Folk Art From on High

March 2024, by Diane Sulg

Penny Dobson knew she was an artist in ninth grade. Her art teacher was so inspirational she decided to become an art teacher. 

She did so after studying at Reinhardt University, Kennesaw State University, and receiving a master’s degree at Lesley University. She taught for 27 years and credits that experience with having a profound effect on the art she makes today. 

You see, there never was robust funding for school art programs, so Penny learned to use everything and anything to make art. To this day, when she sees an interesting object, she thinks, “What can I make out of this?” 

So, while she is not a folk artist, her work straddles both the traditional and folk-art worlds, combining her sophisticated painting technique with rustic materials. This mixed media result is elevated work that is both stunning and comforting! 

The COVID-19 pandemic ended Penny’s teaching career, and she and her husband moved to Alabama. She planned to devote the same number of hours in a school day to her studio painting, but she instead works even longer hours. 

She spends time searching for unique and fun objects to use as the base for her art — everything from clocks and radios to toys and furniture is game. She hunts for salvaged wood to create gorgeous frames to perfectly match a painting. 

Penny limits her subject matter, painting only birds, flowers, and animals, because those are the things she wants to hang in her house. Every piece is anchored with a distinctive background, sometimes with luminous gold leaf and even more often with intricate beading. 

Years ago, Penny would paint a patterned background and occasionally drop a bead into the pattern. However, after discovering a huge bead supply she had amassed for an abandoned lanyard project, she began to regularly sink those beads into resin on many pieces. The results are hypnotizing and beautiful. 

Although Penny says she is a fast worker, her pieces involve so many procedures and techniques that she can produce only enough work to take to shows. She does about 12 to 15 shows a year, and while she might have over a hundred pieces at the first show, her season’s last show will only have 50. 

Her artwork often wins awards. In fact, in a recent season, Penny claimed six different prizes. She loves the Kentuck Festival of Arts in Northport, Alabama, because of the setting and the camaraderie with her folk-art friends. 

However, her favorite show is Art on the Square in Madison, Wisconsin. That might be due to a single collector who has been known to buy 20 pieces of Penny’s art at a single show! 

Visit to look at her beautiful work. It is simultaneously fun, inspirational, and breathtaking. 

Penny paints in rich-colored oils, usually over black gesso, and many of her creatures are cut-outs she anchors meticulously to a found object. The complex beaded backgrounds she does without drawing the designs and the dramatic gold leaf and colored foil backgrounds make a rustic piece simply luxurious. 

Along the way, Penny and her ninth-grade teacher reunited. She and Johnnie Dobson were married 26 years ago at Paradise Garden by the late Howard Finster who was preaching in the gift shop on the Sunday they visited. 

Penny and Johnnie are an art couple everyone should meet — fun, unassuming, and extremely talented. She has combined strands from every part of her life to create a personal art style that harmonizes traditional realism with the folky fun of everyday life. The result is folk art from on high! 

Penny Dobson
Click here to read more heartbeat artist profiles

Diane Sulg 
Diane Sulg is executive director of CRAFT and founder and co-chair of American Craft Week (ACW). She is a handmade advocate who provides valuable information in her one-day seminars titled “All About Wholesale” at wholesale shows throughout the United States. Diane is the former owner of Maddi’s Gallery, in Charlotte and Huntersville, North Carolina.