Most painters cannot tell you at precisely what moment, or how, they knew they wanted to become an artist. Usually they attempt to articulate some ineffable urge that has been with them for as long as they can remember, or perhaps an epiphany triggered by their first contact with an inspiring masterpiece or art teacher. Chris Pendergast, in marked contrast, sat down at the age of 20 to think about his life, and having mused upon everything that mattered to him, decided that “painting is what I should do” — even though he’d never painted.
This decision “didn’t go over well at home, I’ll tell you that,” he says cheerfully. His family has since come around, because now Mr. Pendergast is, in fact, a painter, with an impressive pedigree and body of work, some of which is on display in the show Nature’s Elements at the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven.
Mr. Pendergast’s father worked for Upjohn and his job took him all over the map. Between the ages of 5 and 15, Chris moved with his family from Michigan to Wisconsin to England to Belgium to Michigan to a different part of England. Being in the English school system at that age, he took A-levels, and found himself studying the sciences: chemistry, biology and mathematics with statistics. He came back to the States and went to college in Michigan. He was not sure what he wanted to study, “but I knew what I did not want to study: chemistry, biology and mathematics with statistics.”
He withdrew from college, sat himself down, and deduced that he should become a fine artist. He was 20. He had never taken an art class.
“I thought, if I’m going to do it, I better make sure I’m doing it well,” he says. “So I looked up what the best art school in the nation is, and I went there.” That was the Chicago Institute of Art. He moved to Chicago. He had never seen the school. Having no portfolio, he knew he would not be admitted, but that did not even slow him down.
“I knew I didn’t have the art skills on my own, so I audited some classes including beginning drawing and beginning painting, with the intent of using the classes as a means of producing a portfolio to gain entrance to the school,” Mr. Pendergast says. He was up-front with the school that this was his intention. His plan worked: He was admitted.
Coming belatedly to the Muse without a history of trying to define himself as an artist turned out to be a plus. “Not having strong preconceived notions about what art was, or how it was made left me in a very accessible place. I wasn’t arguing with my teachers or anything like that. I was just listening, and it served me very well.”
He graduated. And then? “The really unfortunate thing about a being an artist is your degree and a buck fifty gets you on the bus,” he says.
Mr. Pendergast stayed in Chicago and supported himself doing video production and web design (these were self-taught skills). But when he had been a web designer for about 18 months, the dot-com industry crashed “and then I couldn’t get a job walking a dog.”
He moved from Chicago to Indianapolis, where he had family, and worked as a bartender to pay off debt he had accrued from his web-design business. He also continued to work freelance in video production. It took a few years before he was able to paint again, and that was after he came to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time.
His parents had moved here. When he came to visit, he was impressed by what a thriving art scene the Island had. “I was looking at all the painting and thinking, ‘These are selling for a reasonable amount of money. I can paint this well, but what am I doing?’ So that’s when I started working again.”
Working is not the same as showing, however. Just as he had decided to become an educated maker-of-art, Chris now decided to becoming an educated seller-of-art.
“There is no official career path for artists,” he says. “There is a manner with which you’re supposed to interact with galleries, there is a sort of agreed-upon set of understandings. But as long as you’re not a horrible person, you can do it any way you want. I wanted answers about how to sell artwork, so I just walked into all the galleries with paintings in my hands asking, ‘Do you like ’em? Do you like ’em?’”
Louisa Gould picked him up on the spot. She said, “What can you give me? I have a show coming up in a week.” They have worked together for four years now.
“It’s been a great relationship,” says Mr. Pendergast enthusiastically.
“When I first met Chris, he was wearing a white linen shirt and white linen pants and he had a dark tan and a beard and he looked a holy man,” Ms. Gould remembers, laughing. They talked for hours when they first met, and she was struck by how articulate he was. She liked his work, and sold a couple of his paintings pretty quickly. “And it’s just gone from there. It’s been exciting to watch him grow as an artist. He’s wonderful to work with and to some degree collaborate with.”
Mr. Pendergast’s style is an engaging marriage of photorealism and impressionism. There is a brightness, almost a brilliance, to his paintings — it is exquisitely detailed and yet it is all about the light.
Although that is not how Mr. Pendergast himself talks about it. “From moving around [as a child] I saw a lot of the things that are common amongst cultures and a lot of the things that are different. I always feel like I am trying to explain the human condition,” he says. Citing a teacher of his who in turn was quoting Faulkner, he describes himself as a “witness to the eternal verities of mankind.”
When the comment is made that mankind does not appear directly in his work at all, Mr. Pendergast’s response is thoughtful and abstractly profound. “I’m in all my paintings. I relate to what I am depicting. So it’s not like Millet’s The Reapers (which comments about social circumstances and the toll they take on human beings). A lot of what I’m painting is about how people interact and experience our environment. “On the one hand you have this tactile, solid feeling as a person, and on the other hand you have a sort of metaphysical questioning, and those things are somewhat contradictory but they exist in the same space in our brains, and I find that interesting.”
Nature’s Elements features work by Christopher Pendergast (painter), Maya Farber (painter) Ron Seivertson (glass artist), Jean Campbell (photographer). It opens today at the Louisa Gould Gallery at 54 Main street, Vineyard Haven. The opening reception is Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. The show continues until July 19, open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and online at louisagould.com.