et quiet enough, and Olivia Pendergast’s paintings hum.
Her portraits of villagers in Malawi, Africa, Haiti, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, so direct and tactile you may imagine you feel that afternoon sun dancing upon your skin…
…smell the goats and the rich soil, hear the croaking frogs, even the mosquitoes…
But amidst all the buzzing and bleating, it is the people in Pendergast’s paintings who bring us to calm.
Yet Pendergast makes it clear that her works are not about exploring some inscrutable other.
Ultimately, says the artist, her paintings are autobiographical. The gentleness you see, she says, speaks to how she herself felt while she was there.
Even as Pendergast’s paintings testify to the precariousness of life in these parts, still, they honor the “vitality,” says Pendergast, that many of us of in industrialized countries have lost.
In American, I see an extreme need for security here, and when I go to Africa, that shakes loose in me. You’ll be driving along and you don’t know if that road’s going to be there when you come around the corner. It may have been washed away two weeks ago and someone just placed a branch there to warn you.
So you start to lose your addiction to security when you’re there. And it becomes enlivening.
Here, we think that because we go bungee jumping, we’re being truly alive, but there’s always a safety net. Just as there are always curbs to keep you from careening off the roads when you’re driving. Whereas in the villagers I visited, your life is in your hands there. And if you go off the road, there’s no one who’s going to find you, maybe for days. You are responsible for your own life in a way that we’re not required to be here.”
For Pendergast, who grew up on a small, family-run organic farm in North Carolina, and spent every moment she could drawing and sequestered away in her bedroom, the journey to remote places halfway around the world was at first a bit daunting.
Olivia Pendergast: “For one thing, I had never heard of Malawi. I was with a meditation group in Seattle, and they had a program where they worked with a village in Malawi, Africa. At first I was really scared to go. And I certainly didn’t have the four thousand dollars it would cost to go there. But the more I heard about the people there, their gentleness, the more determined I became to find a way.”
Six months later, the artist was attending a dance workshop, and there she met a man by the name of Peter Scott who would later become her husband.
Olivia Pendergast: “During a break one day, he asked me what I did. I told him that I painted. ‘Well what do you want to do with your painting?’ he asked. I told him that I wanted to go to Malawi and paint there. And his tongue just dropped out. He said, ‘I just got off the plane from Malawi to come to this workshop.’ He said, ‘This is crazy. Nobody even knows where Malawi is, let alone wants to go there.'”
Scott, it turned out, was working with the developing countries of Haiti, Bangladesh and Malawi, Africa, to offer a cookstove alternative to the toxic kilns and cookfires currently in use, where smoke inhalation kills so many women and children who labor over them daily, and the heavy demand for wood is causing serious deforestation.
A problem so severe that Scott’s innovative cleanstove solution, which produces very little smoke and uses much less wood, has now caught the attention and backing of Hilary Clinton.
That Scott and Pendergast would meet in such a way when the two carried such similar unique passions felt like destiny.
“Three months later, I was in Malawi.”
But it was hardly a fairytale.
[quote]It was very hard. I had never been out of the states before. I didn’t know how to drive on the other side of the road. I didn’t know how to do foreign exchange. Once we were there, I no longer had any cellphone or internet. Or friends. And he was understandably so committed to his work. So I was totally solo. I painted. A lot.[/quote]
“We went to a village, and like most of the other ninety-five percent of the fourteen million people there, no one in the village had electricity. Because they’re living in mud huts.”
Pendergast chuckles. “There’s a photo of me holding a baby in a rural orphanage there that had no chairs or tables, just mud walls and a chalk board, and that baby is just shrieking. He was just so afraid of me. I learned later that the mothers and care-givers would tell the children, ‘If you don’t behave, the ‘Mzungus,’ which means, ‘white person‘ is going to get you.'”
But once they got to know and came to feel safe with her, Pendergast says, the children at the orphanage would anticipate her regular visits, often holding onto their strange new friend’s skirt and crowding around her.
Olivia Pendergast: “It’s still almost impossible to adopt kids from there, although Madonna managed to.”
Two of the children the artist became especially close to and indeed had a hard time leaving.
“I still dream about Malawi. There was one brother and sister: Solomon was six and his sister was nine. And Solomon would climb up onto my lap and he would pull my face down to his and he would whisper, ‘family.'”
“After I returned home, I found out about eight months later that they had gotten adopted. I was very happy, but I also cried.”
Now that Pendergast is a mother with a young daughter of her own, Amadie (which, the artist informs me, means ‘universal love’) does Pendergast plan on ever returning to that part of the world?
Olivia Pendergast: “I will bring my daughter to Africa, yes, but not to Malawi, because of the Malaria. The kind they have in West Africa will go to your liver, but the strain of Malaria in the part of Africa where I stayed, the one I contracted, that one can kill you. It can go cerebral in about twelve hours, and I wouldn’t even know my daughter had it. Even people who live there and know it well, sometimes will miss it.”
[quote]The first time I contracted Malaria, it freaked Peter out, because I was so sick my fever spiked to 104 degrees. He threw me into the car and rushed me to the hospital. It was so scary for him. He was like, ‘I want to see the package that the needle came out of. Everybody of course in the hospital is infected. There are mosquitoes everywhere. And Peter stayed the night with me, he pulled down the mosquito net, and there were these huge holes of course. So he spent the whole night trying to stitch them all up.”[/quote]
And yet, despite her near-death experiences, not once but two times, the artist and her partner returned to Malawi a second and third time.
“We went on three different occasions, over the course of three-and-a-half years. By the second trip, I’d start to hang up my paintings outside on the patio to dry and to share with the villagers. The children would look over the fence and at me, and sometimes I would take these big sheets of just-painted paper off the wall and go over and show it to them. And they loved it because usually it would be of one of them. And they’d look at themselves as I’d painted them with these long necks, and they’d say, ‘Oh, Olivia! Is very funny!'”
“I offered to teach art to some of the people there, because they’d never had classes or books. And there were a couple of guys interested, but when they saw how I drew, they thought I wasn’t a very good artist. They thought I didn’t have a very good sense of proportion. So I’d have to draw them photo-realistic sketches, so they could see that I really could draw.”
A couple of the young men, including Mosses Julius Chipeta Nkhotakota (“Julius Mosses“) and Lancelot Chirwa of Lilongwi, Malawi, now produce their own work. Pendergast was able to bring some of their paintings back from Malawi “and sell them in a some of shows,” but is still looking for an affordable a way to get more of their artwork out.
Pendergast also has used some of the profits from her own paintings to support Our Father’s Kitchen, an organization that supplies food to children with AIDS in Ethiopia.
The artist, who now makes her home in Vashon Island, Washington, with her husband and young daughter, is also involved with Books for Africa, a program that purchases and delivers books, a precious commodity, to the villagers of Malawi.
Olivia Pendergast: “I spent years in school painting models, and what I have to show for it is paintings of very bored people. That movement you look for in your subjects was gone. What I’m interested in painting is that moment of excitement or joy, that beautiful openness.”
“When I went to Africa, the expressions I saw in people’s faces and eyes was so raw and authentic. You go into the villages and take people’s pictures, and they’re so excited to see themselves on the back of my camera. There was such an authenticity in my interactions with them which I will cherish forever.”
Olivia Pendergast attended Columbus College of Art and Design’s five-year BFA program where she majored in Illustration. After working for five years in the LA film industry as a conceptual designer, the pull to create her own paintings was too much to resist. She cut up her credit cards and moved to a cabin in the mountains of Utah to paint, full-time.
In 2008, after living for a year in Seattle, Olivia, formally known as “Holly Mae”, journeyed to Malawi, Africa. In 2009, she returned twice to Malawi to work and paint. In 2010, she spent time in Haiti, and in 2011, she created a show called “Forgetting Haiti,” and also made a trip to Bangladesh, before giving birth to her daughter, Amadi.
Pendergast’s paintings have won national awards and have shown in museums and shows all over the country.
To learn more about the artist and her work, please visit her website at: Olivia Pendergast.com
Olivia Pendergast’s husband, Peter Scott, is designer and founder of a cookstove company that hopes to stem smoke inhalation and deforestation in East Africa. Inefficient cookstoves are considered both a humanitarian and environmental crisis in some parts of the world, where airborne particulates are harming and even killing women and children, and where trees are logged at a rapid rate to fuel open-pit fires or poor-quality, fast-burning stoves. According to some organizations, 1.6 million women and children die each year from upper respiratory disease due to indoor cooking smoke. And deforestation in many of these countries is rampant.
For more information on Scott’s work, see the recent March 3, 2012 Huffington Post article: “Impact Entrepreneurship Places Importance On Social Consciousness.”
You may also want to visit the website for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, launched by Senator Hilary Clinton, who made clean cookstoves a top priority during her tenure at the State Department and noted in speeches that more people die from dirty smoke than from malaria.
Books for Africa is a program that purchases and delivers books, a precious commodity, to the villagers of Malawi.
Julius Mosses and Lancelot Chirwa of Lilongwi, Malawi, now produce their own work. The challenge now is to find an affordable ways to make their paintings available outside the country. They have managed the remarkable feat already of gaining access to internet accounts, which can be visited by clicking onto their names here.