Renowned artist Robert Penn dies; funeral Saturday Robert "Bobby" Penn, 53, one of South Dakota's greatest contemporary Native American artists, died Sunday, Feb. 7, at Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls after a long battle with lung problems.
Penn was born on May 3, 1946, in Omaha, NE, to Arthur Penn, a registered member of the Omaha Tribe, and Cornelia Steed Penn, a registered member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. He spent his pre-high school years in a boarding school before attending and graduating from St. Francis High School in 1966.
A short time after attending an Oscar Howe summer workshop at The University of South Dakota, Penn enrolled at USD. A protege of Oscar Howe, Penn was a workstudy assistant for the internationally noted Sioux artist. With Howe's influence, Penn, who had taken his first lesson at six or seven, exhibited at the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City in 1969 while an undergraduate at the university. He graduated in 1974 with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the USD College of Fine Arts. He also received education at Princeton University and Syracuse University.
After graduation, Penn became an illustrator for the USD School of Medicine and he taught art at various schools and colleges for several years. He was an art instructor for Sinte Gleska College in Rosebud, Santee (NE) Community College and Mary College in Bismarck, ND. In 1986, he pursued his painting career full-time and returned to South Dakota to live and work in a 100-year-old homestead near Vermillion. He had spent many years in Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota and St. Paul, MN, before returning to South Dakota.
A deeply spiritual Sicanga Sioux/Omaha artist, Penn established himself as a leading American Indian artist in the region and nationally. His work is included in an impressive number of public collections including those of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Minneapolis (MN) Institute of Arts, and the Vincent Price Gallery in Chicago, IL. He has had more than a dozen exhibitions to his credit and his work has won prizes at the Colorado Indian Market and the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Exhibition.
Penn has been the focus of 16 solo artist shows. An accomplished muralist, he has completed four commissions including those at USD's Lacotah Hall and the W.H. Over State Museum, the Denver Airport and the four paintings at the hospital entrance at the Rosebud Health Facility.
In 1992, he was awarded the South Dakota Governor's Award for Distinction in Creative Achievement in the Arts, and in 1998, he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. In June 1993, the University Art Galleries at USD organized a 24-year Retrospective of Robert Penn's work under direction of John Day, Dean of College of Fine Arts.
Penn, who has been described by Day as the best Native American artist on the Northern Plains, blended his talents as a teacher, artist and student as skillfully as he did mixing his paints. For several years he was a primary instructor for the Oscar Howe Native American Summer Art Institute at USD.
He is survived by two sons, Robert Q. Penn and Joseph Penn, and a daughter, Jaime Penn; his mother Cornelia Penn; and former wife, Altadena dela Cruz Penn.
Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 13 at St. Francis Catholic Church in St. Francis. Interment will follow the funeral. A banquet will be held at noon at Digman Hall.
The Hansen Funeral Home in Vermillion is handling funeral arrangements.