Artist uses art to fight illiteracy |

Artist uses art to fight illiteracy

Holly Pendergast is violently allergic to linseed oil, soy and some acrylic paints. She often blisters, gets hives and ends up sick without explanation. For a time five years ago, Pendergast was unable to leave her former home in Wanship without first slipping on a charcoal-filter mask to protect her from harm. Things got so bad she built a filter system in her home and stayed inside for as long as a week at a time.

Pendergast’s condition, known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, did more than inconvenience the otherwise health 30-something. It changed her life.

But it didn’t stop her from traveling to Africa.

Pendergast, a painter by trade, left for Malawi at the end of January with the goal of starting a new collection on oil paintings. She spent 12 hours in an airport in Nairobi before touching down in the southeastern African nation considered by some to be the poorest in the world.

Pendergast slept soundly and woke the next morning to find her laptop, camcorder, camera, cell phone, medication and clothes missing.

Pendergast, who had never before left U.S. soil, had been robbed in the night.

"They took about $10,000 worth of stuff," she remembered in a telephone interview. "I just like fell on the floor. I didn’t know what to do."

Pendergast had hardly been able to afford the $4,000 plane fare to get to Malawi. Now she had just one pair of flip-flops for the remainder of her four-month stay. But the thief was not without mercy: Pendergast’s paints and canvases remained miraculously untouched.

"That was a little bit rattling," Pendergast said in understatement.

A week and a half after the incident Pendergast started painting "Portraits of Malawi," a collection opening at Phoenix Gallery Friday, June 27 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in conjunction with the gallery stroll. The show features 20 abstract figure drawings and will be on display until July 11.

Pendergast and the Phoenix Gallery are donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of "Portraits of Malawi" to ship a palette of paperback children’s books to a Buddhist orphanage on the outskirts of Blantyr, Malawi. Book donation will be accepted anytime prior to the opening, during the opening reception and for the two-week run of the show.

To help collect books, Pendergast is donating a drawing that will be raffled off at the end of the show. Participants must donate two gently used children’s books to be eligible to win, according to Pendergast and Phoenix Gallery owner Judi Grennery.

Despite the robbery, Pendergast continued to take pictures and paint. She spent weeks searching for a suitable piece of plywood on which to secure her canvases. For some time she had no way to print or project the pictures she took, so she squinted at the LCD screen on a borrowed digital camera to recreate in garish tones what she saw in the flesh.

The pieces she produced boast vivid colors and elongated figures.

"I was most surprised by the kindness of the people in Malawi," Pendergast said. "You would stare into their eyes and their faces would peal into the biggest smile."

Pendergast said painting while in Malawi rather than doing service, like many of her compatriots abroad, was a "point of contention in my heart," she explained. "I sort of wondered, ‘Is art enough?’ I wanted to give something back to the people of Malawi for being kind and for the pictures."

Pendergast spend hours walking within the village of Lilongwe, where she lived with her partner. "They always wanted to know if you were voting for Hilary or Obama," she laughed, thinking of home.

Pendergast moved to Park City in 1998. The visit was supposed to be a five-month sabbatical from her job as a commercial artist in California. She fell in love with the area, she said, and decided to pursue her passion. "I’ve been an artist since I was in the crib," Pendergast said. She graduated from Columbus College of Arts and Design with a degree in illustration.

She decided to reenter the world of fine art after she and her husband moved to Utah. "We sort of let go of our day jobs," she said. "We literally had nothing. It was really scary, but I knew this was what I wanted. It was going back to a completely impoverished way of life. I would sell a painting the day before rent was due."

It was not poverty or disease that attracted Pendergast to Malawi. It was the beauty of the place and its people, she said.

"I paint what I see, whatever I’m tripping over. It’s when you see something that makes me feel breathless, that breaks your heart. I’m interested in painting a moment. "

Pendergast found moment after moment, subject after subject to photograph and paint. She felt somewhat guilty, she said, for photographing her subjects without giving something back.

That’s when a group of friends in Pendergast’s meditation class in Malawi mentioned an orphanage run by Buddhist monks several miles from Pendergast’s village. She decided to make the six-hour drive to the orphanage to see the children for herself. She said she quickly fell in love. "I would spend hours with the kids," she said. "I would point to my foot and they would tell me the word [in their language] and then I would tell them the word in English."

Pendergast visited the Amitofo Care Center in Blantyr, Malawi, frequently and decided to find a way to help. She noticed the monks had few books to teach English to the children, an important language considering that some of the dialects spoken in Malawi are spoken only in a small portion of the country. Pendergast wanted to find a way to make a lasting difference, so she decided to procure more books for the kids.

"The kids had two Disney books with Mickey Mouse on them," Pendergast explained. "They would walk around with them and point to the pictures."

Pendergast said donated books should be paperback and designed for children under 10. Books about animals, friends, fairy tales and African folk lore are preferable, Pendergast said. "It serves them to be able to speak English. If they can speak English they can support themselves."

Pendergast said traveling in Africa helped make her reevaluate her own health. "I used to sort of identify with my health condition," Pendergast explained. "That’s why going to a place like Malawi never seemed possible."

Besides occasionally wearing a mask to keep allergens out, Pendergast said she thrived in Africa. "My health declined a little bit at first, because of the robbery and the stress, but then I was fine," she said.

Pendergast said she is working with doctors at the University of Washington to uncover the cause of her chemical sensitivity. She said the disease may underlie a neurological disorder.

For now, Pendergast plans to keep painting the images that inspired her in Malawi. In addition to the exhibition at Phoenix Gallery, her work is being shown at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts as part of the From Monet to Picasso exhibit in Salt Lake City.

She said people can donate books at Phoenix Gallery, 508 Main St.

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