"Night Light" | Oil | 27 x 32 inches

Passion for Color

IN A 101-YEAR-OLD Prairie Style home in Kearney, Nebraska, artists Martha Pettigrew and her husband, Delmar, live and work. Their home, designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, is modern even by today’s standards, but was built when most houses in Kearney were Victorian. The modern vibe suits Pettigrew’s taste for design, which she describes as “simplicity of line and shape.”

Pettigrew’s taste is on display, too, in her own daringly colorful paintings which she says are highly interpretive and done in a precisionist style. Playing on bold fields of color, Pettigrew layers paints until she gets the feel of the color she is after. These brilliantly colored paintings are new to many of her collectors who, for more than 20 years, have been snatching up her sculptures of horses and Native American women and, more recently, her totems. After 20 years of sculpting, Pettigrew is returning to her roots. 

“Most people who understand artists understand they have to do something different. We have to push our boundaries,” she says. “Turning to painting doesn’t mean I am turning away from sculpture. I started painting in college … and now I am reopening that book.”

Pettigrew’s paintings depict familiar subjects in the countryside where she lives. The humble barn, an icon of the Midwest, is a favorite subject. “Farmers had to have a place for livestock and a place to store hay. To me an old barn represents hope … a place for feed or for livestock so that the farmer could look forward to the next year. Now, barns are disappearing, along with grain elevators. I like working with rural architecture because of its simplicity of line and its practicability,” she says. “I don’t like to paint disheveled or calendar barns, I like to clean them up and make them geometric.”

The addition of paintings to her oeuvre has excited many of the collectors who visit the Celebration of Fine Art in Scottsdale, Arizona, each year to see her new works. Now in its 26th year, Pettigrew has been participating for two decades.

Director of the Celebration, Susan Morrow shares Pettigrew’s excitement for the new work and for its wide acceptance and popularity. “Collectors at the Celebration of Fine Art have been inspired by Martha’s vibrant landscapes and aerial views of the earth. Her intricate use of color and shapes offer a bold interpretation of the world. People connect with them and want to hear the stories behind them,” says Morrow. And, of course, she says, people are taking them home. 

Pettigrew’s return to painting was aided in part by her fascination with color theory and artist Richard Schmid’s book, Alla Prima. After working in bronze, Pettigrew found it invigorating to do color charts and to study about vibrating, mutating and complementary colors. “Richard Schmid’s color charts helped me get back into color without going nuts!” Pettigrew says.

The use of color is more than theoretical for Pettigrew; she is driven by passion. “When I do my barns I like to do unusual colors. I like to do night scenes and sunset scenes. My style is very distinctive; it is a geometric flat color field. I never use a straight edge or ruler, everything is done by hand. Then I use lots of layers of color,” she says. 

Bob Nelson of Manitou Galleries praises Pettigrew’s paintings, which were exhibited for the first time in Santa Fe during Indian Market this year. “They show a crisp, clean, contemporary view of farm life in the Midwest. They are very Regionalist in feeling,” he says. 

Pettigrew is both thoughtful and excited about her return to painting. “It’s not my philosophy to go down in the annals of art history,” she says. “I am just happy to be making a living as an artist. I do art because I love it. I try to create each painting in such a way that one never tires of looking at it. That’s my goal and my philosophy.”

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