Portrait of an Artist
By Meda Kessler
The Olive Pemberton retrospective covers a lifetime of work by the 101-year-old Fort Worth native
Olive Pemberton stares out from the glossy cover of an oversized art book.
The brushstrokes on the kerchief that holds back her hair catch the eye first; they continue on to the knotted bun that is visible behind her neck.
But then you realize that it’s all about her eyes. And it’s actually more of a gaze than a stare. Her visage is serious but soft at the same time.
Pemberton painted this self-portrait in 1986. It’s one of several she made over her long career and is on display at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center as part of “A Century of Beauty,” a retrospective of her work.
Curated by Barbara Koerble, a Fort Worth-based historian, the show celebrates the 101-year-old artist, who’s still alive, and offers us a look at more than 50 years of her work. Koerble started working on the retrospective in 2019. Pemberton is the last surviving member of the Fort Worth Circle, artists who broke with a traditional style of Texas painting in pursuit of a more modernist style. They were pioneers who helped put Fort Worth and Texas on the art world’s radar. While her name doesn’t come up as often as some of the others — Cynthia Brants, Bill Bomar, Bror Utter, George Grammer — she studied with several Circle members and exhibited alongside them regularly.
There are several self-portraits in the exhibition, most of them showing us what appears to be her right side, although she favored her left when it came to photographs and portraits, insisting that she could tell the difference. But apparently she was looking in a mirror when she painted herself, so in her eyes, she was giving us her best. Another was done in 1946, when Pemberton was a stay-at-home mom just starting to get recognized for her work.
Her sister, Janice Holmes, painted, too. As teenagers, the girls danced at Casa Mañana before heading to New York City to work on Broadway. Pemberton continued taking art lessons in between dancing gigs.
She returned to her hometown at age 26 after her husband was killed in a car accident. She remarried and had a daughter. She also packed away her dancing shoes and began painting in earnest. Pemberton and her sister both exhibited at Utter’s Fort Worth gallery. Pemberton was an active participant in art shows, beginning in the 1950s. Local private collectors bought work from her directly. Her paintings now hang in corporate headquarters and are part of the permanent collection at the Dallas Museum of Art. And much of her work remains with the family.
The retrospective shows how she explored many subjects and experimented with different styles throughout her career. Local park scenes take on a fresh look with her impressionist technique. Pemberton also sculpted with clay. One of the more striking paintings, Man in a Blue Shirt, is based on her husband, Clyde Pemberton; it has the characteristics of a Modigliani.
She retired from painting in 2003 and still lives in Fort Worth. Pemberton made a trip to the arts center in person in October to visit the exhibit, and there’s no denying her resemblance to those self-portraits of the past.
As she took in the show from her wheelchair, her gaze was still just as striking and strong.