By Michelle Trauring
Pamela Wilson has never colored inside the lines—not in her adult life, as a professional artist, nor as a child, with her box of crayons in a Mormon household, the place that shaped her entire future.
Her paintings—which will be on view starting August 20 in the new exhibition “The Sweetest Poison” at RJD Gallery in Sag Harbor—push her audiences into dark, challenging places. There, they experience her conception of beauty, her newfound inspiration, her violent past and her pain, all of which she discussed during a recent interview with the Sag Harbor Express.
The Sag Harbor Express: When did you come out to the East End for the first time?
Pamela Wilson: I live in Santa Barbara, California, but had the opportunity to visit the Hamptons in 2007 with a friend who grew up on Long Island. We went to a polo match, visited with friends of Eric Fischl—one of my painting heroes—and walked around a small town after dark, peering into gallery windows and seeing some old masters’ paintings just hanging around. I thought, “I need to be in a gallery here; this place is incredible.”
Do you ever work on the East End?
I have never worked on the East End, but I certainly plan to. There is a “pregnant stillness” I find intriguing and I am anxious to explore it more—for pleasure, and painting. I would love to do some plein air landscapes.
You have been artistic since you were very young, 3 or 4 years old? Do you have any memories from those early days?
Oh I do! I hated coloring! I couldn’t stay inside the lines, like my big sister. She told me I was pressing too hard with the crayon, but I needed to squeeze all the color I could out of that little stick. I hated painting—too messy. I was always drawing. Always, always drawing. I’m sure it was my escape, even then.
What did you need to escape from?
I felt I lived a double life. My parents were divorced when I was 7, and we three siblings suffered what one might expect, although my younger brother took it particularly hard and became emotionally disturbed with violent tendencies. He settled on me as his victim.
We appeared to be a normal family in regard to most things, but I was terrorized when no one else was around, and no one seemed to believe me. I think the disturbing elements of my paintings reflect that double life, and the terror and violence I experienced at my brother’s hand. The abuse lasted into my teenage years. I feel many have a story like mine, and it is my hope that my art validates survivors like myself.
Is that why you decided to become an artist?
I was always told I was an artist, so I don’t really remember ever having or making a choice. It’s just what I have always done. My sister is a veterinarian and was the oldest child and the family pride. She was always at the top of her class, always shining, high school valedictorian, et cetera, et cetera. They would rave about her endlessly, and then give me a squeeze and say, “And Pamela is our artist!” It’s just who I am, and I’m so happy.
What is your artistic process?
My process involves a culmination of several forms of input. I am always reading to generate new thoughts and ideas, and because I love transporting to other worlds. I walk every day for escape—to free my mind and let it flow. I always have an eye peeled for objects, models and locations that thrill me. I am always working. I usually dress my models, take off for locations I have seen and accept and use whatever we find there, including weather. I never know what I’m going to find, feel, ruin, or think up. I love working intuitively. I “shoot from the hip.” So I bring the bare essentials—my models and my pain, a vague idea—and I welcome serendipity.
I find that no matter what I do, who I bring, or where I go, it was always the right decision, and I try not to second-guess myself. I am attracted to old objects and clothing, and I like to “marry” different eras for a timeless feel. One can’t quite put it in a timeframe, and this renders the viewer unable to attach anything but their own moment to the piece. That is my hope, anyway. I am driven to take the viewer for a ride, to melt the walls of a “knowing,” and allow them to travel with me, and experience something otherworldly. I am open to the universe and all of her foils and spoils. I love the connections I make with people through the unspoken words of my paintings.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Like most humans, I have my pain. I am drawn to the dark, but always with that little spark of hope—the fierce resolve of a frightened 7-year-old girl, for instance. I love those kinds of juxtapositions. For a richer experience as human beings, we must involve ourselves with unsettling truths, as well as those which soothe. I have painted my subjects in their own worlds for many years, incorporating strange and quirky narratives, but with a sincere and deep compassion. As humans, we grapple with tragedy and delight, absurdity and insanity, collecting and storing pieces of ourselves and others as we decipher meaning. From utter joy to unbearable grief, we must find a place for these emotions, and measure their importance. There is no separation between my life and my art. None.
Tell me about the work on view in this show.
I think that for many artists, there is a misconception that work for a show is created on an island, all neat and tidy and hemmed around the edges. I don’t work that way. I agree to an exhibition one to two years in advance, and then I’m off. In that span of time, so much happens, and the work you envisioned is completely different by show time. We are humans and, as artists, open to new imagery and ideas and circumstances. So, really, we are all surprised when the work is finally presented. That said, I had planned to do a series of absinthe drinkers and absinthe-inspired work, and although I haven’t abandoned that at all, I have had some life intersperse itself in the interim, and I rounded the show out a bit to fulfill my creative needs, if that makes sense.
Specifically, I lost my dear father, had knee surgery and broke up with the love of my life and his children, all within a very short few weeks. This show reflects the enormous amount of personal pain I have had to endure and process. I have synesthesia, and for me that means I truly enter each painting, each world. Literally, with blood, sweat and many tears in each piece, my whole heart and soul is in this work.
The exhibition title, “The Sweetest Poison,” was my working title for the absinthe paintings, but took on new meaning as the show evolved and broadened, and I decided to keep it as official when it became more and more clear to me that the sweetest things in life can turn on a dime, and hurt you so deeply. I think pain is notable, and art helps us all process it.
I get bored with color from time to time, so I inspire myself by taking on a new challenge. I remembered doing a series of paintings with gold leaf back in 2003, and I wanted to experiment again with gold. I was looking for decadence and visual richness. Many of the paintings have 24K gold leaf and iridescent gold paint, and at certain angles they just shimmer. I also included some warm monochromatic work in this show, inspired by neon, which fills an entire room with color. I needed to experiment and I am so glad I did. I am proud that the work seems even deeper and richer, intellectually speaking, as a result of the surfaces. I will continue with gold and other limited palette work, and see if I can find some new places to go. I’m really enjoying it!
What has been a particularly memorable moment behind a couple of the pieces?
When I took two young models into a privately owned Aspen forest in Colorado, I had no idea that magic was about to happen. After we hiked—in costume—about a half mile up the mountain, we were poured upon by not only rain, but hail. These girls were not only strong and unbothered, but inspired! I invited the girls to take off and fill the jars with whatever they wanted. It had to be special. They “owned” the forest like they were born there, and took off to fill the jars. I still have no idea what was actually in those jars; they were very secretive, as they took the task to heart. One of them told me that a ghost was with her. I think so much of them is in the work. I’m so satisfied with what they offer. I now endeavor to fill all of my works with even more ghosts and magic. (“The Keeper” and “The Grievance”)
Generally, what are the reactions you get from your pieces?
People tell me they find themselves in my work. Bell rung.
You seem completely unafraid to push boundaries in your work.
I don’t think the goal for me is to push boundaries, but artists must be able to go where they desire. It is imperative that we are free to express any idea, any way. I have no fear, and my work often takes me to taboo places, but I’m genuine and I must explore. The most important job of an artist is to be honest.
Despite your best efforts, do you find that you second-guess yourself?
I second-guess myself every day. I’m a painter; it’s part of my job to be somewhat neurotic. I make decisions constantly, and I must live with most of them.
How do you see the world? How does it appear to you?
I see the world; I am the world. I am the manifestation of the magnificent universe who sees itself through me. I am the eyes and ears, and heart, of something too ominous to fully understand. I don’t think we get to know more right now, and I don’t think we need to. Life is a series of ups and downs, and relativity, but even with all of its pain, most of us want to stay as long as possible. I know I do.
What do you think about the concept of beauty?
Some artists set out to capture beauty, and even go so far as to argue that articulating beauty is a major purpose of art. But the standards of beauty change over time, and one period does not find the same thing beautiful as an earlier time. I like painting beautifully, and I like to evoke emotion.
For me, painting mere “beauty” feels too passive, and what I am seeking is a psychological moment, a different kind of beauty. Often, adding unexpected, jarring, or uncanny elements to an otherwise beautiful painting can elevate it to another level. But this is a very fine line. One can easily over-do the weird and lose credibility. I like walking that line. I try not to over-analyze, rather just let the work flow where it will, fueled by a small, violent spark of will to escape the known. What I paint is far less important than what the viewer finds.
What role does art play in our society? Is it particularly important now?
When I look at a piece of art that I haven’t seen before, and it moves me, there is no feeling like it. I feel alive, understood, excited, inspired, vindicated and thrilled. I am out of words, which is the part I love about art: It is inexplicable. Without it, we would all be dead, emotionally speaking. Any medium, no rules. Move me! I don’t think society—any society—has a responsibility to nurture art, but I’m insanely glad we have made the choices we have in our society. For this reason, I hope we get back to our senses and put art back at the top of the list for children and schools. Art is math, and science, and critical thinking. Our lives are richer for the poetry of art.
What is next for you?
I think I’m going to continue painting—haha. Such a gift I have been given, being an artist. I have been wanting to experiment more with gold and other interests. I have more exhibitions on the horizon, and I’m busy and excited.
“The Sweetest Poison,” featuring work by Pamela Wilson, will be on view starting August 20 at RJD Gallery in Sag Harbor. For more information, visit rjdgallery.com.