A Cold Story On a Warm Night: The Mischief-Making of Pamela Wilson

Behind a smoke colored curtain,
the girl disappeared
They found out that the ring was a fake

A tree born crooked,
will never grow straight
She sunk like a hammer into the lake

And I want to know the same thing
Everyone wants to know
How’s it going to end?

~ from, “How’s it Gonna End?” Written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Waits-Brennan

Interlude With A Moonbeam | 48" x 48" | Pamela Wilson | 2015
Interlude With A Moonbeam | 48″ x 48″ | Pamela Wilson | 2015

Something happens when as children we endure circumstances wildly outside of our control, especially situations where whom to trust and whom to fear gets all topsy-turvy jumbled up. All we know is that our world has become unsafe and unpredictable, and for many, the only remaining place where life makes any sense at all is within one’s own mind. There, only characters carefully crafted by the child herself are permitted entry.

And oh, but what a rich and wondrous place that can be. Especially if that imagination is honed and nurtured, as many creative writers, dancers, musicians, poets, scientists, scholars and painters will attest to.

All it takes is a hell of a lot of courage.

“I see everything in elaborate pictures,” contemporary American artist Pamela Wilson shares, in the interview that follows. “Everything has a gender, a color, a place. Dark is not dark. Rather, it’s a situation. I have a hard time explaining how I see things; I have never fully been able to describe my visual world…My sister used to call me ‘mental’ for asking if her big toe was bossy, and if it was a boy or a girl.

Interlude by the Little Pink House (16 x 20”)


Santa Barbara, California ~

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your fine craftsmanship notwithstanding, the cheeky playfulness of your imagery makes viewing your paintings a delight. I can only imagine the pleasure you must receive from creating these works.

A Conspiracy Of Succubi | 16" x 20{ | Pamela Wilson | 2013
A Conspiracy Of Succubi | 16″ x 20″ | Pamela Wilson | 2013

Pamela Wilson: I thank my lucky stars every day that I am permitted to make art for a living. I am always working: keeping my eyes peeled for models, locations, and objects that speak to me. I work intuitively, and never really know what I’m doing until it’s done. I am attracted to old objects and clothing, and I like to marry different eras for a timeless feel. Because viewers can’t quite put my paintings into any one time frame, they must attach their own moment to the piece. That is my hope, anyway.

I am driven to take the viewer for a ride, to melt the walls of knowing, and allow my viewers to travel with me, and experience something otherworldly ~ in pleasure and self-exploration.

My subconscious is very busy, and I enjoy my process immensely!

Deanna Phoenix Selene: I’m curious to know: Were you particularly rebellious or adventurous as a child?

An Inviting Abyss | 60" x 48" | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson
An Inviting Abyss | 60″ x 48″ | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson
Sleepwalking with Scarecrows | 36" x 48" | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson
Sleepwalking with Scarecrows | 36″ x 48″ | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: I was mostly chased with knives. True story.

I felt I lived a double life. My parents were divorced when I was seven, and we three siblings suffered what one might expect. My younger brother took it particularly hard, and became emotionally disturbed, with violent tendencies. He settled on me as his victim.

We were Mormon, and we appeared to be a normal family in regard to most things, but I was terrorized. Mostly when no one else was around. And no one seemed to believe me. I think the disturbing elements of my paintings reflect that double life, and the terror and violence I experienced at my brother’s hand.


Pamela Wilson: I feel many have a story like mine, and it is my hope that my art speaks to victims and survivors like myself.

Evensong | 43" x 36" | Pamela Wilson
Evensong | 43″ x 36″ | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: We had a cabin in the Colorado mountains, built ‘lovingly by my Dad and us three kids.

I spent a lot of time hiking alone, at an early age, just singing to myself and picking blackberries. I always felt the unmistakable presence of someone with me, although I never could identify the quiet partner. I liked that a lot.

Antechamber Of Regret | 42" x 21" | Pamela Wilson
Antechamber Of Regret | 42″ x 21″ | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Has your art-making allowed you to express yourself in ways you otherwise might not have dared?

Pamela Wilson: Oh, I definitely have no trouble expressing myself. My mouth was my only defense. I learned to use it, and often my candor got me into trouble. At fifty-two, I’m still learning the art of listening and thinking, before I speak.

Some Bullets Are Special  | 36" x 48" | Pamela Wilson
Some Bullets Are Special | 36″ x 48″ | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: What art has given me is a poetic voice, a way to communicate in a manner that is fulfilling, and interesting, beyond words. I am so grateful for this.

Under A Cloud Of Swallows | 48" x 24} | Pamela Wilson
Under A Cloud Of Swallows | 48″ x 24} | Pamela Wilson
Mud | 12" x 12" | Pamela Wilson
Mud | 12″ x 12″ | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there any themes you haven’t felt comfortable exploring? Places you won’t ever venture?

Feral Unlucky | 60″ x 60″ (152.4 x 152.4cm) | Oil on Canvas | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: There is only one place I will not go: the Mormon experience. I was raised as a Mormon, and was a believer for most of my childhood and early adulthood. I attended BYU (Brigham Young University) for four years, but did not graduate before I left. I was excommunicated when I was twenty-one. I am a fifth generation Mormon, and my family was important in the early days of the church. My great-great grandfather had ten wives and sixty-four children. Each had her own household, and he supported them all. Pretty remarkable. Although I am no longer a believer, I owe much of my education and moral grounding to being Mormon.

I am flabbergasted at the ludicrousness of this religion, and religion in general, but I don’t think I would ever be able to express how it effected me. And I don’t think I would want to be so specific. I’d rather portray the emotion, the twisted thinking, if you will, that has resulted from my experience. Making art that loosely expresses my thoughts is more fun, and less offensive to my friends and family who remain in the church.

Refusing the Epiphany | 20″ x 16″ | oil on panel | 2013 | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: What do you see as the role of art in our contemporary society? Does society have a responsibility to nurture art-making in its citizenry?

Pamela Wilson: When I look at a piece of art that I haven’t seen before, and it moves me, there is no feeling like it; I cry, I wail, I feel alive. I feel understood, excited, inspired, vindicated, and thrilled. I am out of words. Which is the part I love about art. It is inexplicable.

I hope we get back to our senses, and put art back at the top of the list for children, and schools. Art is math, and science, and critical thinking.

Our lives are richer for the poetry of art.

The Kelp Widow | 60" X 60" | Pamela Wilson
The Kelp Widow | 60″ X 60″ | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do artists have a responsibility to society?

Pamela Wilson: Only to be honest. I don’t think art should have rules. Or responsibilities.

Calling Calliope Pamela Wilson
Calling Calliope | 48″ x24” | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: The quality of light plays such an important role in your work, and you seem to have a preference for that particular time of day when the light is just about to change: either just before sunset or as the sun is setting. What does this time of transition represent to you as an artist?

PamWilson-AparatusFor ASmallSurrender
Apparatus for a Small Surrender  | 32″ x 24″ | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: I am drawn to the color and drama of sunset.

I like the juxtaposition of a cold story in a warm light. It creates confusion and room to explore.

Jarring the viewer into having nothing but himself to decipher meaning. Not that it’s easy to race the sun! A sunset photo shoot’s actually exhausting, and there is always a measured risk that you’ll lose the light.

Priscilla- Out of Orbit | 20" x 16” | Pamela Wilson |
Priscilla- Out of Orbit | 20″ x 16” | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson |

Deanna Phoenix Selene: And then there are the scenes you have created which transpire completely in the dark…

Pamela Wilson

Who doesn’t love The Dark? It’s where the mystery lies, and there are no real answers, only perceptions.

Most of my work is shot outside for the setting, the light, and the information, or lack thereof. When I want to control the background, to simplify, and deplete all clues but for the subject at hand, I go to the dark side. I am completely at the will of my intuition; I go where I’m moved to go.

I suffer from the little known phenomena called Synesthesia, which means, for me, that I see everything in elaborate pictures: everything has a gender, a color, a place. Dark is not dark. Rather, it’s a situation. I have a hard time explaining how I see things; I have never fully been able to describe my visual world. But it is apparent to me that I am not like The Others. My sister used to call me “mental” for asking if her big toe was bossy, and if it was a boy or a girl.

The Inmate | 32" x 24” | Pamela Wilson
The Inmate | 32″ x 24” | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you have a favorite or favorites of all of your pieces? Perhaps one that came closest to your original vision for it?

Pamela Wilson: I would say that one of my favorite pieces is Carmela, Called by the Cerulean Sea. I dragged my friend to a local lake in the midst of my city, and told her I was sick of birds, that I wanted to travel by sea. Just ludicrous enough to delight me, my objects came together and I was so inspired. It looked much like I had dreamed, although I usually don’t see a painting before I photograph. It was very subdued, color-wise, but when I painted her jacket red, it came alive for me. I love that her nickname is “Blue,” and that I was able to slip blue into the title.

Carmela, Called by the Cerulean Sea | 60" x 48" / 152.4 x 121.9cm | Oil on Canvas | Pamela Wilson
Carmela, Called by the Cerulean Sea | 60″ x 48″ / 152.4 x 121.9cm | Oil on Canvas | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: Another favorite is There’s a Killdeer in My Heart, after the Bukowski poem, “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart”:

by Charles Bukowski

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out.

There’s a Killdeer in My Heart | oil on canvas | 54″ x 48″ | Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson: Very difficult piece for me to paint, but I like how it makes me feel, and I am proud of painting every rock. Good meditation! The happy bluebird is trying to get out of Bukowski’s heart, but Bukowski won’t let it. Conversely, there is a killdeer (lets out distinctive shrill cries to feign death, for self preservation, and often lives in rail yards) in my heart, and I refuse to let it out. I love the poetry of this piece. Its meaning is beyond words, and I feel it as a living piece.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Was there a work that took you in a completely unexpected turn?

Pamela Wilson

I did a photo shoot recently with a dear, seven-year-old friend of mine. One of the paintings that resulted is, Murmurs From The Hollow. We took a trip to Colorado to some private property above Paonia, where a twenty-acre Aspen forest sits still and huge, overlooking the valley. It’s insanely beautiful, and haunting. We brought a vintage bell jar with us, which I asked her to fill, and she went off in secret and did just that ~ she is an old soul. I kept asking her, “What’s in the bottle?” Funny, now, as everyone asks me just that. I love the unexpected mystery.

Murmurs from the Hollow | 24" x 24" | Pamela Wilson
Murmurs from the Hollow | 24″ x 24″ | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson | 2014

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Poetry that inspires you?

Pamela WilsonDiving Into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich inspired me early on. It was the jewel my thesis in grad school. I connected with the idea that I was diving into my own wreck of a life ~ to find my inner self, my wreck, and instigate my own mystery.

Diving into the Wreck
by Adrienne Rich, 1929 – 2012

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

~ From Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Superlative Muse | 42" x 72" | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson
Superlative Muse | 42″ x 72″ | oil on canvas | Pamela Wilson

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Finally, any words of advice for new painters just coming up now?

Pamela Wilson: Plenty. But I will condense it down to this:

  1. Read, read, read..,Input!
  2. Don’t be afraid to paint something that isn’t right in front of you. Find your imagination, and use it.
  3. You do not have to paint from life! You need only be interesting. There are no other rules.
  4. Exposure. Never say no. Do it.
  5. Save your money. Invest in your art, not your outfit!

Further Notes

Pamela Wilson has built a reputation for works of art that transcend the commonplace to enter the realm of the sublime and otherworldly. She develops haunting images that evoke moods, dreams, and memories inspired by real life, and which create a remarkably compelling narrative. The physical and emotional isolation of her characters has emerged as a hallmark of her work. She explores the great chasm of the unknown, the abyss that opens when you seek to understand the place of the human in modernity.  The people in her paintings are often called “lost, odd, mad,” or similar terms denoting something out of alignment with ordinary reality. She believes that letting ourselves explore the inherent “distortions” in reality is part of what gives us heart, and balance. Addressing beauty in a painting feels too passive, and what she is seeking is a psychological moment, a different kind of beauty. She has much to say of the dark and hilarious absurdities we must often endure…while we are creating ourselves.

Pamela received her MFA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she was awarded a Regents Fellowship, the Abrams Project Grant, and a Regents Award for her Thesis Exhibition. She is currently Mentor Faculty at Laguna College of Art & Design, Laguna, CA, as part of the MFA Program.

Exhibiting consistently since 1992, her work has been the subject of nineteen solo exhibitions, spanning the United States. She has been included in many museum exhibitions, including the National Museum for Women in the Arts, Washington DC, and a solo exhibition at the Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY. Her work is included in many prestigious collections.

To view more of Pamela Wilson’s work, please visit her website

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.

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