Saying Cambodian-born artist Pakan Penn’s résumé is impressive is an understatement. His first artworks were sold as a child, his paintings hung on the walls of the West Wing for eight years, and he was recently named World’s Best Animal Impressionist, as selected by the top 25 U.S. galleries by the American Art Awards.
It’s no wonder that Penn’s works found their way to the lauded Mary Martin Gallery in Charleston. “We connected right away, and now she’s got quite a bit of my work there,” Penn says of the gallery. “She just wants more, more, more!”
As a child in Phnom Penh, art was always Penn’s favorite class. He graduated from pencil drawings to watercolor and pastels, but when it came to oil paintings, he hit a roadblock. The paints were not easy to come by in a country where war was spilling in from Vietnam and communism was on the rise. Luckily, his French professors at school managed to purchase them for him overseas. Penn even experimented with making his own paints at times.
At a young age, he started selling Cambodian landscapes to gift shops around the city. An American attaché came across one of his paintings, sought him out, and offered to get Penn to the United States. But with his siblings studying medicine and pharmacy, art seemed more of a hobby than a legitimate career.
“My father planned to have me be an architect, not a painter. So, he never wanted me to go,” Penn says. “It took the attaché probably two years to convince my father to let me go, plus the situation in the city started to deteriorate. The war got really close to the city.”
In 1973, at the age of 19, Penn escaped to Thailand, where he stayed for three months while his paperwork was processed. Then he made the final leg of his journey to Washington, D.C. For three months, he studied English at Georgetown University before coming across the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Armed with his art portfolio, he walked into the admissions office and told them he wanted to be an art student. The staff was impressed with his work and enrolled him as a second-year student, where Penn studied under color-field painter Gene Davis.
“Every time in the painting class, he stood behind me and said, ‘You’re a professional. Why do you come to school?’” Penn recalls. “I said, ‘I need a diploma so I can go back home.’”
But Penn wouldn’t be able to go home. The communists had taken over, and during the Cambodian genocide from 1975 to 1979, many of his family members were killed. When he completed his education at Corcoran, he applied to become a U.S. citizen.
“I started selling my art in the galleries, but after a while I thought to myself, I can’t make a living selling art. So, I just quit painting,” Penn says.
Until 2001, he used his artist’s mind to work as a general contractor. He designed and built his dream house, had a family, and lived the American dream. But he missed painting and picked up his art supplies again, sure that he had lost any skills he had before.
“Instead of forgetting, I did better than before, and I painted in a different way than I used to,” he says.
In 2006, a friend hosted an art show for him. Three years later, he presented a painting of the Chicago skyline to former President Barack Obama at the White House; his paintings were also displayed in the West Wing. Penn’s paintings have also graced the walls of embassies and the home of an ambassador.
At the Mary Martin Gallery, owner Mary Martin says that when visitors come across his work, they stop and enjoy the moment. “His brilliance of color and his texture—they’re almost unmatched,” she says. “It’s not just a painting of a garden; you feel like you’re almost in it because of the texture.”
With his technique and intrinsic skill, Penn has been embraced by the art community for his portrait commissions, florals that appear to grow off the canvas, fast-paced equestrian scenes and his iconic Cambodian landscapes.
“A flower could be on the side of the road. It could be in the nursery. It could be people hanging their flower pot in front of their house,” he says. “When I turn my head and I see something beautiful, I just remember, and I paint it.”
Works from the Mary Martin Gallery are also on display at The Andell Inn, The Vendue, Bella Grace and The Harbour Club in Charleston.
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.