J GO Gallery exhibit will raise funds for a school in Africa
Pendergast’s oils inspired by living in Kenya
J GO Gallery’s “From Africa” exhibit will raise funds for the Queen of Peace Junior School located in Mbale, Uganda.
The exhibit, which shows through Aug. 31, consists of 13 oil paintings by Kenya-based artist Olivia Mae Pendergast, according to gallery owner Jude Grenney.
“Olivia used to live in Salt Lake City, and she could paint anything — landscapes and stylized figures,” Grenney said. “I represented her years ago before she moved to Africa.”
Grenney, who ran the Phoenix Gallery at that time, worked with Pendergast for another fundraiser for African students.
“She saw the need for education over there, and so it was her idea to collect books from people who came to see her show,” Grenney said. “So, I thought it would be nice for J GO Gallery to do something similar.”
The exhibit is a reunion of sorts for Grenney and Pendergast, who kept in touch after the artist moved to Africa five years ago.
“I had started to feel a pull to go to Malawi to paint,” Pendergast said. “I don’t know why. I never had any connection to Africa, but I wanted to go there all of sudden.”
For a while, Pendergast would split her time between Malawi and Seattle, until her daughter turned 2.
“That was five years ago,” she said. “I took her to Kenya and decided to make the city my primary residence.”
Pendergast found the local population open and kind.
“It was easy to find people who were willing to model for me,” she said. “It was interesting. I would paint skin tones that were different from anything I painted before, but at the same time, everything seemed very familiar to me.”
Pendergast’s oils are based on photographs she takes of her subjects, and that comes with unique challenges.
“Sometimes I can shoot rolls and rolls of film, and then I’ll look at the photos and not see anything interesting,” she said. “Other times I will shoot someone in a formal shoot and see someone else in the background who is standing in a way that is more interesting to me.”
The artist’s interest is piqued by the person’s posture or facial expression.
“When I was in Malawi, I found the people to be very emotive in their posturing, which I loved, and when I went to Kenya, I found it very similar,” she said. “There is usually some sense of an intimate moment in the way they’re eyes are looking to the side or how they appear to be thinking about something.”
Still, finding an interesting subject in a photograph is part of the artistic struggle, Pendergast said.
“Sometimes I’ll paint from a photograph that I think is amazing, but I won’t be able to convey the openness that I see,” she said. “So I’ll be forced to find another image that catches my eye.”
Pendergast’s connection with Africa inspired Grenney, who also has a special bond with the Mother Continent, stemming from her father, Dr. William J. Grenney.
“He was a civil engineer at Utah State University and started the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders when I was in high school,” she said. “When I was younger, he took my older brother to Africa and they moved around to different areas to install wells, solar power and swing sets at different orphanages, and then they would find what the next major need was and work on that.”
During his time in Africa, Grenney’s father met a student named Judy Nalube.
“She came to live with my parents, and my dad funded her education with the agreement that she go back to Africa and teach,” Grenney said.
After Grenney’s father retired, he founded the Institute for Sustainable Education Economics and Engineering, also known as SEEEME, which kept close ties with Engineers Without Borders. One of the projects the nonprofit helps with is the Queen of Peace Junior School, which is run by Nalube.
“Judy found a plot of land in a rural location near Mbale and together they raised funds and provided labor to build a school,” Grenney said.
Four years ago, Grenney’s father stopped his bi-annual treks to Africa, because of his wife’s failing health, and handed SEEEME operations to Jane Debyle, who had been with the organization for more than a decade.
DeByle works closely with Nalube to determine what the school needs.
“The school was built about the time Bill retired, and since then, our primary mission has been to help make the school sustainable,” DeByle said. “We were doing great until the COVID-19 pandemic came along.”
Concerns about coronavirus shut down all the schools in Mbale, and the Queen of Peace was put in a state of limbo, DeByle said.
“All these teachers don’t have jobs, have lost their income and some are living at the school,” she said. “So throughout this pandemic, we have raised about $8,000 so the teachers and staff have money to live on. Our main concern is to pay teachers and staff so Judy can get the school up and running when things are ready to open up again.”
In addition, SEEEME wants to raise additional funds that will help build another classroom block.
“It’s currently a small school that only has four classrooms, which were built in 2017,” she said. “They are made of wood and don’t have cement floors. So we would like to build this new block and make sure the school is certified so it can blossom.”
Lastly, DeByle wants to raise money for scholarships that will allow more girls to attend the school.
“Once schools open in Uganda, families will most likely just send their boys, so our long-term goal is to sponsor more girls,” she said.
Funds for these projects will be made through direct donations to SEEEME and from a portion of the art sales at J GO Gallery.
“Just to be clear, I am donating a portion of the proceeds from the gallery’s takeaway,” Grenney said. “That way, Olivia will be able to keep her whole portion.”
Grenney, who has never been to Africa, hopes to visit the continent soon with her father.
“He’s 84 and still in great health,” she said. “So I hope to be able to accompany him on one of his trips when this whole COVID thing settles down.”
When: Through Aug. 31, with a reception from 6-9 p.m. on Aug. 27
Where: J GO Gallery, 268 Main St.
Fundraising link: seeeme.net/donate
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