Pam Douglas an award-winning painter, writer and professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, graciously took time to answer questions about the launch of her new art show “The Life of Fire,” the second in a trilogy of works inspired by the earth’s elemental energies. The show opens July 17, 2012 (through August 11, 2012) at Bergamot Station’s TAG Gallery in Santa Monica. Be sure and check out the slideshow to see more of Pam Douglas’ work.
How is being an artist in 2012 different from when you first started?
For me, the passage of time is not about external dates. I measure time in terms of personal evolvement and the work I’m doing. For example, within 2012, I grew from painting on raw linen, as I’ve done for the past five years, to experimenting with transparent plastics – a medium I’d never tried before. And this year is only half over. Does that make 2012 equal to two years?
On the worldly side, yes, critical and public perceptions of art always change, and the marketplace has changed through time.
When I was in art school decades ago the prevailing dictum was that visual arts must not have meaning. Color, texture, brush strokes, materials, composition and so forth were the only allowable subjects. A term like “illustration” would be pejorative, but so would anything bordering on political commentary, spiritual dimensions, or for that matter anything that could be described in words. Compare that with the current “Los Angeles Art Movement” that celebrates graphic novels, political posters and graffiti. On the other hand, traditionalists have always insisted on representational paintings, even after photographic art challenged the dominance of accurate drawing. I also know painters in “The California Art Club” who echo art from the 19th century and are avidly collected in 2012.
I don’t fit into any of that. None of it applies to me. I don’t do graffiti, or cartoons, or flower vases, or 19th century impressionism, or 20th century abstract expressionism, or photo-realism. So being an artist in 2012 is a matter of following my own vision.
In practical terms, the art market has been especially difficult since the recession began in 2008, though it is now recovering. Like many other aspects of American society, the middle is suffering. Art sells for enormous amounts – hundreds of thousands dollars or more. And it sells for tiny figures as low as a couple hundred dollars or less. That kind of pricing is unsustainable for any artist who hopes to make a life in art. Success is too often defined by the few top sellers who are in fashion through being collected by power brokers. That’s part of the reality in 2012.
Where do your ideas/inspiration for your work come from?
I have two primary sources: my own core, and the materials.
My current trilogy on primal energies (water, fire, wind) led me to an internal search: what is the essence? For example, the vital power of water is also a force within us all. So I might ask myself what does it feel like to be a wave, or to roar forward and crash, or meander gently through dry ground, or what is it to be the genesis of life from the primordial mire into light? All those generate initial impulses and design ideas, though they are not in themselves the work of art.
Then comes part two – the materials. Let’s say I was going to paint on a day when I had gotten in touch with my own sense of a wave. I lay out my materials on a large flat table with the paints and mediums. I’ve cut the canvas, arranged the brushes, and I’m ready to work, holding a graphic image in mind while trying to retain a visceral sense of what this interpretation of a wave will express in a deeper, non-literal way.
That’s when the materials take over. They have their own ideas. My job is to be like a jazz conductor or referee, improvising with textures and forms that are revealed, trying to stay on my feet while the mediums are wet enough to keep working. Sometimes at the end of a long day I look at the work and fresh ideas come from it that I’ll try tomorrow. Sometimes I have to start over. Sometimes – rarely – after 8 or 12 hours bending over the table, fighting and cajoling the paint, inks, charcoal and whatever else I find to use, I’m delighted that what evolved is better than what I had imagined that morning.
How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?
I struggle with this question because artists often answer with contexts of other people’s work or familiar forms and styles. I don’t have any of that. In 2007 to 2009 when I was doing “The Sepia Series” and “The Seekers Series” I described my work as “ephemeral landscapes.” That was easier. At that time I also would say I’d been inspired by ancient Asian art, especially Zen scrolls, which was true. But now the answer is more difficult. Sometimes I say abstracted interpretations, often based on nature. Sometimes I say I deal with partly-abstracted images interpreting the transformative power of elements like water and fire. But that’s tough for people to understand. So I say “please look at my website.” Or I give them a postcard for my next show.
What has getting in touch with the elemental energies of fire and water taught you about yourself as an artist?
The use of transparent plastic is entirely new, and it surprised me. I’ve always liked natural textures. The feel of raw linen that is supple and tan and has rough edges seemed to invite me to play. That’s why the stain technique – inks on wet linen – was appealing in the series from 2007-2010. This current change to sharp edges and the way plastic warps when wet or glued was outside of my comfort zone. But I had challenged myself with interpreting the essence of fire, and there was no way the spirit of fire was going to settle down. The subject pushed me to explore and defy boundaries about the kinds of paintings I do. It’s been difficult, and through making me try foreign materials that react differently with paint, fire “burned through” my pre-conceptions and forged something new.
How has your understanding of each element changed through this process?
My interest isn’t in understanding the elements but in understanding the process of transformation, how these destructive forces are the same as creative forces. They’re metaphors for living.
Transformation – the transformative power of nature and the human spirit –gives rise to fresh possibilities in dealing with whatever may come in life. Having survived medical challenges including not being able to walk for months following spine surgery, transcendence has a personal meaning for me. Interpreting that visually releases a creative power, an urge to explore and go beyond limitations. Think of the Hindu divinity Shiva who represents both destruction and creation, and the idea of delighting in change instead of fearing it.
Simultaneous with my show at TAG Gallery, I have an exhibit at the California African American Museum that integrates paintings with words from a commentary to the ancient Chinese I Ching. The quote weaves like waves through 7 of my paintings from “The Life of Water” series: “Though we cannot bid the winds and waves to cease, we can learn to navigate the treacherous currents in harmony with the process of transformation; thus we can weather the storms in this life.” That quotation summarizes my philosophy in these recent series.
Your next series will explore the elemental force of wind; what are you doing to get in touch with this elemental energy, and what do you think will be the most challenging part of harnessing and exploring the nature of wind?
I haven’t begun “The Life of Wind” because I’m in the midst of two simultaneous exhibits – “The Life of Fire” at TAG, and “The Life of Water” at the Museum. But my subconscious is working on it. Some of my thoughts are about materials: silk swaths, veils with images embedded, landscape-like canvases overlaid with transparencies like ones I used in the Fire series, or maybe returning to the stain technique on raw linen for subtle effects that I explored in earlier series. The fun is that I don’t yet know. The most challenging part is that air is invisible; we see its effects but not the cause. I find that interesting. So we’ll see. That show is scheduled for early September 2013 at TAG. I will spend the whole year developing it beginning August.
When you first start a series, do you already see each piece in your head or do they evolve as it goes?
Often I fall asleep at night making images in my dreamscape, inviting the next painting to come to me. Sometimes it does. I certainly don’t see all ten to twenty pieces of a series in the beginning. I approach each one as special on its own terms, hoping for discoveries.
What type of art/art movement inspires you?
I am not inspired by art movements. Sometimes I look for inspiration from my favorite source, old art books with pictures of ancient Chinese and Japanese scrolls. Mostly, though, I’m on my own.
What is your favorite work of art that you have created?
At the completion of each series, one work eventually stands out. In “The Sepia Series” that piece is “Messages.” In “The Seekers Series” it would be “The Kite Flyer.” In “The Life of Water” it’s “A Memory of Rain.” For “The Life of Fire” it’s still soon to have perspective. I chose “Flying Fire” for my postcard, but after the show is up I might love one of the new plastic pieces more. Many of my paintings that have been sold are favorites too and I miss them.
Do you ever suffer from a creative block? If so, do you find stepping away from what you are working on helps? Or do you just plow through it?
Well, you can’t force art. But I’ve learned by working as a screenwriter with real deadlines that walking away only helps for a little while – just long enough to eat or oxygenate the brain or let the energy re-boot. So I don’t do either. And I don’t believe in creative block, or muses, or any other external excuse. Some days you create well and other days it doesn’t happen. But not doing it is a sure way for it to not happen. I do believe in the materials, and if nothing else is there for you, put something, anything on the canvas. Let the waves pull you out to sea; let the flame ignite. After a while you’ll look up and realize how far you’ve gone from where you were stuck on the rocks or where embers merely smoldered.
When you finish a painting are you ever surprised by what you have learned from the piece? Is a painting ever really complete?
I am always surprised, and hope I always will be. The surprise comes in phases: looking at a canvas lying, still wet. Propping it up and stepping back for the first time. Seeing it mounted or framed. And ultimately seeing it properly lit on a gallery wall. All those incarnations are like different works, separated from my hands. Usually the surprise is a happy one, though I confess occasionally noticing something I wished I could fix as late as the day a show opened. As for whether a painting can be complete – yes. There are some that perfectly express the artist’s intentions. It can happen.
What’s next for you in 2012?
At TAG Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, we’re having a reception Saturday, July 21 from 5 to 9 PM, and an artists’ panel moderated by a writer from Artillery Magazine on Wednesday, July 25 at 7 PM. Both are free and open to the public. We’re also hosting a Wine Tasting to benefit Safe Passage, a charity helping abused women, at TAG on Saturday, August 4 from 4 to 7 PM. Meanwhile, my exhibit at the California African American Museum at Exposition Park will be up for six months through December. That’s free and open to the public too. And, of course, I’m starting “The Life of Wind.”
What does being brave mean to you?
Trusting your inner guide. That has two parts: Being in touch with the truth within, and acting on it.
Where can my readers find you online?
Please visit my website: www.PamDouglasArt.com. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I can also be found through TAG Gallery www.taggallery.net.