At age 83, Kalamazoo artist Patricia Fenn has been painting full time for more than 35 years and has no intention of stopping.
Fenn has been making art since she was a child growing up in Vicksburg. She won a national art award by the age of 7 and first earned money as a painter through a part-time job at Woolworth’s during high school. She demonstrated how to paint plaster figurines to look like china, and the manager gave her the run of the store. “He said, ‘You can go to the soda fountain anytime,’” she says. “He treated me differently than he did anyone else, and it did not dawn on me till years later he was selling my stuff for three times the cost, so I was a free employee.”
She no doubt came to this realization because art is her bread and butter. “I’m a good businessperson because I make the paintings make money for me in different ways,” she says. She reproduces each painting as prints, cards and puzzles at prices “for everybody’s pocketbook,” from $10 for the smallest prints up to $5,000 for large paintings.
Fenn currently sells her work — appropriately enough, considering her name — at a Fennville gallery, Fernwood 1891. She also exhibits it at several summer art shows, including the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Art Fair in Bronson Park, where she’s known as “The Kalamazoo Lady” for her painting of downtown Kalamazoo. “Even though I’ve been there for three years, they come looking for it again,” she says.
“Kalamazoo – My Home Town” depicts Bronson Park as seen from the north, as well as the facades of nearby churches and civic buildings on Michigan Avenue, South Street and Lovell Street. The buildings are detailed and accurately proportioned, but the perspective is odd — each street is completely visible above the one in front of it. Fenn calls this and other paintings like it “stack paintings.”
Although she also paints still lifes and portraits, buildings and streetscapes are her common subjects. She wanted to be an architect when she was in college, but it was such an uncommon profession for a woman then that she was the only female in her college class. “The boys in the class made me cry,” and the male instructor looked the other way, she says. “He didn’t want me in the class either.”
Fenn gave up architecture, but she applies the same attention to detail it requires to her paintings of buildings, taking hundreds of photos of each subject to get the scale right. It’s painstaking work. “They take me a whole year, but they are moneymakers forever,” she says. She still owns the original Kalamazoo painting, but sales of reproductions have already earned her $4,000.
Fenn didn’t become a full-time artist until she had raised her four children. Her husband’s career with the Federal Aviation Administration took the family to Florida, California, Texas and Washington, D.C., as well as the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. As they moved around, she held various art-related jobs, including teaching, graphic design and gallery management. She owned her own gallery in the heart of old San Juan, Puerto Rico, for five years.
Many of her paintings reflect her travels as well as a lifelong love of the water and boating. When she was a child, her family spent a lot of time on West Lake in Portage, and they later had a vacation home in Saugatuck, which is one of her favorite subjects.
Her paintings are also whimsically populated with her family members, friends and colleagues, as well as celebrities like Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly. She says she uses real people because if she didn’t, “they would look all the same.”
Fenn returned to Kalamazoo about 11 years ago to care for her aging mother, and she is now at a point where she would like to live nearer to at least one of her children, who are dispersed from Germany to Puerto Rico to California.
She misses the Caribbean, she says. “I’m going back for a whole month in December. I was thinking of trying to get back there because living is so much easier.” However, after 9/11, tourism to San Juan dropped dramatically and with it the economy. “I think it’s still in bad shape, but I’m going to go down and look the situation over.”
If not in San Juan, Fenn may open a gallery in Saugatuck, where her daughters plan to retire soon. But, as for herself, she says, “I will never retire.”