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Artist Tony Pennock painted his first water-tank mural in Las Cruces before graduating from high school.
Nearly 50 years later, he has painted 10 water tanks in the area and has created considerably more memorable art, making him one of the best known and respected artists around.
With the water tanks alone covering about 140,000 square feet, there can’t be too many artists anywhere with so vast a canvas.
A Las Cruces native, Pennock began drawing and painting at an early age.
“I was doing it all the time,” he said.
And why not? Pennock’s father was an artist, working for Warner Brothers, and his mother is beloved Las Cruces artist Carolyn Bunch.
The water-tank mural story began for Pennock when he was attending Mayfield High School in 1973. Through a friend of his father’s, Pennock learned that the Las Cruces chamber was looking for a muralist to paint a water tank.
Even though he was only 17, Pennock won the commission. After reworking the original design, which he said was too stiff and militaristic, Pennock spent six months creating “La Entrada” (originally called “Jornada del Muerto”) near the intersection of Triviz Drive and East Griggs Avenue. It depicts the journey of 300 families traveling along El Camino Real from Mexico as they came to settle in what would become the state of New Mexico.
With help from Burke Outdoor Advertising owner Sammy Burke, Pennock even built his own scaffolding for the project.
Pennock went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine art degree from New Mexico State University. He began work on his graduate degree in architecture at Yale University, which he completed at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Pennock taught Architecture 102 at UNM for three years. He also stayed briefly with his sister in New York City – she had showgirls as roommates, he remembers – where he had the opportunity to study “lots of architectural design.” Pennock returned to Las Cruces to become a full-time professional artist.
Having learned a great deal from the first one, Pennock painted a second water-tank mural near Interstate 25 and Walton Avenue in about six weeks. Pennock has painted murals on five water tanks in Las Cruces, three in Truth or Consequences and a Buffalo Soldier on a water tank in Radium Springs near Fort Selden Historic Site, about 20 miles north of Las Cruces.
Pennock said he continues to “look for signs of fading and graffiti” on his murals, touching up and restoring them as necessary – he’s repainted the tank near Walmart three times in the last 40 years.
“I like to see the cars driving by,” Pennock said, knowing that his work is “educating people about their history and culture.”
Pennock used a grid transfer system that is thousands of years old to paint the murals, he said, transferring one inch of the grid design on paper to four feet of the actual mural, copying one square at a time.
“The hard part is the color. It never translates from the mockup to the surface,” he said. “A lot of it is science,” Pennock said, “how light works, how it reflects.”
In creating the giant murals, he had to consider not only proportion, but also psychology, including how some colors advance and others recede.
“You blend between emotion and intellect,” Pennock said. “That’s the secret.”
But while he is best known for the water-tanks murals, Pennock’s long career as an artist includes a great deal more painting, drawing and etching for many public art projects, exhibitions and private commissions.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Pennock said. “We never say no – that’s the secret. You have to wear a lot of hats to survive.”
Currently, Pennock is working on a set of six life-size Native American sculptures for the Hacienda del Camino Real in Radium Springs.
He has drawn inspiration for the project from the photographs of Norwegian photographer Carl Lumholtz (1851-1922), who traveled widely in Mexico and the Southwest, taking photographs with his Polaroid Land Camera; and from American photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952), who photographed and documented Native American life in the American West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Among Pennock’s favorite artists is American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). He also greatly admires the unknown artists who created ancient cave paintings in Europe. He also is a fan of the work of “the unsung heroes of illustration,” whose drawings and paintings filled books and manuals before photography.
Trying to pick a favorite piece from among his own work is a challenge for Pennock.
“Everything I finish for a week is my favorite,” he said.
Pennock is about to return to his teaching roots, as he will soon begin a class in Las Cruces in figure drawing. As a teacher, he said, he “is not dazzled by technique. What I want is that heart.”
Paraphrasing English poet, painter and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827), Pennock said art is “the alchemy of the imagination. You just keep fighting the canvas until it comes. If you stay with it long enough, [the muse] lets you in.”
Contact Pennock at email@example.com.