Lingering, oil, 16 x 20
By Devon Jackson
Pam Powell’s paintings aren’t merely narrative, they’re practically cinematic. “I really love movies and plays and visual stories,” says Powell from her home north of San Francisco. “That’s what goes on with me when I paint.” In her mind, each of her scenes has a beginning, middle, and end. The painting itself serves as the middle of her “film,” while it’s up to the viewer to imagine what occurred before that moment caught on canvas and what might happen after.
In this way Powell’s work bears some similarity to that of Edward Hopper. Although, says Powell, “Hopper put in people as objects, whereas I’m totally involved with the people. They’re the focus.” And while Hopper depicted so much solitude—a solitude verging on the outright loneliness typical of European existentialism and Hollywood antiheroes—Powell’s images are more the stuff of Sleepless in Seattle and An Affair to Remember. “I like the romances and the character studies,” agrees Powell, who in college sought out more tragic narratives. “I’m more romantic now.”
More romantic, and no less observant an artist than she started out, although it took a while for Powell to embrace her narrative aptitude.
Born in 1953 in Albuquerque, NM, to parents who were both involved with the Manhattan Project (her father was a physicist, her mother a mathematician), Powell didn’t even draw until she graduated from high school. It was around that time that the travel bug bit her, too. Leaving home for Europe, she bought a train pass and visited as many museums as she could in one year’s time.
Invigorated by what she’d seen abroad, she returned to Albuquerque intent on becoming the next Michelangelo. So without considering any other schools, she enrolled at the University of New Mexico, emerging four years later with a bachelor’s degree in sculpture. A somewhat useless degree, as it turned out. “I made some big architectural pieces, and I liked ceramic sculpture, but I went through the whole program not realizing until the end that there was basically no way I’d make a living doing that,” she says.
It was about six months after graduation that she made another fateful decision. A longtime horseback rider, she was driving a truck full of hay down Interstate 25 early one morning when it suddenly dawned on her. “I’d been driving this same 10 square miles in Albuquerque for so long, and I just thought to myself, ‘It’s time for me to get out,’” she recalls. “It struck me as the only way I was ever going to leave. If I’d tried to make a plan, I never would have left.”
So she lit out for San Francisco, where she immediately found a storefront apartment she shared with a ceramicist and a painter. She also found her calling: One day she happened to wander into a lecture at the Academy of Art University on how to make a living as an artist. And the lecture was in the illustration department, where, Powell soon noticed, people knew how to draw.
Having found her spot, she did what she had to do over the next six to seven years in order to teach herself all over again. She waited tables in the financial district during the day for a few years till she’d exhausted all the evening courses, then found a nighttime waitressing gig at the Marina while taking all the daytime classes. “I really loved the whole process of learning how to draw representationally and tell stories,” says Powell, who learned as much from artists of the past, such as Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker, as she did from instructors like Craig Nelson and Zhaoming Wu. By 1988, she’d earned a bachelor’s degree in illustration. But she’d have to wait a little longer to answer her true calling.
Having also fallen in love and gotten married by now, Powell was about to deliver her first child while hanging her graduation show. “So my illustration career lasted about a minute and a half,” she laughs. Nevertheless, she persevered. “While raising my two kids, I did portraits of all my neighbors’ and friends’ kids,” she says.
Once her children were old enough to go to school, the academy asked Powell to join its faculty. Suddenly, her former instructors and mentors became her peers. Still, Powell didn’t hit her narrative stride for another five years…
Featured in November 2007
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