By Bonnie Gangelhoff
“I always wanted to be a painter and I always wanted to fly airplanes. I ended up doing both.” So says Colorado-based landscape painter Pem Dunn. It’s not often that you hear those two career ambitions in the same sentence. But Dunn has indeed pursued two successful careers in his lifetime.
After graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he served as a pilot with the U.S. Navy for seven years, and then went on to fly planes for United Airlines. But wherever he and his family moved for his positions with the airlines, he painted in his free time, everything from mountain scenes in Colorado to seascapes in New England. And in each city on his itinerary he was likely to pay a visit to galleries and museums.
In 1984, Dunn made a permanent move to Colorado—a place where he could nurture his love of the outdoors and engage in favorite pastimes like hiking the back trails of the Rocky Mountains. Today that picturesque locale is where he finds much of his artistic inspiration. “The mountains of Colorado drew me out here,” Dunn says. “There are such distinct seasons here, and the light is clearer here than in other places I have lived.”
While he does, on occasion, paint figurative work, Dunn has been drawn to the landscape genre since his early days as a pilot. And these days he has plenty of time to explore the scenic Rockies, having retired from the airlines in 1997. Some may find it surprising, but Dunn says although he loved flying, he doesn’t miss it. “I loved it up until my last flight. But I didn’t view retirement as an end but rather as a beginning,” he explains. “I could now go and really explore my passion—art. It was a blessing. And I feel fortunate.”
His painterly eye recently has turned to intimate mountain scenes such as small reflective pools and streams, says Dunn, who cites Andrew Wyeth as an artist he turns toward to get his creative juices flowing. “I enjoy painting differently now than when I first started,” he says. “I’m no longer looking for a scene but for pure shapes, and often I can find that in intimate scenes.”
When Dunn prepares to paint on location, he is likely to spend an hour sketching before even picking up a paint brush. The reason: He wants to make sure the abstract design is just right, he says. Over the years, he has come to believe that getting the abstract design correct is one of the most important elements in his work because that is the key to drawing viewers into a scene. In fact, Dunn says, the first thing he looks at in assessing other artists’ works is how well the painting is designed.
The former pilot says that it may sound surprising to some, but there are actually similarities between flying and painting. For example, each has a technical side to it. And each involves problem-solving. On a more ethereal level, Dunn says, flying through the clouds as a pilot is like a ballet few get to experience. And while soaring through the clouds, he developed an immense appreciation of the beauty that surrounded him. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘How do you get your clouds looking that way in your paintings?’ I say, ‘well, I spent a lot of years up in the clouds.’” His years in the stratosphere gave him a different perspective, too, Dunn says: “Even when I’m on the ground, I have a three-dimensional perspective.”
Although he has worked hard, he is quick to give credit to his family, galleries, collectors, and teachers such as Karen Vance, Scott Christensen, and Kim English, all of whom have encouraged him over the years. For Dunn, painting the landscape on a daily basis is an ultimately satisfying job. “I feel so fortunate I can see beauty in something small that other people may miss,” Dunn says. “Wherever I look, I get joy out of what I’m looking at—that experience is almost as important as the painting itself.”
Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; Elk Horn Art Gallery, Winter Park, CO; Muhlestein Sculpture Studio, Loveland, CO; www.pemdunnart.com.
Group show, Muhlestein Sculpture Studio, October 16-17.
Featured in “Artist to Watch” October 2010