Pam Ingalls finds humanity in people and beauty in everyday life
By Gussie Fauntleroy
This story was featured in the February 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
There’s something adventurous and a little romantic about the title of Pam Ingalls’ ongoing portrait series, An Islander Faces the World. It’s as if someone on a remote, isolated island is becoming acquainted, for the first time, with people and cultures beyond her known world. In fact, the connotations are true, even if the island is just a 15-minute ferry ride from Seattle. And even if the “islander” has lived in Italy, Ireland, Spokane, and Seattle—not to mention participated in a peace walk across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East—long before she set out to paint portraits of people far from her home on Vashon Island, WA.
For Ingalls, facing the world through her art is a means of discovering and perpetuating the shared humanity in all of us. The concept for her portrait series emerged in 2007 after she painted 50 portraits of Vashon Island residents in celebration of her 50th birthday. At about the same time, a group of women Tuvan throat singers from a small Mongolian village happened to visit and perform on Vashon. “I thought it was so cool that they came to our village and shared their art,” she remembers. “I wondered, how can I do that? I decided I could go to a small community somewhere else and paint a portrait series and bring the paintings back here.”
As she speaks, Ingalls is looking out the window of her cozy, waterfront, cedar-shake cabin, which doubles as her studio. She spots a pair of bald eagles flying over the water and exclaims, thrilled at the sight that happens only four or five times a year. Seeing the eagles reminds her that a few days earlier she had been sitting on her deck, dangling her legs over the side and eating lunch, when a pod of orca whales appeared not far from shore. Transfixed, she watched them playing and breaching and could even hear them. It was the first time in 30 years of living on Vashon that she had seen orcas from her deck. “I feel like I live in a vacation place,” she says, smiling.
But the difference between Ingalls’ home and a vacation spot is that on Vashon she is immersed in a sense of community—a quality that is central to her life and work. Part of the experience and aim of painting portraits is to help deepen the feeling of community in the places she goes to paint. The first, in 2008, was a village in Jamaica. While there she did sketches on the spot and gave some of them to her subjects; later she exhibited the resulting oil portraits on Vashon. She donated 10 percent of proceeds to the people she painted and another 10 percent to their village. It was the start of a wide-ranging portrait-painting journey that has included Native Alaskans from King Island, villagers in Guatemala and northeastern India, Maori in New Zealand, a Masai girls’ school in Kenya, and even a community within New York City.
Ingalls’ personal journey began in Spokane. As the daughter of two artists, she grew up surrounded by artistic energy. Her father, Richard Ingalls, founded the art department at Spokane’s Gonzaga University, where Pam earned a fine-art degree. She spent a year studying at the Accademia di Belle Arti and at Gonzaga’s Italian branch, both in Florence. After earning her degree she periodically dipped into artistic ventures, including painting portraits of homeless adults and teens, a series inspired by having served some years earlier as a Jesuit volunteer in inner-city Seattle. Yet she questioned whether her desire to be an artist was influenced by her parents’ passions or whether it was truly her own.
That question was answered definitively when Ingalls was almost 35. At the time she was using her talent to help produce glazed tiles for a Vashon Island artist. Suddenly struck by a feeling of now-or-never, she quit the tile job and signed up for a drawing workshop with New York artist Frederick Franck, whose Zen Buddhist leanings were in line with Ingalls’ own spiritual inclinations. Soon afterward she found her mentor, painter Ron Lukas, a former student of renowned Russian Impressionist Sergei Bongart.
Ingalls took every class Lukas offered, first once a week, then four nights a week for almost three years. “I’m always so grateful for what I learned from him,” she says. “At times I thought, oh my god, I’ll never get it, and now I’ve been making my living for 20 years already with the knowledge Ron gave me!” Lukas quit teaching in 1995, and Ingalls later studied with other artists, including Burt Silverman and Richard Schmid. By the late 1990s her art career was taking off. Since then she has earned numerous awards, been juried into more than 125 national and international shows, and seen her work exhibited around the United States and in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
At home in her cabin—one large room with a kitchen area and loft—Ingalls paints quickly, often working on multiple pieces at once. When she’s preparing for a show she goes into what she calls “binge painting” mode, handing over her phone to her sweetheart, Michael, and focusing all of her attention on her work. Early on she primarily painted directly from life, but some years ago she discovered the joys of using video, thanks to Michael’s occupation as a documentary filmmaker. Focusing a compact video camera on people or ordinary scenes from daily life, she then downloads the material onto her computer and stops the action on any frame that presents an appealing composition.
These days that includes glowing interior scenes and still-life imagery of everyday objects—a blue claw-foot bathtub and yellow towel, a restaurant table, copper pots on a kitchen wall—always rich in color and with an eye to the magic of extraordinary light. Recently Ingalls has also begun painting night scenes, like THE 118, which captures shadows, lights, and reflections around a bus on a wet city street before dawn. “I’ve noticed lately that the night paintings I like remind me of interiors. There’s something about the night that makes it feel like an interior,” she says.
And there’s something about painting portraits of individuals that can bring people together. After visiting small communities in other parts of the world, producing about 40 portraits in each place, Ingalls thought about cities and how distinct communities exist within a metropolitan area. In 2012 she contacted a family she happened to know who lived in a low-income apartment building in New York City and arranged to meet and paint some of its residents. She started with a small portrait of the doorman, who displayed the painting in the lobby next to where he stood and encouraged residents to allow Ingalls to paint them. The resulting works were exhibited in the building’s community room. “The response made it clear this was a community-builder,” she says. “It was a positive excuse for people who hadn’t met before to talk to each other.”
Ingalls also thought about the diverse smaller communities among Vashon Island’s 10,000 or so residents and has begun painting some of these, including the island’s Latino population. Next, she may focus on Vashon elders. Each year her most recent portraits are exhibited during the Vashon Island Art Studio Tour, allowing local residents to experience their counterparts from far away as well as paintings of their neighbors. One of these, a lovely woman in her late 70s, is portrayed in KARIN. Ingalls was pleased with the painting of her friend and fellow longtime island resident, partly because it achieves one of her ongoing goals of applying paint in a loose, thickly textured manner while still rendering a compelling likeness of the subject. But it also accomplishes another of her underlying aims—connecting people with each other and with themselves by expressing an individual’s inner essence. “Karin bought the painting, and she said when she glances at it, it helps her be herself because I saw something in her,” Ingalls says.
Also close to home, Ingalls has begun exploring and painting familiar territory as if experiencing it for the first time. Riding the ferry to Seattle one day, she imagined herself as a tourist, pointing her video camera at other ferries passing by. “I looked at the people and scenery differently, I smelled it differently, and everything changed,” she says. “Travel has helped me appreciate my home. Sometimes seeing what’s right in front of me is easier if I’m seeing it as a newcomer.” In a larger sense as well, Ingalls’ art and spiritual practice both help reveal what is essential and valuable in life. “It sounds corny, but painting is a great excuse to see the world, whether far away or at home,” she says. “It feels like a privilege, to have this excuse to really pay attention and see.”
Abend Gallery Fine Art, Denver, CO; Cole Gallery, Edmonds, WA; Roby King Galleries, Bainbridge Island, WA; RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; The Hardware Store Gallery, Vashon Island, WA.
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