Robert Penn was born on May 3, 1946 in Omaha, Nebraska to Arthur Penn and Cornelia Steed-Penn. His father was a registered member of the Omaha tribe. His mother was a registered member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Penn attended high school at St. Francis Mission on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation. In 1972, he earned his BFA at the University of South Dakota.
While at USD, Penn worked as an art instructor and illustrator. In 1986, he pursued his painting career full-time. Penn lived and worked in Vermillion, South Dakota until his death in 1999.
Penn was a protégé of the late Oscar Howe, and at one time, he was a work-study assistant for the internationally known Sioux artist. However, Penn's style was uniquely his own as he explored the art world with varied media and styles.
He painted the truth as he saw it. He attributed his talent to a gift from Wakan Tanka - the Great Spirit - a gift he was given to use, explore and develop.
"Abstraction of symbols and themes can re-interpret and integrate the modern world as seen from an Indian viewpoint without strict adherence to traditional art forms and can transcend both worlds to become contemporary modern art as well as a cultural statement. I am constantly aware of the danger of being typecast as far as subject matter goes; there is far more to my vision than just recreating pictures of the past. Art has always been my central issue ... it is also my biggest prayer," Penn once said.
Bobby Penn, one of South Dakota’s greatest contemporary Native American artists, died February 7, 1999 after a long battle with lung problems.
His work is included in an impressive number of public collections such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Vincent Price Gallery in Chicago, IL and the Akta Lakota Museum.
Penn's artwork is available through the Akta Lakota Museum online gallery.