Modern Family

At home with celebrated artist Steve Penley

Photograph by Julia Robbs

“All my furniture needs to be charcoal gray,” says Carrie Penley—not necessarily because she loves the color, but to hide paint smears from her artist husband, Steve Penley, who walks around the house in freshly smudged clothes that look like a Jackson Pollock canvas.

The neutral palette also serves an aesthetic purpose. Steve’s paintings are the focal point of every room. With Carrie’s background as an interior designer and Steve’s exuberant art (who else but Steve Penley would cover an entire family room wall with a painting that depicts George Washington crossing the Delaware?), this creative couple wanted a high-style house that is also family-friendly. In fact, Lyall, Abbey, and Parker, the Penley children, have their framed art throughout the house, as does Carrie.

The Carrollton home is a metaphor for Steve’s career: country club and bohemia meeting halfway. When Macon-born Steve was a student at the University of Georgia, he didn’t fit in completely with either his fraternity brothers or his fellow art majors, who thought he wasn’t countercultural enough. “I was snubbed for being too traditional . . . no dreadlocks,” he recalls. After briefly living the life of a starving artist in New York (“I spent more time in subways and selling women’s shoes than I did painting”), he returned to Georgia. A UGA friend opening a Midtown restaurant asked Steve to fill the walls, so he painted historical icons—such as Einstein and George Washington—in an abstract style. Bob Steed, a King & Spalding attorney who dined there, admired the paintings and commissioned a portrait of his wife, and soon Steve’s work was all over Buckhead. Today he is one of Georgia’s most popular artists. His works are in the private collections of dozens of luminaries, including Mitt Romney, Vince Dooley, Ron Gant, and Ferrol Sams.

In the Penley home, Steve’s paintings of Benjamin Franklin, John F. Kennedy, and a Coca-Cola bottle mix well with eclectic furnishings Carrie has collected. In her previous career working for noted Atlanta design experts Dan Carithers, Dotty Travis, and Judy Bentley, Carrie developed a style she calls New Traditional. “I’m actually trying to work some more modern pieces in our house these days,” she says. “I like cleaner lines, but then mixing that with something like Chinese antiques.”

Steve also blends old and new. “So many people in Atlanta are traditional, but they can relate to a painting of mine even though it’s modern,” notes Steve. “It’s sort of like what R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe once said about their music: ‘It’s the acceptable edge of the unacceptable.’”

This article originally appeared in our May 2012 issue.