How to explain Will Penny’s work? I recently sat down with him in his immaculately tidy and organized studio and confess to not totally understanding everything he told me about it… his intellect and creative curiosity is impressive, his resulting artwork novel and unique. I will do my best…
Penny (b.1984) was raised on a southern Ontario farm, received a diploma in Fine Art from Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, and came to SCAD to earn a BFA and MFA in Painting. He served as a Professor of Digital Communication in the School of Liberal Arts at his alma mater up until spring quarter of this year, and he is represented locally by Laney Contemporary. Gallerist Susan Laney describes the interdisciplinary artist’s work as dissolving the traditional boundaries of art and design: “By creating systems of interactivity with digital technologies, his art confronts the way information is generated , transmitted, and received.”
Over his time in Savannah, Penny has partnered with numerous other artists, local businesses, and art institutions: I’m thinking of the “Broken” soundtrack he engineered for Sharon Norwood’s site-specific intervention in the drawing room of Telfair Museums’ Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters that is on display through September 12; his huge and colorfully geometric site-specific projection in the atrium of the Jepson Center during this February’s PULSE Art +Technology Festival; his branding assistance, beer can designs, and colorful mural at Service Brewing Company; his collaboration with artist Jennifer-Mack Watkins to create the illusion of outer space in her “Children of the Sun: In Orbit” show at ARTS Southeast this spring; and his collaboration with Cameron Allen at the Jepson Center in 2017 as part of the Telfair Museums’ #art912 initiative.
Penny’s current project in the Green Truck Drive-Thru Art Box at 2430 Habersham incorporates interactive digital technology that is both eccentrically creative and playfully fun. “Small Talk” features an animatronic, talking Big Mouth Billy Bass [which always makes me think of Season 3 of The Sopranos in which daughter Meadow gives Tony the singing fish as a Christmas present]. Using an Artificial Intelligence language model and voice-to-text translation, the public can interact with Billy by asking him questions or engaging in conversations by using the wake-up prompt “Hey, Billy…”
The Drive Thru Art Box was started in 2012 by artists Matt Habermehl and Mike Williams and is now an ongoing public arts initiative of ART Southeast’s Sulfur Studios. Located in the parking lot of Green Truck Pub, the box is always on view, and Penny’s installation is on display through October 8. He will give a Happy Hour Artist Talk about the project from 6 to 8pm on Wednesday, Sept. 13.
Penny tells me he has spent “way too much time” debugging and troubleshooting this project due to the difficulty of initially obtaining a secure WIFI signal to the box, dealing with the extreme temperatures that Billy has endured this summer, and the fluctuations in the availability and reliability of the ChatGPT servers. But he has enjoyed his first foray into teaching himself about AI. In fact, Penny is constantly teaching himself about the latest technological trends and software by watching YouTube videos and by “fiddling around” with new computer languages and interconnectivity.
If asking questions to a fish is not quite your style, you may want to visit the lobby of Thompson Savannah, 201 Port Street, to view Penny’s current installation, part of the hotel brand’s “Culture Lives Here” campaign which partners with Laney Contemporary. This exciting collaboration displays many of Penny’s various art forms: sculpturally faceted, digitally designed relief “paintings” that explore color and light; sculptural reliefs that are mirrored and holographic; wood panels gridded with acrylic and phosphorescent paint influenced by his teen experiences with fantasy and video games; large-format printed canvases of scanned brushstrokes, grids, and 3-D models; and monitors showing loops of playful video featuring bending, undulating, stretching objects. The only elements of his recent work that are missing are his large-scale projections and the small boulder-like sculptures he calls floating “instances” that seemingly levitate above their pedestals through magnetic attraction.
Penny tells me his artwork “always started with an interest in painting.” Over time, he began to incorporate different mediums such as CAD design and fabrication, 3-D modelling, animation, projection mapping, and game design software so that he could better explore the illusion of pictorial space. His art starts on the computer and then he thinks about what the artwork would look like if he brought the computer image to life, and what the best fabrication method for the job would be. In other words, the technological tools complement and serve as the foundation for the work he wants to create.
Penny has folders and folders of content stored on his computer that he has created over the years; content that can be folded into projection projects or installations. He says, “Over the past few years , it’s been less about putting out work for sale and been more about working with some universities and the Museum of Art and Sciences in Macon – doing more immersive, installation-based, site-specific, videos and projection work.” His inclusion (with Katherine Sandoz) in Macon’s “Emerging National IX” in 2021 seems particularly impressive: “Emerging National” is an annual exhibition showcasing national, professional contemporary artists whose work is developing into the forefront of the art world.
But recently, Penny has wanted to take a step back from his constant presence in front of a computer monitor. Teaching seems to have drained him somewhat, stripping him of the time necessary to create. He craves the contemplation of returning to his easel and to the meditative space needed for painting. Supplementing his income by working with a friend on painting touch-ups and interior design on mega-yachts, or by helping Susan Laney with art handling and installation, he seems relieved to have left the treadmill of non-stop teaching for a while. He has bought a brand-new easel and relishes slowing down and “going back to my roots of oil painting.”
The short-term future holds a show at Laney Contemporary in early 2024, more time for listening to podcasts, painting at his easel, and a possible return to academia. Penny hopes to explore a tenure-based system that incorporates studio-based practice - a system that unfortunately does not exist in Savannah. I, for one, hope this talented artist does not leave this community.
Be sure to meet Will Penny at his Happy Hour Artist Talk at Green Truck on Wednesday, Sept. 13 (www.artssoutheast.org/drivethruart); catch his installation of various works at Thompson Savannah through early February; visit his website (www.willpenny.com) and follow him on Instagram @willpennyart.