Art is Passion for Cape Cod Summer Resident Mark Penta
By: CHRISTOPHER KAZARIAN, March 10, 2014
Ever have the feeling you are being watched?
If Falmouth summer resident Mark Penta is in the same coffee shop, restaurant or bar as you, there is a good chance you are. And there is a good bet he will be sketching your face, partially for work, but primarily for pleasure. “I always have a sketchbook on me and drawing people always has been my favorite thing to do,” he said. “My sketchbooks are my best friend. I can say anything to them, be as lousy an artist as possible, and nobody has to see what I’m drawing. I love drawing people in Coffee Obsession or in a bar because it is what I do, like brushing my teeth. It is something I have to do every day. It keeps my eyes sharp and my skills sharp.”
Mr. Penta, who grew up and lives in Framingham, began drawing at an early age. His first teacher was TV’s Captain Bob. Every Saturday morning, he would “get up at the crack of dawn,” he said, and follow along with the bearded television personality, sketching all sorts of animals onto paper.
His passion for art only grew as he made his way through high school where he became identified with that one singular skill. “I guess in every school growing up there are always one or two kids known for being an artist,” he said. “I was sort of that kid and I got some attention for it.”
Those childhood days, he said, were often filled with drawing Star Wars characters or superheroes. And he regularly found inspiration from existing artwork, copying the faces on album covers like “Grease” or Van Halen. “I never was tracing, but copying,” he said. “It really trained my eye.”
After graduating from Framingham South High School in 1987, Mr. Penta enrolled in the University of Hartford’s art school, explaining there was never any hesitation as to what degree he would pursue. “I wasn’t good at math or science so it seemed obvious when to choose a school to go to I would pursue a career in the arts,” he said.
As to what it is about art that he enjoys, Mr. Penta said, “it makes life worth living for me.
In college he was able to improve his craft, giving a depth to his work that was not there previously. “When I was younger my drawings of people looked pretty stiff, like mannequins,” he said. “But after one year of college I learned how to loosen up and draw with more feeling.”
He also learned an important lesson prior to his senior year—that he could make a living as an artist. That lesson occurred here in Falmouth at what was then the Harborside restaurant (now the Boathouse), where he had previously worked in the summers as a busboy and waiter. But in the summer of 1990, with the support of the restaurant’s general manager Michael Donovan, he was encouraged to sit at the bar and draw caricatures of people, keeping whatever money he made. “That was like a revelation to me because it was the first time I made money doing what I love and I was a terrible waiter,” he said with a laugh. “I had no sense of timing. I would always forget to turn a corner and see somebody waiting for a meal or a bill and they’d be there for 45 minutes.”
Mr. Penta took that experience with him after graduating from college in 1991, balancing work at an art supply store in Natick and continuing to draw caricatures of people at Boston’s Faneuil Hall. “I drew people from all over the world,” he said. “I drew thousands of people, sometimes in front of huge crowds. I always say it was like boot camp for a caricature artist because you have to learn how to draw really quickly with ink only. There was no pencil and no erasing.”
Mistakes were occasional, and he placed little value in them. “People always ask me what happens if I make a mistake,” he said. “I tear it up and start all over again. It is no big deal. It happens.”
Art Provides Opportunities for Travel
He has continued to do caricatures, using his talent as a means to travel the world, working not only corporate events and private parties, but as a guest entertainer on a few Celebrity Cruises, which took him to the Caribbean and the Greek Islands. “That was great,” he said. “There I was in Santorini, pinching myself because of my ability to draw goofy faces. It got me on this beautiful island in the middle of the Mediterranean.”
The best part of caricatures, he said, is “that I am doing what I love. It is a very satisfying feeling.” And there is an inherent reward, he said, “in making people happy. I love getting them to smile and laugh and feel good.”
Although much of his work is in drawing people’s exaggerated features, Mr. Penta’s art goes well beyond that. He illustrated his own picture book, “Cape Cod Invasion,” that depicts idyllic scenes on this side of the canal with a slight twist—flying saucers fill the sky. His inspiration for the piece began while sitting on the beach in Falmouth Heights and watching the Island Queen head out of Falmouth Harbor. “I thought ‘What if a UFO came out of nowhere and started following the boat?’” he said. “I spent that whole summer driving all over the Cape shooting photos of recognizable places and then spent the next seven months illustrating all the pictures.”
The book, available on his website www.markpenta.com, was published in 2007 by Commonwealth Editions and was well received by audiences. “The artwork catches people off guard,” he said. “The first thing that hits them visually are these pretty Cape Cod scenes. When they look harder they usually say, ‘Wait a minute, is that a flying saucer?’ ”
In 2009 he added another book to his list, “Young Jesus Chronicles,” which he co-authored and illustrated, creating fictitious humorous cartoons related to the religious figure.
He is currently working on a third with Falmouth author T.M. Murphy that will serve as a story starter to inspire children to write and draw. It is just one example of his willingness to compel others, both young and old, to explore ways of expressing themselves through art.
He has held part-time positions as a teacher at continuing education programs at the Rhode Island School of Design, Dean College and Massachusetts Bay Community College. Recently, he started teaching private lessons at The Red Dress, a consignment shop in Ashland. “I love teaching kids, but love teaching adults because so often they are the ones who have stifled their creativity,” he said. “I can get them to see like a professional artist and get them to make realistic drawings in a matter of hours. People think you are born with it, but it can be taught.”
Professionally, his goals are to continue drawing, sketching, illustrating, and painting in an effort to share his talents with others, and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
As to what it is about art that he enjoys, Mr. Penta said, “it makes life worth living for me. Put it this way, if I don’t make art I don’t feel right. Inside I feel like something is off. Everything seems off-kilter in my world. If I spend time working on art and it really comes from my heart, there is no more satisfying feeling to me.”