In the Studio with Pam Douglas
What does a day in your art practice look like? Has it changed since Covid-19?
Now the whole day is art making (punctuated by zooms). That’s new since isolation. I have no place to go or meet anyone. My teaching semester is over and before that school was closed anyway. To me this retreat is a gift.
It would be different if I had no art that urges to be done. But every day I wake and have breakfast knowing I have the whole rest of the day to work on one more shelter for “Sanctuary Part Three.” I’ve never built three-dimensional structures like these before so they’re challenging. I begin each one by drawing figures who will inhabit the tent. That’s the easy part. Then the physical construction might occupy weeks experimenting with materials and ways to assemble each one so it can be stored in parts and re-built for a future show. After each shelter, a different character or shape or roof comes to mind so I begin again.
What is your medium of choice? Why?
For these works I stay as elemental as possible: basic inexpensive materials, found objects, sticks, re-purposed left-overs from earlier work, and burlap often from used coffee bean bags. Throughout this series my drawings have been monochromatic – charcoal on raw linen. The armature inside arms and legs of figures is made of cardboard from paper towel and toilet paper rolls. I lay out the structure with duct tape on used cardboard (though the finished version is on foam core boards because they’re stronger). Sometimes characters will have my torn clothes or pottery shards or maybe an old toy. I use acrylic paint on clay hands and feet, but even those are simple. I found a few paint-splotched drop cloths that will add color to some of the roofs. It’s essential to the refugee theme that nothing here is fancy.
In the next months I will also create a 36-foot abstract mural to hang behind the shelters.
Why is art important to you?
Art is the way I organize my experience. It’s not an “expression” in the sense of emoting on a surface, but an overall feeling of empathy guides my subjects. I used to communicate mostly by writing – screenwriting was my career – but I find visual art is a more direct link from what’s inside me to the external world, and from images I don’t know exist until they appear. Honestly, I don’t know who these people are that come from the charcoal but they seem kind of alive with stories of their own and I’m grateful to meet them.
Someone said I ought to make friends instead of “making” friends. It’s funny but I like being the conduit for the spirits that emerge. And they don’t use zoom.
What influences your work? Has that changed since Covid-19?
At first the Sanctuary series was propelled by the emergency on the Mexican border. I felt a visceral need to respond to the images of children in cages ripped from their parents. That grew into a larger perspective on the global refugee catastrophe, especially the families stranded in Syria. Throughout history I wonder how humans manage to survive.
Since Covid-19, the work has taken on a new dimension. Part One is travel by land; Part Two is travel by sea. Part Three was always going to be some sort of habitats where the characters might temporarily settle. But suddenly shelter has a new meaning, as we are each isolated in our own dwellings. Also the prevalence of homelessness, exacerbated by the pandemic, gives the theme of shelter a layer of meaning I hadn’t initially focused. Though the drawings are still refugees, the impact is on all of us, now that we are all refugees in a crisis.
What is the most challenging part about being an artist?
Money and feeling locked out of the art marketplace. Few artists support themselves on sales of art. I have a “day job” teaching, and most of us rely on outside finance of some kind. Sure, I’ve sold art in the past – pieces that are more accessible in someone’s home than what I’m doing now. I don’t blame gallerists for needing to represent work they can sell. But I don’t know how to monetize Sanctuary, and that’s not why I’m making it. Still, it sure would be nice to get a grant or win something. I don’t want to be bitter about working so seriously and getting so little traction in the art world. I realize it’s my fault for making art that doesn’t fit easy categories and isn’t fun. I know if I made large colorful abstractions there’s a market in hotel lobbies. Or if I fit more acceptably into applauded work of the day such as bananas taped to a wall or experimental art films I might attract responses from certain powerful critics. But that’s not why I make art.
What advice would you give your younger self?
You’ve heard “Life is short but art is long.” Actually art-life is long. Young artists unfortunately buy into pressure to be dubbed the hot new young thing in order to break into the art world. We see articles like “30 under 30,” “new MFA grads on our radar” and “next gen art.” So, yeah, artists who are no longer young face age discrimination. But I’ve discovered that artists continue to grow throughout their lives. I’m doing better work now than I would have been able to do 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. So I’d advise my young self to believe in the long arc of experience and skill and not give up if you fail to be “discovered” by age 25. As for the contests, reviewers and gallerists who ask your age before considering your work – screw you!
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and interested in your work?
Believe in the work itself.
What’s next for you in the future?
Two solo shows were canceled in March because of the pandemic: Gallery 825/ Los Angeles Art Association and Cerritos College. Both promise to re-schedule, though my work has moved forward so I’d probably install different exhibits.
From July 7 to Aug. 1 I’m scheduled for a solo of Sanctuary Part Two (the rafts) at TAG Gallery. As of now, I don’t know if that will be postponed too.
If all goes well, TAG has generously offered the entire huge downstairs – close to 6000 sq. feet — to install all three parts of Sanctuary in February 2021. That should be remarkable. I hope to find other large venues to present the entire immersive experience of Sanctuary in 2021-22.
For now, I spend my non art-making time applying for grants to complete this series and bring attention to the project that I believe it deserves.