Original Print Date: July 2009
From the moment we shook hands, I could not stop staring at his glass eye. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. And it stared back at me enough to burn a hole straight into my curiosity. “Dusty,” I asked, “Is that… is that a glass eye?”
“Oh this thing?” he laughed, taking it off and setting it on the table. “Pick it up and look at it.” It was glass alright, but it looked so real. Real enough to look back at me, almost as if it was seeing into my soul. “I got it in England, in the Greenwich Village,” Dusty continued, as I held it cautiously between two fingers. I studied it closer: the piercing hazel eye was nestled in a silver setting atop an etched, silver band. “I found it in this jewelry store, and it was really the only thing there that stood out to me, so I bought it and wore it.”
“The evil eye, mal ojo,” he said the gypsies called it; certainly, speaking with a man wearing an eyeball set in a ring around his finger would make for quite an interesting lunch conversation. And sure enough, over a warm lentil salad at the Grotto Grill in Bandera, I began my investigation into the insights of Dusty Pendleton, Hill Country painter extraordinaire.
Six of Dusty’s oil paintings hang on the walls of the back room of the Grotto, and hues of deep blue and purple bring a surreal dusk to the window-lit space. In one, a lone, nude woman stands upon dark grass; in another, a tricycle upon stones. Soft, cool, yet vivid tones demand the same sense of calm reflection the subjects in the paintings have.
“I met an English artist, Niel Bally, while living in Oaxaca,” he began. “Niel ended up passing through Texas on his way home, and he talked me into going out to paint en plein aire with him. As we are on the same latitude as is Cairo, he found the sun to be too bright and the landscape colors flattened by the light. I took his point,” Dusty noted, “but knew that the crepuscular light of evening allowed for a much more diverse palette in mauves and blues and violets as the daylight faded into night. Then came the night and the moonlight that allowed for even more experimentation. The colors allow for an overall sense of mood in the works, and that allows for more surrealist approaches to standard subjects.”
Yet Dusty’s subjects seem far from standard. Some of his paintings feature nudes in comfortable settings and poses, some display vast landscapes saturated with tints of dawn or dusk—and some combine the two. Taking “simple sketches” and meshing them with “landmark shapes,” Dusty inserts inhabitants into his surrealistic scenes. “My figures come from sketches,” he said; “I like to catch people being people, and make a note of it. Real people are my inspirations, and I craft my memory of their profiles into an artistic design.”
Beginning his foray into the field of art at a young age, Dusty was involved with art and theater at Tivy High School in Kerrville. He graduated from Southwest Texas State University in 1970 with a major in commercial art, initially aspiring to become a professional artist in New York City. Following his dream, Dusty eventually “stopped off” in New York City during his life’s world tour, but not before exploring spirit and art across the pond.
That same year, Dusty married his wife, Martha, and in 1971, they took the little money and big, open minds they had, and set out to immerse themselves in the European art world. First stop: Spain. Europe’s artistic atmosphere allowed the artist to expand his perceptions on art and art appreciation. “The European attitude towards the arts is…” Dusty paused, “well, it’s different. I remember going to an art show in Hannover [Germany] where I saw children, second graders through junior high, completely nonplussed by nudity. But back in the states, I didn’t get any exhibits. In Europe, you tell someone, ‘I’m an artist,’ and they ask, “What discipline?’ In the U.S., you tell someone you’re an artist, and they ask, “But what do you do for a living?”
Yet after a while, “the money ran out,” Dusty recalled; he and Martha packed their bags for home in Texas, where they had their daughter. After some success with a solo exhibit, the family decided to return to Europe, where they expanded their world tour through France, England, and Spain. Dusty even received an offer to live in a castle in Scotland, where, though the colors of the weather would have suited his painting environment nicely, the “dark season was dark—too dark.”
“My wife and I seemed to be turning our backs on the American lifestyle that the Europeans were striving for,” Dusty said. “But once your horizons are expanded, you continuously learn from them.” Dusty’s horizons soon reached to Oaxaca, Mexico—“where even the ugly is beautiful,” he laughed—where artistic lessons became saturated with vivid color. When their time in Oaxaca was done, they once again returned to the place to which Dusty had always come back—Texas.
Spain, New York, Houston, Taos, England, Paris, Mexico: the arrows on the imaginary map in my head were bouncing back and forth faster than I could follow. “Everything is an adventure, even getting your clothes washed,” Dusty said about the multiple stops on his spontaneous tour. “Eight trips,” Dusty said, “of going somewhere, running out of money, coming back, and leaving again.” Eight trips—to understand, to experience, to learn from. “But,” he added, “what the foreign experience teaches you the most is how great it is to be home.”
And if home is where the heart is, Dusty’s heart is in the hills. Returning to his Hill Country roots, Dusty has settled in Bandera with his wife, his paintbrushes, and some loving pets. As we climbed the stairs to his studio—a split-level area in his home that defines the traditional artist loft lifestyle—with walls covered in paintings and sketches and floors covered in paint splatters and canvas tubes. An old, yellowed newspaper photograph hangs from three magnets on the aluminum wall: Francis Bacon, the Irish figurative painter, sits on a bar stool in the middle of his studio, surrounded literally on all sides by pieces of his work. “Sometimes I think my studio is a huge mess,” Dusty commented, “but then I look at that photograph and am reminded that I’m doing a pretty good job keeping things clean.”
Though he described it as messy, I found it rather comfortable, and began to realize that the perspectives in his paintings are as intimate and thought-provoking as the setting in which he paints them. Dusty surrounds himself with inspiration: photographs by artist-friends, drawings from his daughter when she was a child, and books, books, books—one specifically covering the history of art, from which Dusty pulls such visual inspiration as ancient cave drawings and the figurine of Venus of Villendorf. “As humans,” he said, “we were drawing before we ever learned to write, in order to capture something so abstract as an idea and make it concrete. One could even go as far to say that if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.”
Well, Dusty’s art sure exists, experienced as both the concretely physical and the intensely emotional. Among the colors, the subjects, and the surroundings, what exists in between his strokes is far deeper than merely a painting. “I get lost in the world of art,” Dusty sighed; “The universe is populated with people and circumstances. I look at stuff and I watch things just start to happen,” he said. “As a culture, we are bombarded by watching—many times, watching five or six things at once. We live in a time where the every blank space on walls in a home is filled by a flat-screen television,” Dusty remarked. “But as far as I’ve noticed, experiences can’t be repossessed.”
The first interesting and exciting person I met was wearing an evil eye on a silver band around his ring finger. Dusty Pendleton, Bandera resident and Hill Country landscape artist, had invited me to the Grotto Grill and encouraged me to order the warm lentil salad—all while his evil eye was burning a hole in my own. Little did I know, that ring would burn a hole somewhere deep in my soul, too; as we toured his artist that afternoon, I learned so much about life and art—and the scary thought of life without art—that I vowed from that day forward never to forfeit the things I was passionate about. (I would later recognize Dusty’s landscapes spread across the walls of Robert Earl Keen’s Kerrville home and notice them peeking out from the corner of a Skype screen with a professor at Texas Tech.) That evening, I left Bandera with a burning desire to create, to challenge myself, and that desire hasn’t left me since. – Jeanna Goodrich Balreira