January 2009 Issue
The Artist's Way
Former Ohio State University dean Stephen Pentak pursues his passion for landscapes.
It’s opening night at Keny Galleries in Columbus, and Stephen Pentak is slowly pacing the room. One by one, sophisticated-looking arts patrons pull up in luxury automobiles that waver unsteadily along the hard, cobblestone streets of the city’s German Village neighborhood.
Pentak admits to feeling jittery as he prepares for his first art exhibition in Columbus since retiring as associate dean of Ohio State University’s College of the Arts in 2006. While speaking, he’s surrounded by the collage of masterworks – delicate watercolors by noted American artists such as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Alice Schille – that graces the urbane gallery’s walls.
“I pretty much consider myself a blue-collar painter,” Pentak says, about his preferred method of working: He squeezes oil paint onto a table that serves as a pallet, and uses broad putty knives and large brushes to apply the paint to wood and paper, his preferred surfaces.
How will they mesh – the painter’s style and the patrons’ expectations?
“I really like this one,” remarks an opening-night visitor to the gallery, lightly holding a glass of wine in one hand and a strawberry in the other. She marvels at the thickness of oil paint on birch wood and the bold brush strokes that form a close-up view of a tree branch against a background of muted mountains.
At 57, Pentak is right where he wants to be – living his dream of being a successful artist. It’s a full-time job he’s long thought about but only recently has been able to embrace. In retirement, Pentak has found joy in transforming every blank canvas he comes upon.
“I didn’t leave Ohio State for travel opportunities,” he says. “I left so I could have more room to breathe and take on new challenges.”
Now free to experiment with his art, Pentak is crafting a successful second career. He’s represented by a number of exclusive galleries around the country, including Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in Manhattan and Susan Street Fine Art in San Diego, and his paintings are displayed in a host of public and private collections.
“He’s very popular,” says Marcia Hall, gallery director of The Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland, where Pentak’s art has been shown for more than a decade. “His subjects are relatable and his abstract landscapes are very calming.”
Pentak’s models of choice are the trees that straddle American rivers. Most of his paintings in the Keny Galleries show, for instance, depict the Snake River in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, where Pentak enjoys fly-fishing and finds inspiration in the natural beauty that surrounds him. His works are filled with birches, sycamores, alders, aspens and willows.
“I’m not thinking like a horticulturist,” he says. “I think of trees more gesturally. I see them as following the rhythms of nature.”
Many of his paintings resemble photos taken with a wide-open aperture. The result can be seen in a work that Pentak simply titled “I.II,” in which a twig in the foreground is juxtaposed with blurred hills in the background.
Pentak’s love of painting began while he was growing up in upstate New York, the place that also inspired the Hudson River School painters. These mid-19th century artists, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, portrayed romantic images of America’s wilderness with dramatic elements of mist and sunsets.
Pentak, however, chose the initial path of teaching after being technically schooled in the fine arts. After completing his undergraduate education at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he earned a master of fine arts degree in painting from Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. He came to OSU in 1983 to teach drawing, painting and design, a vocation he’s enjoyed immensely. His textbooks, Design Basics and Color Basics, remain widely used references in the field.
“I loved teaching the fundamentals of color to first-year artists,” Pentak says. “I derived a great deal of satisfaction teaching students at that level, because you could see them grow in their perceptual and conceptual powers of problem-solving. They began to see the world around them more profoundly and in less clichéd ways.”
Pentak kept a studio while he taught. But upon his entry into the administrative ranks at Ohio State, life became too hectic for him to paint as much as he wanted to. Still, Pentak is grateful for his 23-year career, which afforded a variety of travel opportunities – as well as inspiration. Six months after leaving OSU, Pentak received an opportunity to teach painting in Italy. For three months, he taught American students studying abroad in the Tuscany hill town of Cortona.
“There were beautiful landscapes, olive groves and terra cotta rooftops, the stuff of clichés,” he recalls. “It took me a while to find what it was in the landscape that I could respond to in my paintings. [I didn’t want my work to look like] postcard views of Italy or something resembling images done by a schmaltzy tourist.”
Transfixed by the milky smoke filling the valleys near Lake Trasimeno, Pentak developed a new series of two dozen paintings. He interpreted the mist as a veil that obscured the verdant spring, much like the cataract of age obscures the vision of youth.
The paintings led to shows on both coasts. “I was excited that I was able to do what I was teaching my students to do,” he says.
As Pentak stops to greet patrons, shake hands and answer questions about his work, it’s clear the butterflies he came with have flown. He sighs and take it all in.
“This feels,” he says, “like a celebration.”