Carola Penn, longtime Portland artist, dies

Wide-ranging subjects and provocative arrangements captured urban life, landscapes, politics, abstracts, and childhood memories

Carola Penn, a leading Pacific Northwest artist whose paintings were rooted in landscapes both political and personal, has died. She was 74.

Penn, who was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, spent most of her life in Portland, where she lived quietly, dedicating her days to her work. She was laconic by nature; prolific and disciplined.

Carola Penn artist

Carola Penn in her studio. Undated.

Educated in the 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley, Penn studied under the leading midcentury California artist Elmer Bischoff. She was influenced by German Expressionism, Paul Klee and Van Gogh, but also absorbed much of the work happening around her at the time, most notably Bay Area artists David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Brown.

Paradise by Carola Penn, 2000/2009/2018, acrylic and wood, 48" x 81"

“Paradise” by Carola Penn, 2000/2009/2018, acrylic and wood, 48″ x 81″

Penn’s activist bent took root during the Civil Rights Movement, when she was arrested for participating in a sit-in in Washington D.C. to unseat the Mississippi delegation during the 1964 Democratic National Convention. At the height of the Vietnam War, she and her husband, Dennis Anderson, decided to move to Canada. En route, they stopped in Portland, where they took up residence and never left.

Time Lapse by Carola Penn, 2009, acrylic/wood/mixed media, 36" x 48"

“Time Lapse” by Carola Penn, 2009, acrylic/wood/mixed media, 36″ x 48″

Penn worked tirelessly, creating multiple series of paintings with subjects ranging from Lair Hill neighborhoods to inner-city Portland; from patches of grasses and weeds to Washington State’s Yale Valley forest; from politics to the inner landscapes of childhood. Painting on panels of wood, she experimented with cutting and rearranging the pieces. The resulting juxtapositions were occasionally jarring, often unexpected and always provocative.

"North Portland Junction" by Carola Penn, 2009/2018, acrylic/wood/sand, 60" x 117"

“North Portland Junction” by Carola Penn, 2009/2018, acrylic/wood/sand, 60″ x 117″

Her last show, Disruptions, was curated by Dr. Sheldon Hurst and exhibited in 2018 at ArtReach Gallery in Portland. The exhibition, a culmination of her life’s work, would be her last. Soon after, she had to use a wheelchair and was unable to continue working in her studio.

Critic Carol Mazer wrote in 2018 of Disruptions: “Penn’s connection to place—Portland and its environs, where she has lived for some fifty years—is palpable. She is respectful, perhaps awed by the power of the forest and paints natural beauty lovingly. The brush strokes and colors she employs to paint its destruction evoke deep sadness … this show presents a very critical eye on what we have lost/gained in environmental terms, in human bonds, in the cohesion of communities. But, as Penn states in her brief notes, ‘I want to bring disparate elements together in order to stimulate thinking about mending problems and finding answers through on-going dialog.’ … Sheldon Hurst, curator of this show, chose a few quotes by writers whose concerns are germane to what you’ll see here, notably John Berger. ‘Hope,’ he wrote, ‘is not a form of guarantee; it’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.’ And in that sense these paintings most certainly are conceived and propelled by hope.”

"Tanks on the Columbia" by Carola Penn, 2011, acrylic/wood, 48" x60"

“Tanks on the Columbia” by Carola Penn, 2011, acrylic/wood, 48″ x60″

Art Critic Randy Gragg wrote in 1994: Penn’s “thick, energetic brushwork builds to a climax of heavy grays and browns. She slices up her paintings, as she puts it, using the ‘jigsaw as a cubist weapon.’ The way she presents the finished pieces—spread across the wall and sometimes the floor—is a belligerent defiance of painting as ambient decoration . . . As so many other landscape painters keep the lawns orderly . . . [Penn] is digging at the uneasy beauty of the weeds.”

"Laurelhurst Pond with Cart" by Carola Penn, 2010, acrylic/wood, 48" x 60"

“Laurelhurst Pond with Cart” by Carola Penn, 2010, acrylic/wood, 48″ x 60″

Art Critic Lois Allan wrote in 1995: “For Carola Penn, urban life yields images that are like mental snapshots . . . rundown storefronts, bridge girders, parking lots, even manholes in the pavement. All unremarkable fragments within the city’s kaleidoscopic movement, they form an ongoing, open-ended narrative . . . [Compartments] freezes these fragments in thickly layered, low-key colors and stark images—visceral responses to emotional as well as architectural divisions, and to the gritty streets and their inhabitants.”

On April 2, after a 3-year struggle with cancer, Penn died peacefully at home surrounded by her loving family. She was pre-deceased by her husband, Dennis Anderson, who died in 1987. She is survived by her daughter, Zoë Anderson; son, Lev Anderson; three grandchildren, Emma, Daniel and Dennis; three siblings, Roxie, Roy and Sue; and her 100-year-old mother, Miriam Silverman.

The family is hoping to have a memorial at Penn’s studio in the North Coast Seed Building this summer.

Penn’s work can be seen at carolapenn.com and on her Instagram page.

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This information was provided by Penn’s family and friends.

8 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Carola had been a participant in an intense workshop I did along with John Weber. She was a powerful participant and insightful contributor as we discussed the impact of current art trends .

    Carola had had the most wonderful, soulful, eyes and I will miss seeing them.

  2. Joan K Graves says:

    Carola was a friend of mine, beginning in the early ’70s. I remember when Zoe was a baby and then along came Lev. Dennis was there- a good man and a great couple. Carola had a fantastic sense of humor. It was always a privilege to spend time with her, always enjoyable. I’m so sorry to hear of her life coming to a close. I know she was esp devoted to her grandchildren.

  3. Late 80’s, I had just moved to Portland for the second time and I was working at Powell’s with Michael Brophy. He was living in the Rexall building on Mississippi, and Carola had her studio in front of his space, (Where Worn Path is now, and Mississippi Records used to be) so, one had to walk through her space to get to his. It felt so open even though it was cluttered with much of her work. There wasn’t a feeling of focus in there, it was as if you were walking through a space of a higher vibration, so high that it was wide open and calm, much like Carola.

  4. Gloria Borg Olds says:

    I met Carola through a book group that we both participated in for decades, and then a second book group that we also joined. Lots of expressions of opinions in our group, and Carola was always quiet, though when she spoke she was definitely opinionated and obviously brilliant, thoughtful, well informed. She and I bonded over cancer during the last three years, enjoying lunches, visits to galleries, visiting at her studio. During these last months, when Carola could not get out, she gave many of us the gift of coming to her “salon” as she aptly named it. To talk, to read, to be present. She and I discussed a book we were reading in book group #2, and Carola commented lucidly to the very, very end. Carola not only gave us the gift of her paintings, but the astonishing gift of allowing us to participate in sweet friendship as she was clearly failing. For that I will always be thankful.

  5. Ken Unkeles says:

    Carola had a studio at the North Coast Seed Building for almost twenty years. I’d stop by now and then to see what she was working on. She’d answer my questions, but really, she wanted to know what I thought was going on more than talk about herself. It was that curiosity and interest that she baked into her art. She was good people.

  6. Mark Woolley says:

    This is very sad news and makes me realize how fast time goes as I did not know she was ill. I worked with her for many years in my gallery and always enjoyed visiting her studio, not knowing exactly what to expect but knowing the work would be beautiful, real, and reflective of her surroundings and passions. We always talked politics, too and were enraged by the same things. The art world has lost a true giant of immense talent and vision. Much love to her beautiful family. I really miss not having seen her recently.

  7. Brigitte Dortmund says:

    Carola was such a wonderful and talented painter and such a kind person. I remember in particular her lush green visions of trees, her luscious use of paint. I know she inspired me, and I’m sure countless others.
    She and her vision will truly be missed.

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