CARROLLTON, Ga. -- Inside his Carrollton studio, Steve Penley is working.
"I can't believe people pay me to do this stuff. It's a good thing though," he said.
Penley has come a long way, all the way from Macon, and then UGA, where he was the artist/frat boy who had a hard time letting go of college.
Penley remembered, "I left Georgia when my fraternity brothers did an intervention and they told me I'd been living in the house for 8 years and it was time to move on."
He went to New York and what he saw made him think he wouldn't make it.
"I looked around at what everybody was drawing and painting and it was the most off the wall bizarre stuff you had ever seen and that's when I started thinking man there's no place for me in the art world this may not work out," he said.
Penley came home, defeated, but a friend in Atlanta was opening a restaurant and he needed a lot of paintings -- in four days.
"I decided to paint a bunch of historical icons like Lincoln and Washington, JFK, Reagan and all that stuff. So I just did a bunch of paintings."
Then the man who would change Penley's life came to that restaurant.
"Robert L. Steed," Penley said.
Steed, an Atlanta attorney, recognized Penley's talent. He had Penley paint his wife. He told his friends.
"I always wanted to do something colorful and more abstract but be realistic at the same time if that makes sense," he said.
It makes a lot of sense to the thousands who now collect him. Today, Penley is nationally known, for his accessible, recognizable, distinctive work. To him, mainstream is not a dirty word. Neither is conservative.
"I am very conservative," Penley said. "It wasn't my intention to go and be this conservative artist."
Penley has held national fundraisers for the GOP -- his paintings gracing the offices of Republican leaders at the Capitol; of Fox News studios; of the home of presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"I don't want anyone to be alienated either. I want everyone to like me," Penley said.
His paintings are Americana -- yet edgy, colorful -- like Penley himself.
"We talked about putting some gag stuff in there, like Tom Hanks playing ping pong in the background," he said.
He delivered his mural to the station.
"If there's anything that's really bad I'll fix it," he promised.
The 123 linear feet is a visual history of moments and athletes who hold places in our memories and our hearts. Penley points out an abstract view of Muhammad Ali winning the gold in 1960, and then on the left edge of the mural, the 1980 U.S. Hockey team.
We tell him we like it.
"You did an amazing job," 11Alive's Jaye Watson told Penley.
In true Penley fashion he responded, "Well I'm a great man," pausing, then bursting out laughing.
As for people who will think he left something out of the mural, Penley said, "That's another reason I wanted to make it really busy so people would say 'You didn't put that in there,' so I'd be like 'yeah it is you just need to look harder.'"
Penley is a zany goof, openly mocking the pretention he has shunned his entire, wildly successful career.
As he stands in front of the mural with 11Alive's Jaye Watson he says, "Anything in here that doesn't look good it's just that it's abstract and you don't understand. You really don't understand art. You just don't get it."
To which Watson replied,"That's not elitist at all." They crack up.