From Pem Dunn’s childhood to traveling the globe as a pilot for the Navy and United Airlines, the passions in his life have been the love for his wife, Jo Ann, flying, and art. “I believe that my passion for art was inborn because it was there from a very young age. I grew up outside of Boston and several times took the train on my own to the Museum of Fine Arts. I majored in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan, because I wanted to be a Navy pilot and they offered an NROTC program. I was able to take art classes as electives. Friends paid me to draw portraits of their girlfriends. It was fun to make a little money on the side for my artwork,” Pem says.
Upon graduation and receiving his degree in Aeronautical Engineering and Commission, Pem was assigned to flight school and spent the next seven years as a Navy pilot. “When I was at sea on an aircraft carrier, I would be sketching when I wasn’t flying,” he says.
Following his service in the Navy, Pem became a pilot with United Airlines and moved to New Jersey, where he flew out of Newark and New York City. He reveals, “I’d fly for three or four days, and on my days off, I would paint. Joseph Dawley, an internationally known artist, was opening an art gallery with western art in a nearby town. Joseph painted like the European masters of old. At that time, he was working for the Newark Evening News, retouching photos and sidelining as a political cartoonist. He was also the artist of the ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’ comic books, and created the daily comic strip ‘The Chief,’ that was syndicated and distributed throughout the U.S. Joseph’s artwork is part of the collection at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and also the White House. I wanted to buy a painting from him, but I wanted to clear it with Jo Ann. He was kind to come to our home where he saw one of my paintings. I was surprised when he offered to mentor me, which he did for the next 10 years at no cost. Joseph also invited me to join him for two man shows in his gallery. I also had the opportunity to study with several of the country’s finest artists, including Natalie Becker, Karen Vance, and Scott Christensen.”
Pem and JoAnn moved to Evergreen in 1984 when he transferred to fly out of Denver. They wanted to do this because they loved the mountains with opportunities for an active lifestyle. His parallel careers continued until 1997, when he retired from United Airlines and embarked on painting full time. “Although I have shown in many galleries throughout the country, Evergreen Fine Art and Sculpture Garden was the best at connecting buyers and artists. I’ve been teaching oil painting at Center for the Arts Evergreen for about 10 years and love it. I believe your only purpose as an artist is to be influenced by what you see and to be able to transfer that emotion to your viewers through your paintings. I love creating reality on canvas, but it’s the use of light that makes every painting unique,” he says.
Privileged to travel the world, Pem claims, “Antarctica is also special to me because it’s unique and I also love hiking the backcountry trails through the Rocky Mountains. The constant change of light and weather inspires me because the light gives nature subtle nuances of color that never fail to catch my eye. The same could be said of Antarctica, which I also love because it is untouched.” JoAnn adds, “It’s not uncommon for Pem to get on his hands and knees to see the beauty of something very small like a small bunch of leaves. He’s always in awe of nature and I’m in awe of how he captures that on canvas.”
Three years ago, Pem’s eyesight was impacted by the blockage of blood vessels that compromised his vision, and describes, “It was then, I had to put my complete trust in God in order to keep on painting and relearn how to paint since my vision hindered the detail I was once able to depict on canvas. I also had to let go of my control of the paintbrush and become intuitive. I started standing further back and working with longer brushes that forced me to look beyond the small details. Your brain retains your intuitive way of thinking. Prior to my vision becoming compromised, I analyzed everything. Now I have to trust God to guide my hand. It wasn’t easy to let go and experience complete trust in what God now creates through me. I am now miraculously painting in a totally different way. Now I stand back because I’ve lost my depth perception. I’m totally blind in my right eye. Painting is what saved me. I had to let go of being in control and start trusting my intuition. It was a hard lesson for me to learn. My biggest lesson was learning I had to allow my passion for painting to both consume and control me instead of trying to constantly be in control of my art.”
Being married to a pilot, Jo Ann knows firsthand the trials Pem has faced in losing his keen sense of sight. “God blessed Pem with a gift to paint,” Jo Ann asserts, and adds, “I know many pilots who have retired and worried about what they were going to do to fill their time. Pem’s art took him outside of his occupation. His love of painting is equally as strong as his passion to teach others to paint. You don’t have to be a professional artist to appreciate the benefits of the beauty and emotional impact of what’s around you. You just have to pick up a brush.”
Blessed to interview Pem and Jo Ann in their beautiful home, I was in awe of Pem’s beautiful paintings that seemingly serve as a diary of his extraordinary life. Famed artist Henri Matisse claimed, “Creativity takes courage.” Pem defines courage and his paintings reveal the beauty that is in his heart, mind and soul.