Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

From a Warm Heart: Olivia Mae Pendergast at Phoenix Gallery

Olivia Mae Pendergast first appeared in these pages in March of 2003 (although then she was known as Holly Mae). At the time she was in a period of transition, taking her work from the impasto landscapes that had first established her in Park City galleries to the thinly washed figurative work that would make her a favorite all along the Wasatch Front. She was also struggling with her newly diagnosed Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. For the next four years Pendergast worked tirelessly, showing ubiquitously, all the while struggling to find an environment and art materials that would allow her to work. In the process she became a favorite among area art patrons. Which is why it struck many as odd when she decided to pack up her life and move to Seattle last year. It was in Seattle, at the beginning of a new life, that she adopted the new name, Olivia.

Pendergast’s work has never really left Utah, however. She was featured in an exhibit recently at Kayo Gallery, and her plates at Art Access’ 300 Plates show sold quickly. This month she returns to Phoenix Gallery with a new body of work from her recent trip to Africa.

 So, what took you to Africa?

PENDERGAST: Well, I met someone who I was seeing who works there 4-6 months out of the year. I had already planned on going … someday, (I wanted to go paint the people in Malawi where, coincidentally Peter works) but felt really nervous with all my health stuff to actually make it happen. But he really encouraged me and already knew so much about it that I felt really comfortable.

15 BYTES: Why Malawi?

PENDERGAST: The main reason I wanted to go to Malawi was I heard it was called “The Warm Heart of Africa.” I just loved the way that sounded and I had always wanted to go and paint people that were experiencing life in such a totally different way than I have. I think I wanted to shake up my little (American) world, as I had never left the US before this trip!

15 BYTES: Any special preparations for the trip?

PENDERGAST: I had a small fundraiser before I left to ease the financial burden of the trip and sold all the paintings I had for sale at about 1/2 the price they would normally be. The support was amazing. I am always so amazed at the outpouring of support around my work and in a personal way, as well. I flew there alone and spent a great deal of time on my own so it felt like a real accomplishment in my life … probably one of the biggest ones! I took all of my paints and a roll of gessoed paper on the plane under my arm like a precious child.

15 BYTES: Any difficulties while you were there?

PENDERGAST: The first night I was there we were robbed in the house while we slept! They took all of my equipment I use for taking pictures … my digital Nikon Camera, a small camera, a digi cam, my laptop but!!! they left my roll of paper, paints, brushes … all things that would be impossible to replace. It felt like a real gift that they did not hurt us and they left my paints … yeah! I did not like my laptop anyway! And I kept counting my blessings because they stole everything on the first night instead of the last night. I ordered a new Nikon and had someone bring it on the plane to Malawi and I took about 3000 photos in the 4 months I was there!!! I would have lost them all and they are worth gold to me! SO they were really generous, gentle thieves! They spared me much suffering!

15 BYTES: What kind of things did you do while you were there?

PENDERGAST: I spent about 2.5 months painting there and about two weeks at a pottery in a town called Nkhotakota on Lake Malawi. I was trying to sculpt the figuratives I had painted in local clay using sawdust kilns. It went well. Some of them fell apart but it really encouraged me to want to return (next winter) to work for two months or so while working with local artists. I am trying to write a grant proposal to get some assistance with the trip. I had a show right before I left Malawi in which I invited 3 Malawian artists to show with me. The show was an incredible success. I also spent time at a Buddhist orphanage (Amitofo Care Center) In Blantyr, Malawi. I took a lot of photos of the children and want to start a program shipping books over for the kids.

15 BYTES: How has the trip affected your work?

PENDERGAST: Africa is big. Everything there is big. I realized in all of that my own bigness and at the same time my own nothingness (I do not mean this in a self-denigrating way). I want to work big. While I was there I was limited to the size of the prepared paper (about 10- 36×48″ sheets). But now that I am back in Seattle I am looking for a studio that can accommodate 8’x14′ canvases. There are just so many people there. … it just has to be done big.

15 BYTES: So, closer to home, how do you like Seattle?

PENDERGAST: I love Seattle. It has been fantastic for me to be in such a large city after living a rather solitary life (on the outskirts of Park City). Because it is so big here and there is so much going on I am finding it difficult to really get involved in the art scene. It is almost like I cannot find it! In SLC it is a little more humble and centralized and much easier to actually put your finger on the pulse. I love the vastness of it here but miss how personal it felt in SLC!

15 BYTES: How’s your health?

PENDERGAST: My health is good. The best in years. Since SLC the Neurologists that I work with here at University of Washington have decided that the chemical sensitivities that I experience are a symptom of an underlying condition and I am undergoing lots of tests to try to understand what is happening. Africa was challenging with the chemicals as most of the vehicles are older and take diesel. And when I was flying form Nairobi the airline attendants walked down the isles with cans of pesticides spraying everything. I hid with my mask on under a blanket for about an hour. But all in all I did fantastic and broke through a lot of fear-based limits I had imposed on my life. I feel free!

15 BYTES: And finally, out of curiosity, why the name change?

PENDERGAST: Olivia? Well, just wanted a grown up name, something different. My roommate — years ago — was from Mexico and she used to call me “olly” (Silent h) or Olivia. I loved it. When I moved to Seattle it was a new start in so many ways so I just started calling myself Olivia and it stuck.

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