Somewhere, I learned that Eskimos have 24 different words for snow, each one reflecting some slight but key difference that is probably imperceptible to everyone except for those who inhabit the land where the white frozen stuff falls by feet at a time.
As I drove home somewhat late on a warm summer’s night not long ago, it occurred to me that the same principle should apply to the word “beauty”. There’s clearly beauty in a stand of aspen whose shimmering leaves are just beginning to change just as there is beauty to be found in the tall, slender and sun baked grasses that line the shores of John Martin. Likewise, beauty is just as present in the face and form of a young woman in the prime of her life as it is in the heart and spirit of a woman whose age is eighty years or more.
Snow is snow. Beauty is beauty. But descriptive as those words may be, they fall short of the experience in seeing both as they are present in the world that surrounds us.
These are the thoughts that artists inspire when we take the time to learn those lessons taught by the images they create on canvas.
As I learned on that warm summer’s night, artist Lill Penn possesses not only the rare gift to recreate the beauty she sees in the world on what starts out as just a blank stretch of canvas, she also possesses a heart and spirit that reflects that beauty, itself. Both were immediately apparent when I walked in to her apartment in Prairie Pines Assisted Living Center in Eads.
Tiny and soft-spoken though she may be, Lill embraces life with a strength, joy and delightful sense of humor typically found in people twice her size and half her age, leading to the rightful conclusion that she has always been as she is now. Her full name is Lillian followed by the “horrible middle name of Wilson”. Why Wilson? “Well,” she says, “my dad had a very rich uncle named Wilson…” Her voice trails off, replaced by a wry smile and a so-much-for-that-idea kind of shrug.
Lill is a self-described “California girl”, having been born in 1925 in the Oakland Berkeley area. Her father worked in a lumberyard. Her mother was a gifted painter and consummate gardener. Starting from the time she was little, Lill’s mother also had artistic aspirations for her daughter and paid for her to have piano lessons. “I tried.” Lill chuckles. “I really worked at it. I did. But, one day, my piano teacher said, ‘Mrs. Gay…I think you’re wasting your money.’”
As it turns out, it wasn’t a total waste. Lill’s mother took up the piano herself.
When she was 17, Lill met Jim Penn, the love of her life. It was wartime. Jim, an Arkansas boy, was in the Navy and stationed in the Bay Area. He had initially asked out Lill’s best friend, who already had a boyfriend. Lill grins and raises her eyebrows for a split second. “But she told him, ‘I have a friend who just broke up with her boyfriend. You should give her a call.’ So, he called me, and then he came over to my house.” She stops and the smile that suddenly graces her face must have been the same one she wore when she opened that front door seventy-five years ago. “Oh, he was the cutest guy in his white sailor uniform,” she says.
A year later, they were married. Jim was transferred to San Diego, and, naturally, Lill followed. “I worked in the shipyards,” she says with a laugh that suggests she still can’t believe she was hired.
When the war ended, Lill and Jim moved to his hometown of Rogers, Arkansas where Jim started school to become a pharmacist. “His parents were always very loving and kind to me,” Lill says. “Always.” But, from the sound of it, not everybody in town was quite so crazy about the idea of one of their own bringing home “this girl from California”. Nonetheless, so began their life together as Lill and Jim lived in Arkansas, Minnesota, Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and, eventually, Southeastern Colorado.
As the years passed, the couple gave birth to five beautiful daughters: the oldest, Sandra, followed by Linda and Debra and Donnie and Lisa, the youngest.
Not long into their marriage, Jim’s mother died, and his father, Clyde, came to live with them. Lill’s voice is tender. “He was a wonderful man. Just wonderful. And so much help,” she says. “We were just kids with a couple of kids of our own. We didn’t know what we were doing. We had no idea. But Jim’s dad stepped in and helped us out in so many ways.” She stops for a moment, remembering. “I always tried hard to be a very…positive…mother,” she says, and holds up her hand as if holding a yardstick. “I was determined that those girls were going to do what I told them to do. Well, of course, they didn’t, and when I’d get after them, they’d run and hide behind their grandpa who’d just look at me with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his face. What was I going to do? Run around and spank them when they were standing behind their grandfather? Of course not.” She laughs, shaking her head. “He was so much help. He taught us so much about what to do.”
Somewhere in the midst of those years, the Penns ended up buying a farm situated in the middle of nowhere. The closest town was Las Animas where Jim worked as a pharmacist when he wasn’t working the fields. A farm? “Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” she says, “but it wasn’t a farm like that. This was a place with an outhouse. And no electricity. And the only way to get water was by drawing it up with a bucket from a well.” Her voice is a blend of shock with a healthy dose of humor. “I was a city girl! What did I know about living on a farm? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing.” She stops, shaking her head as a memory comes to her. “My parents came from California to visit, and I remember my dad coming out of that outhouse…” She mimics him buckling his belt and gagging with every step. “He told me, ‘Lill, if you want to move back home, just say the word and we’ll help you.’” She can barely finish the sentence before bursting into laughter. A moment later and still smiling, she continues. “I even made butter. But Jim always wanted to farm, so that’s what we did,” she says. “That’s what you do, isn’t it? A wife follows along with what her husband wants to do. Jim always wanted to own a farm, so we farmed.”
Lill didn’t seriously pursue her art until all her girls were in school, but, when she did, she pursued it with the passion of someone born to paint. She started off taking classes at the college in Lamar and then, later, lessons from various artists in the area, eventually winning more contests than she can count.
When asked what it is inside of her that has driven her to spend thousands of hours at an easel over a career that spans sixty years, her voice takes on a serious but still awestruck tone. “It’s the beauty of the world,” she says. “God gave us such a beautiful world. If we would just look at that instead of all the ugly stuff that’s going on…”
Her voice trails off as she becomes speechless for the first time.
Her eyes then lift to two of her paintings that hang on the wall. One captures a grove of aspen, their coin shaped leaves a brilliant autumn orange with just the hint of a mountain in the background and a clear Colorado sky overhead. The other is an image of the lower trunks of a pair of aspen, their white slender trunks illuminated by the light of a car’s headlights while the thick foliage at their base remains in nightfall’s shadows. “I love aspen trees,” she says. “I just love them. Their trunks with that white bark…they just stand out. You can see them so well.”
Her eyes then travel to her other work that adorns the walls.
A scene painted from where she stood inside an old, fallen down stone house with two broken, pane less windows looking out on a view that’s so lovely they appear to be paintings within the painting.
Distant mountains of a hazy blue and purple framed by the straight and slender trunks of two aspen trees, where she’s “carved” the initials of each of her daughters.
A portrait of two little girls—her daughters—with one on a tricycle holding a doll while the younger girl stares at her sister with a look in her eyes that more than suggests they trade places.
“I paint from photographs,” she muses. “There was a time when I used to take my easel and just set it up outside somewhere and paint what I saw right in front of me. I don’t stop until I get it right.” Again, she laughs. “I gave a painting to one of my daughters. It started out as an abstract, but I didn’t like it. So, I painted over it and did something that I liked much better. I told her she was actually getting two paintings—the one she could see and another one underneath.” She pauses again before continuing. “You lose yourself in it, you know. It’s like reading a book. It takes you somewhere else, and you can stay there for hours and hours. And you’re never bored. Never.”
Lill admits to painting “everything” over the years. Landscape. Wildlife. People. “I think I’ve painted everything there is to paint,” she says. But the love she has for painting is matched only by the love she shows for her subjects, whatever they may be. And it’s a love that is revealed in every detail of her work—every blade of grass, every leaf on the tree, every wisp of clouds overhead. “It’s all in the details,” she says, explaining it no further.
Is beauty the main source of her inspiration? Her answer is only slightly surprising. “No,” she says and then points toward the heavens as her true source of inspiration. “I think He gave me the gift. I just hope I’ve done as much with it as He hoped I would.”
And, so, Lill continues to celebrate each day of her life, whether she’s speaking of the joy of living at Prairie Pines (“No laundry, no housekeeping, the people are so loving. I feel like I won the lottery!”) or her morning habit of praying for each and every person she used to live by at Unity Village.
And, of course, the ever present easel stands in the corner of her room holding a half painted canvas. The outline of a tree is just beginning to emerge from a background where all will eventually be revealed, in its own time.
An exhibit of select paintings by Lill Penn will be on display this weekend, Saturday, June 23, and Sunday, June 24, from 1pm to 4pm at Prairie Pines Assisted Living Center.
Some of her work will be available for purchase. For those who are interested, Lill Penn also does commissions.
Prairie Pines is located at 101 East Lowell Avenue, Eads, Colorado. 719-438-2141