cola Connection

After floundering around the Big Apple awhile longer, Penley eventually moved back South, landing in Atlanta. “Part of me knew I’d be an artist, but the logical side of me was scared to death and freaking out because I was getting older. I was 10 years out of college and had no idea what to do with my life.”

He was living in a friend’s basement, days away from returning to Macon to sell pianos with his dad, when he got a call that sealed his fate. A childhood friend was opening a restaurant and needed 15 to 20 paintings to cover the walls, stat. It was his first transaction where beer wasn’t used as currency.

Steve Penley art

Penley's first painting for Coca-Cola, circa 1994.

After buying the cheapest enamel paint he could find, he racked his brain for inspiration. “At that time, I had no idea what by style, or even my subject, was,” he said. “My favorite subject in college was history, so I started painting Churchill, Einstein, George Washington and Lincoln… all the things I’m painting now. And I did them really quickly because I had to, which was fortuitous because I realized it was my natural painting style.”

Both his technique and subject matter resonated with the restaurant’s customers. A partner at Atlanta law firm King & Spalding hired him to paint portraits of the firm’s two founders. He slowly built a clientele and approached a college friend who was working in shareholder relations at Coca-Cola.

He painted a four-foot by five-foot Coke bottle for his office. “It was as basic as you can be,” Penley recalls. “To me, it looks really raw and almost primal.”

That first painting did what Penley hoped it would do: catch the collective eye of other execs at Coke’s North Avenue headquarters.

“Word spread about the fact that this great Atlanta-based artist did these bright, colorful Coke bottles,” said Ryan, who hired Penley a few years later for a painting celebrating Coke’s 100th anniversary in Latin America.

Penley’s biggest project for Coke at the time came in 2008, when he was asked to showcase his art at the newly relocated World of Coca-Cola in downtown Atlanta. His exhibit followed an Andy Warhol retrospective and was up for a full year. “That show was really the beginning of my working for Coke professionally,” he said. “Things snowballed from there.”

Steve Penley mural at the World of Coca-Cola

A historical mural Penley painted for the "new" World of Coca-Cola in 2008.

His work now hangs in Coca-Cola offices around the world -- from Shanghai to London -- as well as in New York’s Madison Square Garden (a longtime Coke partner) and countless private and corporate collections around the world.

“Steve is like the artist in residence for Coca-Cola,” Ryan said. “Any time we need something that represents Coca-Cola, whether it’s for the Olympics or one of our customers, he's ready to do a fantastic job.”