As people entered the conference room at the RedState Gathering, they were greeted by an impressionist mural of Ronald Reagan's grinning countenance, superimposed over the stars and stripes of an American flag.
"Who did all these?" a woman from Florida asked her husband as she shifted her gaze from the Reagan painting to a Theodore Roosevelt, a George Washington, and another of Washington crossing the Delaware. The day before, artist Steve Penley had driven down from his home in Carrollton, Ga., with a pile of canvases in the back of his Suburban. His buddy Erick Erickson had put on the event, and he wasn't about to miss a chance to show his art to 700 kindred spirits and a worldwide media audience.
"I had no idea the room was that big, or I would have brought more with me," says Penley, whose paintings are often featured as a backdrop on Fox News' Sean Hannity Show. He hasn't sold any paintings yet as a result of the RedState exposure, but, he says, "I never really know what the impact of these things is until a lot later."
Penley met Erickson, a linchpin in the conservative blogging community, three years ago at a Chinese restaurant in Carrollton, which is near the Alabama border. At the time, Penley had never heard of RedState.com, but the two hit it off instantly. They had a lot of ideas in common.
For Penley, art is a lifelong hobby, and U.S. history is a lifelong passion. Now both are his profession. He went to the University of Georgia to study drawing and painting, but he says his fraternity brothers "staged an intervention" and told him he needed to move to New York City if he was serious about becoming an artist.
"That's when I got introduced to the New York art world and the pile of dirt on the floor," he says. The pile in question was an art installation, placed matter-of-factly at the center of an otherwise empty gallery room. Young and brash, he made the mistake of asking a gallery employee what it was. "It was something to do with man's inhumanity to man, or something ridiculous," he recalls. When he asked her how the artist planned to sell such a thing, "she just looked at me like I was some sort of Philistine for even asking."
Today, much of Penley's work is a response to the notion that a heap of soil can be art. He recoils from postmodernism and laments what he sees as the loss of absolute ideals in an increasingly post-theist society. Accordingly, he wants the subjects of his work to be instantly recognizable, and he wants to celebrate the triumphs of an exceptional and God-fearing America without the taint of irony.
One of Penley's paintings that did not make an appearance at the Gathering is of the Statue of Liberty fashioned from Coca-Cola logos and advertisements. He says the Atlanta-based, globally marketed brand is "a symbol of free markets and commercialism as a good thing." Another painting shows Ronald Reagan in football garb, cocking his arm back to throw a pass over a backdrop of Soviet propaganda.
Yet another is of '60s guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the odd man out in an oeuvre that consists mainly of conservative heroes and former presidents. "Even though he was a part of the counterculture of his day," Penley says, "he still is a great representation of the creativity and ingenuity that our forefathers fought for."