Viewing life through a colorful lens comes naturally to Jill Pankey By David King, University Marketing
The afternoon sun filters through the live oak outside Jill Pankey’s second-floor studio, bathing the room in a soft, pale-yellow light. Jazz plays gently on the stereo. Husband Bob’s homemade wines age silently in the closet.
But the studio is neither still nor calm. Images of women of all sizes and ages cavort across the walls, barely held to the canvas by splashes of oil paint. They’re as colorful as a Mexican border town, as kinetic as a Saturday night at Gruene Hall. They’re dancing to music much faster and much louder than what’s coming out of the speakers, and the room is alive with them in oversized paintings, finished and in progress.
These female forms spring from Pankey’s years in the fitness business, colored by her youth in the border town of Del Rio and inspired by a life-long love of dance that put her on a rather distinctive path to today. They continue to flow out of her brushes at every opportunity.
Pankey, who is in her seventh year as an instructor in the Department of Art and Design at Texas State, has painted less-kinetic forms through the years and even won awards for pencil drawings.
“But they keep surfacing every time I try to paint landscapes or something very contemporary; it keeps coming back to women,” she says, pausing from her work in her studio, which she and her husband built above the garage of their San Marcos home.
“I’m very tuned in to the female form. I like tacky women, and I like real women’s bodies.”
There’s more to it, though.
“All of her figures seem to be moving, jumping, leaping, somersaulting; restless and hurried, but yet, maintaining a graceful balance,” said Teri Evans-Palmer, a colleague in the Art Department. “It’s like lunging down the steps of football bleachers in ballet slippers with light-as-a-feather steps.”
Those bodies — that body of work — have earned Pankey spots in galleries as close as South Texas and as far away as New York. One painting of a solitary woman titled “Remembering” won her the award of excellence last year at the Manhattan Arts International Gallery.
Her work even has attracted interest from overseas: she will spend five weeks this summer working at a gallery in Russell, New Zealand, on the northern tip of the South Pacific nation’s north island. It’s a trip that started in Austin, where the gallery’s director discovered and then fell in love with one of her paintings.
“The composition, use of color, pattern and overall technique caught me,” says Christine Aronson, director of the Just Imagine Gallery. “I have always believed that one buys art with one's heart, and this painting took my heart.
“After purchasing the piece, I made it a point to find Jill and meet with her. She is an artist whose work I truly want to represent here in Russell.”
They talked and eventually worked out the idea for a “mini-residency,” as Pankey calls it, in the tiny town that was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand.
It’s a long way from Del Rio, where she lived in awe of the colors found just across the Rio Grande, in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.
“Growing up in the ranch country, everything was these browns and beiges,” she says. “Mexico, to me, was sort of ‘Velvet Elvis,’ and things that were colorful stuck in my brain.”
Coming Full Circle
Her parents sent her to Texas State in the early 1970s to learn accounting. The closest she could come to studying accounting, though, was the studying part. She studied art instead, and she also found a way to indulge her passion for dancing.
“I don’t tell many people this, but I was a Strutter,” she says. “When I got to school here, that dancer thing came out again, and besides, it was the only thing I could afford to do. I tried out for the Strutters and made it. Hey, the uniforms were free.
“It was back when there were sororities and fraternities and Strutters on campus, and that’s all there was. You didn’t have a lot of clubs to choose from, and you had to find your niche.”
She left school one semester short of a degree to work as a student teacher in Corpus Christi. It took almost 30 years for her to come back to San Marcos, after jobs ranging from newspaper graphic artist to mural painter. She also was the co-owner of a fitness business in Corpus Christi for 20 years — a job that fueled her art with images of women of all sizes and shapes. She has been working at Texas State since 2002, earning a full-time job as a lecturer in 2007.
“I feel really lucky to be here, because it’s probably the most gifted group of people I’ve ever been around,” she says of her colleagues. “There’s just so much talent.”
Not that Pankey really needed the inspiration to keep painting the lively figures that populate her studio.
“This is the only thing I’ve really wanted to do in my life,” she says. “The only other thing I compare it to is eating and sleeping. It’s kind of part of my soul.”