Mark Penner-Howell is both a musician and a fine artist working out of a studio in the Stapleton neighborhood home that he shares with wife Kae. He'll awaken your senses with his clever pop-art designs, featured in an exhibit that runs through November 7 at Walker Fine Art Gallery. And he'll fill your ears with the music he makes with 4 George Road, the band that includes Penner-Howell and more amazing Denver musicians (find out when they'll launch their brand-new album on Facebook). We visited Penner-Howell at his home studio to find out more about his creative process.
Westword: What is your artist medium?
Mark Penner-Howell: Painting.
Where can we find your artwork?
Online, artwork is always available at Walker Fine Art, and music updates can be found at 4 George Road.
What’s in your artist toolbox?
Everything from computers to colored pencils and spray paint. My studio also has a lot of sound gear and musical instruments, so I can jump back and forth between disciplines at will. A lot of times I’ll hop on the drums and practice for twenty minutes while I’m waiting for paint to dry.
What’s your neighborhood?
Favorite thing about that neighborhood?
New construction! The homes in Stapleton are designed to be as energy-efficient and as “green” as possible. Most of them are built with “open concept” living spaces and super-high basement ceilings, which make for good studio spaces. The neighborhood is on the site of Denver’s original Stapleton Airport, and is the largest urban-infill community of its kind in the country.
Is there a hidden gem in your neighborhood?
Well, nothing in Stapleton is exactly hidden, but the gems that many Denverites might not know about are the miles and miles of interconnecting trails and pocket parks. My favorites are the Westerly Creek and Sand Creek Greenways. These serve as conduits for prairie plants and animals that normally are cut off from urban spaces. I use these trails almost daily and have seen beaver, deer, coyotes, bald eagles and great horned owls, to name just a few of the permanent residents.
Best local creative resource?
I don’t suppose you mean the local craft brewery, but there is a good one called Station 26 in an old firehouse nearby! Frankly, because my artwork has gotten more figurative, I’ve been looking to my neighbors and friends as models lately, so I’d say the people around me are actually my best resource. Stapleton may not exactly be a hipster destination, but it’s full of friendly, curious people who have been supportive to me.
Do you rent or own your home?
Do you create your art at home?
Yes. I had a studio in the Fresh Art building on Santa Fe, which was great, but when I signed on with my current gallery I was discouraged from selling art directly out of my studio. That’s the part about “exclusive” representation by a local gallery that a lot of artists find problematic. So I gave up the space on Santa Fe and moved my studio home. It turned out to be a blessing for me, because without having to worry about selling my art myself, I was free to concentrate on just making it. Working at home has made me much more efficient, plus I like having immediate access to all my tools and materials whenever I want them. There’s no one over the wall to check with or apologize to when I fire up the power tools.
Define your home’s style.
What are your favorite artistic touches?
It depends on the room. I like the stuff that I can do for cheap that looks fancy, like the floating plate-glass shelves in my dining room, or the ledgestone fireplace I tiled myself. The globe lights in our dining room were made from some cheap resin globes I bought at an import store and wired to a re-purposed ceiling fixture from Ikea. The whole thing cost less than $100.
What inspires you about your home?
The design of the building really suits my wife and me. I particularly like the flow of indoor and outdoor spaces. We have four porch/patio spaces that all get used pretty much year-round. Aside from that, we have decorated our place with artwork from our friends, and that isdefinitely a source of inspiration.
What is your favorite piece?
My home is filled with art by other people, and each piece is my favorite at one time or another: It depends on the day and the mood I’m in, or whatever catches my eye at the moment. Luckily I’ve got a lot to work with. For instance, my latest favorite piece is a real tiny nineteenth-century print I just bought that depicts Daniel DeFoe, the “father” of the English novel, in a pillory — a stockade-like device meant for public humiliation. He was being punished by Queen Ann for sedition, but was so loved by the commoners that they showered him with flowers instead of the customary empty bottles and rotten food. That’s the scene the print illustrates. Another piece I really enjoy looking at is Kym Bloom’s “Fruits of the Chase,” a panel that recreates a chase scene from the Pac-Man video game, created entirely from resin-coated Jolly Ranchers and Dum Dums. So many people remark on that piece that I now keep a stack of Kym’s business cards to give out!
Have you had any design challenges?
You bet. Apart from those caused by having tastes that are richer than my means, there are challenges that come from getting everything to work together in a small space. Though we have 2,000 square feet, it’s distributed over three floors, and there are tons of windows. Getting a bunch of eclectic stuff to harmonize and flow without seeming busy required a lot of experimentation. For instance, we discovered that minimizing pattern and texture in our furniture and rugs helped open up the space and gave our artwork and collectibles some much-needed elbow room.
What are your guests' reactions?
I always forget that our house isn’t exactly “normal.” I’m just so used to it. When people visit for the first time, they often seem distracted by the surroundings. It’s not cluttered or over-stimulating, but there is definitely the sense that the artworks are fundamental to the experience of the home, which is really different for a lot of people.
Have you repurposed any materials in your home?
All the time. For instance, we had a rustic, modern coffee table that was too big for our new living room, so I detached the short legs it came with and built new ones to elevate it to normal table height. Now it is our dining-room table.
What’s your favorite DIY project?
I just built a nine-foot-long countertop out of beetle-kill pine to use in my studio. It looks like a thick slab of wood, but it’s actually constructed as a torsion box (like a hollow-core door) so it’s relatively lightweight and dimensionally stable.
Did you indulge in any of your rooms?
One by one, we’re indulging in all of them!
Best design advice?
Live in a space for a while before you commit to big decorating decisions.
What’s your favorite time of day to create?
Mornings. I wish they lasted all day.
Do you have any creative organization tips?
My creative process works best when everything is more or less at my fingertips and is ready to go. I have a shop in the garage for frame-making and woodwork. I have my computers and printers nearby so I can jump on them and work up new ideas at any time I feel inspired. And my basement is where I actually do the painting. It’s not a space I have to share, so it’s always set up and ready to go. The main point is to not have anything that will slow me down in responding to the creative impulse.
Any challenges designing your studio?
Yes. Though my basement has nice high ceilings, the footprint of my studio (including storage) is only 300 square feet. So it’s a real puzzle to get it all to work without looking cluttered.
What is your favorite studio feature?
It’s quiet and very private. I don’t have to behave like an adult. I can sing at the top of my lungs or dance horribly and no one knows!
When Jeanne isn't doing House Tours, she is blogging on how to create bohemian style with both vintage and recycled materials.