Painting Ordinary People with Extraordinary Glows



Olivia Pendergast has only been in Kenya a little less than three years. But this prolific American painter is one of those people who can’t keep herself from painting.

That is how come she has exhibited her art in the US, Ethiopia, Dubai, Malawi and now Kenya.

In Kenya, she has been in several group shows where her translucent landscapes have transcended clichéd styles and drawn upon a special skill that her artwork, currently on display at One Off Gallery in Nairobi, also reveals.

Both landscapes and portraits are what Olivia says are her present preoccupations. But in both cases, her work reveals an ineffable something that is not easy to define.


Olivia Pendergast painting. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

In her One Off Gallery show, she calls it an ‘Aura’, referring to a ‘distinctive atmosphere or quality (or emanation) that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing or place.’

If that sounds rather mystical, it could be. The artist says that everyone has an aura although not everyone has the capacity to see it in others. She’s had that talent all her life.

Mostly we associate auras with the halos depicted in religious art to suggest a holy or God-given quality bestowed on a person. But Olivia sees that quality (and otherwise invisible energy) emanating from everyone she meets. “I don’t see auras as only reserved for saints. I see everyone as having one. Call it divine if you like,” she said at the opening of her second solo exhibition at One Off last Saturday.

That is why Olivia can paint portraits of taxi drivers like John (who’s on the cover of her catalogue) and a tuk tuk driver in oils on a large canvases, and paint them not only emanating their respective auras (each individualised to reflect the particular energy of the individual) but also conveying a sense of dignity.

Her show includes house helpers, old women and even one slightly inebriated man from Kibera where she met some of the subjects of her exhibition. All are painted respectfully. But more, all are expressive of unique emotions that seem to evoke each subject’s character.

For instance, the young ‘Girl on stool’ looks sweet as her aura appears almost like a leafy crown or garland, suggesting a natural innocence. Yet the little girl looks slightly uncomfortable. Her profile looks wistful, as if she had like to be out playing with friends, not sitting still so Olivia can snap a photo which she will take home as a touch stone for her painting.


Olivia Pendergast painting. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Yet despite her shooting photos of her subjects, (rather than having them sit for hours as portrait painters used to require), her art is anything but realistic. It’s figurative, and her subjects are recognisable (although her own ‘Self Study in Red’ looks nothing like the vibrant artist we met at One Off. Her self-study looks subdued and serious, but also fully focused as is Olivia.

That piece suggests that Olivia is more intent on painting what she feels about her subjects, not just what she sees. She explains that people’s auras emanate from within which implies that her art aims to connect the aura that she sees with the emotions that she feels about the one being portrayed.

Trained in a classical style of realistic painting at her art school in the US, Olivia admits she felt liberated when she discovered the art of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani who also painted portraits and nudes (Olivia was in two group exhibitions at One Off that featured nudes).

Modigliani’s appeal was his modernist approach which elongated figures and created almost surrealist distortions of people’s forms. These are also characteristics of Olivia’s art.

What is most distinctive about her work, (apart from the auras and usage of pencil to delineate form in her paintings) is the careful attention she gives to her faces.

Each one is multi-faceted and multi-coloured as if to reflect all the various emotions running through each character that she paints. Take for instance, the Kibera man. He has red rosy cheeks, but they are mixed on his face with a rainbow array of colours, everything from shades of white, yellow, blue, pink and grey.

But like impressionist paintings, when one stands at a distance away from the artwork, one can only see how vibrant and evocative the facial features of her subjects are.