Why do artists do what they do — Pamela Wilson

Synesthesia I- “Shipwreckland”, oil, silver leaf, gold leaf on birch, 2018

I met Pamela Wilson in 1997, when my own artistic career took an exciting turn. I was ‘discovered’ by a renown NY gallery which had just opened its doors in Philadelphia. As one of their artists, I was invited to come to the grand opening.

Arriving from Oslo on the same day as the opening, I had just enough time to be welcomed by the gallerist when the crowds filled the rooms. Slowly, I made my way around the gallery, shaking hands and trying to have a closer view of the artworks.

There were a couple of paintings that drew my immediate attention. My first glance at them made me think: ‘what on Earth is going on?’. A closer look revealed an intricate plot from a surreal world populated by burlesque characters. As I was admiring the elaborate details, I was approached by a tall blonde with the look of a Norse queen- but with a perfect Hollywood tan. She stretched forth her hand and presented herself as Pam Wilson, the artist behind the work.

Upon hearing my name, she promptly said: ‘Ah, you are that Norwegian artist! Hey, if you are Norwegian, how come you have a Russian accent?’

I explained that, although I am indeed a Norwegian citizen, my mother is Russian and so I was born there. Keeping my serious face on, I added that I kept my exotic accent hoping that it will cover for the lack of my personality. She doubled over, laughing — and straight away I was invited to ‘come and play’ after the opening. Our meeting turned into an epic afterparty and some 20 years of connection and mutual artistic admiration.

Through all that time, Pam has always come across as being bold and fearless; someone who is soft-hearted but doesn’t shy away from confrontation when needed. A strong aura of confidence seemed to surround her, and yet she revealed that a lot of her childhood was spent running and hiding- in extreme fear- from her abusive, angry brother.

‘He didn’t fare well after our parents’ divorce and was left hurting with unchecked emotional issues and violent tendencies. I became his easy victim. My life, for many years, was utterly traumatizing. Everyone was in denial, and no one helped me.’

Of Small Humiliations, oil on canvas, 54x48 inches, 2011

She remembers always drawing during her early childhood, especially in church. She believes escaping into other worlds was her coping mechanism. Her artistic career had officially started when she was about nine years old.

‘My presence as a true and driven artist became known to my family when I absentmindedly scratched a portrait of Fred Flintstone, six inches tall, into my mother’s piano. I still can’t explain the Fred Flintstone; a cry for help, perhaps.’

So, why do the artists make art? Pamela is not sure artists know why they do what they do, at least not in the beginning. She thinks that, ironically, this is one of the questions they try to answer as they work.

‘ We are driven to speak, or at least squeak or murmur to say we were here. I make art because I must; all the worlds that live in my head will die with me if I don’t show them to someone. I have synesthesia, so explaining this with words has proven futile at best— therefore I have always tried to show what I see, and how it makes me feel.’

Being an artist myself, I know that a look inside an artist’s studio is a view into the artist’s mind. I was curious about what is essential in the personal heaven of Pamela Wilson, and if there was something in her studio she cannot live without.

‘I am very particular about music as I am heavily dependent on a certain mood to create. For thirty years it was Tom Waits only, but now silence is a new favourite. I am exploring how my thoughts and mood work in this new realm.

In my studio, I cannot live without my lucky chair. I think it was made in the 1950’s, and it’s metal and ugly and comfortable as hell. I found it in a dumpster about 20 years ago and it was love at first sight.’

Pamela’s favourite part of making art is what she calls ‘a first glimpse in my mind’s eye’. After much work, research and fitting pieces together, it’s the raw idea of what her painting can become. In her own words, this is what she lives for:

‘The possibility, the promise of a new epiphany. The hope — that thing with feathers.’

Carmela, Called by the Cerulean Sea, oil on canvas, 60x48 inches, 2014

When it comes to that all-important question concerning what she wants her work to convey, Pamela is a true believer that art is a conversation.

‘I do not mean necessarily a communication in the sense of full conveyance of a complete thought, but a series of half-thoughts, comments, questions, love, humor. Paper airplanes flying here and there with notes on them.’

She thinks there is work involved in finding meaning in art and that we shouldn’t wait to be told what a work of art means or look for a paragraph next to the title. The public should have the best experience offered to them, and come prepared to find the meaning for themselves.

‘In my work, I want to speak to other survivors, other laughers, other mothers, other humans trying not to be lonely. I want to be bold, subtle, brilliant, smart, kind, ingenious, vulnerable, and loved. I am unique, and I am everyone- all at the same time. It is the human condition and whatever thrills me visually at the moment, is what becomes my vehicle for my next attempt to converse with my people, with anyone.’

Inevitably, we come to the question about her inspiration and whether there are political or social issues that influence her work:

‘ I always make work that aims for ‘otherworlds,’ steering way clear of blatant current social and political references. I want to take the viewer for a ride, an escape, a visual retreat, an unusual vacation, a short trip a journey away.

I have never felt the urge to comment on the political status quo via my art. I am certain that social/political elements do feed my work in general, as that’s almost inevitable, but I don’t feel that politics have a part in my art. However, having been raised on the likes of Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Judy Chicago, and Karen Ann Finley, to name a few, I definitely support social enlightenment, and the betterment of disenfranchised people through politically themed art.’

Next, I wanted to know what Pamela considers the most challenging part of being an artist.

‘The most challenging part is directly related to where you are in your career. When I was younger, I was consumed with getting exposure, then there was the money- getting paid enough to sustain my career, then it was something else. It is different for every artist- albeit similar.’

She spoke with candour about her latest challenge, when she had to acknowledge that she had outgrown parts of her work. As an established artist in a certain genre, she found it nearly impossible to grow. Realizing the need for growth, she was terrified of the prospect of not finding new meaning. To her, that would be the equivalent of dying inside or, even worse — of becoming boring.

‘I started toying with new ways of working a couple of years ago when an artist friend asked about the state my realistic style — which I had never questioned before. After months of discussion with this friend, I ‘woke up’ and jumped into new work. I tried to throw myself into new ways of creating, looking for new magic. But I went too far, too fast, developed a “creative block”; I couldn’t move forward and couldn’t go back. I was unable to finish a painting for more than a year while the rest of the art world hummed along.’

Pamela described how incredibly difficult it is to change one’s work significantly when one works with established galleries who expect a certain style. She emphasised how invaluable the support of RJD Gallery (in Bridgehampton, NY) has been during her rough patch, and how grateful she is for their trust and patience.

Having overcome her growing pains and fears, she now enjoys the endlessly flowering ideas. Based on her own experience, her best advice to other artists going through the rough patch is this:

‘Just keep going into the studio, keep trying, keep moving. Growth hurts a lot, but go with it and talk about it — a lot!’.

Unended: The Apparition on 22nd Street, oil on canvas, 54x48 inches, 2011

Moving onto her successful career, I am curious to know how it started and what she has done to develop it. I hear this very often and Pamela is not an exception. It turns out that, in the beginning, she was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

‘In 1992, a certain art dealer was coming to town to see an important exhibition. It was my last year of graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and I was determined to have my work seen everywhere I could. I was prolific, hard-working, and committed, but also a young single mother with a hyperactive four year old in tow. I wanted to be included in an important new exhibition, “Addictions,” at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, but failed to get in. Instead, I was invited to have a solo exhibition in the next room, with another gallery- which ran concurrently with “Addictions.” The dealer who came to town to see the important exhibition, saw my work in the next room, and took several of my pieces with him that weekend. He sold them all and came back for more.

The rest is history, as I was set on a path that has resulted in good exposure and sales, and some long and rewarding relationships with great galleries. I feel very fortunate to have my work included in some great collections.

Before this, and certainly after, was an endless oil skid (no pun) of hard work and tears which, make no mistake, continues to this day. Because art is hard, life isn’t fair, and tears help.

But who’s complaining? I am the most grateful artist I know.’

I ask whether she finds navigating the art world to be a vital necessity or if she considers it to be a burden on her time, as I know many artists do.

‘I honestly find it to be a necessary evil. We want exposure, but that takes time away from painting. There are so many opportunities for artists with the onset of the social media era, and I do find myself overwhelmed at times. While trying to finish paintings for exhibition deadlines, I must also write about my work, answer interview questions, take pictures of finished work, clean images, send images (in the correct format for each different publication), and never lose sight of my show schedule — and with little time for emotional breakdowns!’

As the interview draws to the close, I asked Pamela to name some of her works that she feels proud of — and why. From my own experience, this particular question is the equivalent to asking parents of a large family which of their children is their favourite. Nevertheless, Pamela accepted the challenge.

The Absinthe Drinker, oil on canvas, 30x30 inches, 2011

‘My favorite and most popular painting to date is probably “The Absinthe Drinker and the Hostile Silence,” 2011. My daughter-in-law is the model, and I known her since she and my son started dating at age 14. She is so expressive with her deep soul and big eyes. I love the painting for a subtle reason: I worked hard on the gesture- small intricate changes in the eyes, the mouth, the cheek. I remember the exact moment when the right face appeared, and I won’t forget how joyous it was for me.

I’m proud because I fought for it — and won. I’m always up for a good fight.

Another favourite painting is one that I just completed, as part of my new series about Synesthesia. It’s called “Shipwreckland,” and it’s a bit absurd, but I had confidence as I worked- that necessary ingredient. I was able to leave alone some marks that I love; I chose which parts to finish, and which to trust to the viewer. That’s huge for me. I love having choice’.

They say the hardest person to know is yourself. Perhaps that is what we artists are doing: we are getting to know ourselves as we work, and when the work is finished, we hope that the others will know us too.

‘I want someone to see me and my worlds — so I make them.’ — Pamela Wilson, the artist.