After moving to Jackson Hole, Pamela Gibson replaced her loom for a torch that burns 1200ºF to paint the landscape around her. We discussed the pleasures of painting with hot wax, the depth of her paintings including her inspiration and “resources,” the concept of time and of letting go.
Pamela Gibson’s solo exhibition, Elemental, is on view at Turner Fine art August 6th-31st.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Sparks, NV.
Where do you live now?
I think I’ve lived in 6 Western states, but we’ve been in Jackson Hole for 10 years. It’s home.
How did you become interested in art? When was that?
I always have been interested in art since I was a little kid, but I never had the confidence to be an artist. So I started out in college, majoring in art in perhaps the worst art department on the planet. After a couple of years, I switched my major. When I was 42 I went to art school and that’s when I could really think of myself as an artist.
For some reason, I decided I needed to learn how to weave. I had never seen a loom in my life; I didn’t know anyone that was a weaver. There is a wonderful school in Portland, the Oregon College of Art and Craft, and I went through the BFA program there. Somewhere along the way, I transitioned from thinking I was a pretend artist to actually thinking of myself as an artist.
How did you go from weaving to painting with encaustic?
I was a weaver for 20-25 years before we moved to Wyoming. I had an 8’ loom and shelving full of yarn, and somehow it didn’t work here because the light here is so different. In Oregon, everything is saturated and swallows the light. Here it is reflective. In a matter of two weeks I sold my loom and all the yarn and made my transition and I never looked back.
How would you describe the content of your work for this exhibition?
I always have to have a theme, I am very content driven. The theme for this exhibition is Elemental and I’ve thought of Elemental in a very big way. You know the earth, wind, and fire elements, but also metals and forces of nature and the elements being out in the weather. So I tried to think about it very broadly. On almost all of my pieces, there is a poem or song lyrics that drive the piece. It’s really important for me to have that content that’s driving the piece.
In this exhibition, do you have a favorite piece? Why?
I do have a favorite. It’s called Emme’s Rain. This is a really wonderful story. This is the first piece I did for this exhibition and I was struggling, sometimes that’s part of the process. I was struggling with it and my daughter-in-law sent me a video of our 1.5 yr old granddaughter experiencing rain for the first time and it just clicked. So this piece is Emme’s Rain. It helped me solidify where it was going.
Watching her wonder as it came down the window for the first time was just incredible. I could take that sense of wonder into this painting and finish it, so this painting is very special to me for that. Keeping your sense of wonder is really important not just for being an artist, but for living your life and seeing things for the first time.
What mediums do you work with?
I paint with hot wax, encaustic. I consider myself a painter, not an encaustic painter. Encaustic is the medium I use.
What does encaustic mean?
It means to burn in because every layer of wax you put down, you burn it in with some kind of heat source. I use a torch–which is the most fun.
What process do you follow when you start a painting?
When I start a painting I don’t have the wildest clue of what it’s going to look like when it’s done. I always start with a photograph that I’ve taken. I have these boxes of messy photographs, which I call resources, with paint all over them. I have to be guided by something visual and then have some inspiration from another artist from somewhere else. I will think about it metaphorically. If there is a song lyric that kind of connects to the photo, then I just go.
It’s not precious, I am completely free. I can scrape anything off or sometimes I’ll cover something up I think I shouldn’t have. But I start building up those layers and it’s this wonderful process that takes me to the end. Sometimes I get to the end quickly and sometimes it takes a long time, but I always know when I am there.
With this type of painting, I think of myself as an editor. I put things down and I edit out. I make sure that, in the end, what is in the painting is important to be there and I have edited out anything that is not important. I never abandon a painting, I keep going until I get it there.
Are you able to recreate any of your paintings?
That is something I cannot do. I could never in a million years paint the same painting twice. It just would never happen because of all the layers and the process.
What techniques do you employ to get the results you want?
My degree is actually in craft so materials are really basic to the way I work. And, of course, there is the wax and all the different things the wax will do. I use my torch as a paintbrush to move the wax around, so that’s one set of things. I also use shellac and set it on fire to get a certain texture or I’ll dig into the wax to leave marks.
When I use just plain beeswax it’s just a clear layer over things, so I can decide what I want to still show through and what’s going to buried underneath. To me, these paintings are like life. So you know we keep doing things, we make mistakes, we keep growing, but everything that’s happened in our lives is relevant to our lives at the moment. And I think of that of these paintings because there is crazy stuff underneath you would never believe is there but it had to be there to get the painting to where I needed it to go.
How have your techniques evolved?
My sense of color has really evolved, so when you look at my earlier works, there are brighter colors. My colors have gotten more subtle and I think my whole knowledge of color theory has really grown. I mix all these colors myself. I love that they can be really opaque or really transparent.
What is your favorite tool to use?
Oh, my torch! I love my torch. It really has become a paintbrush. When I first started, it was simply to bind one layer to another. But now I paint with the torch. I also love my scraper and these clay tools. I love tools and materials.
You have a lot of brushes. Why is that?
You only use them once. The good news is I don’t have to spend an hour washing my brushes after I am done.
You’re known to include objects in your pieces. Can you go into detail about them?
I use straight pins, watch parts, feathers, leaves… nothing goes into a painting that doesn’t have meaning to me. I like to use dress patterns. I love the linear aspect of them and then I burn them. The lines stay but the paper kinda burns. I use a lot of fire in my work, I think that’s pretty fun. I think newspaper can be beautiful in these pieces.
Over the years I’ve developed a vocabulary, so while I am not a religious person I do think of angels dancing on the head of my pin when I use a pin in my work. A lot of that comes from a Billy Collins poem. Watch parts, to me, connote time.
Your work often contains these shredded pieces of paper. Can you elaborate on the significance of these?
So 2 years ago or so we’re in a different stage of our lives and we had boxes and boxes and boxes of photos. I still had old letters from when I was in college and yearbooks and things. So I spend one night when my husband was gone and I picked out one tiny box of things to save and I shredded everything else! I call them shredded memories. And a lot of my paintings have these memories in them. To me, they’re my shredded memories, but they evoke everybody’s memories. My life is in those 2 boxes.
What pleases you about the process?
The most interesting thing to me is the lesson that if I keep going I will get there. And that’s a really good life lesson. Having the confidence that I can get where I am going is a very satisfying part of the process.
I also love the smell of the beeswax. I love the texture, I love everything about it. I love the fire–the fire part of it is really fun. I like the idea that it’s uncontrollable. Although I’ve gotten pretty good at using the torch it still does things I don’t expect it to do.
What is most challenging about the process?
The most challenging thing is I get these ideas in my head and they need to go away in order for the painting to get finished. Often I’ll have this idea and I’ll be pursuing it, but I need to let go of it. I need to recognize when I need to go in a different direction and when to let go.
So I’ll be in a place with a painting and I have something that I really like, whether its a color or a texture, and I am doggedly pursuing this thing but what the painting really needs is for me to paint over the thing I really like. So recognizing when I am stuck and need to get rid of a certain idea is the most challenging part. You need to let go of something you didn’t realize you need to let go of. It’s not a straightforward process, 2 steps forward and 3 steps back. This process is a metaphor for life, it really is.
How does activating your senses contribute to the process?
What I can see out my window is really important, my sense of sight. I always have music playing, I always have the smell of the wax. I always have my tea. It’s a very sensual process.
So I think a better answer to that question is the idea of just letting go and subconsciously taking everything in. When I can let my subconscious take over that’s when good things happen. It takes a lot of practice to get there. When I am in here, I am meditating. I am in another world. I know when I get there and it’s magical.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
My aesthetic is abstract. I am not trying to paint a picture that’s outside. I am trying to paint something about living and about life.
What does the concept of time mean to you and your art?
The one driving theme of my work is time and the passage of time. Time always works its way into my paintings, whether it’s metaphysical time or the passage of time. I think because I didn’t start making art until I was in my mid-40s that the life cycle has always been a part of what I do. The changing of the seasons, getting older and all of that, it’s in every single painting. If I started in my 20s I might have a completely different theme. It’s a driving force in everything I do.
How does your environment inform your work?
First of all, my studio is a sanctum and everything, even when it’s a mess, has a place and there is an order to it. It’s a learned order.
At the same time, I look out and I see this beautiful landscape. If I lived in the middle of a city and saw buildings, there is no way I would be doing the work I am doing now. So I think of that fact and how can I not paint the landscape? It’s the biggest thing that’s here.
How long does it take to finish a painting?
Emme’s Rain probably took me 5 months. It just wasn’t coming together for me. Others take a couple of weeks. It’s never quick. I have to let things sit and germinate, which is why I have to work on more than 1 at a time. And before I declare a painting done, I have to give it a few days for it to tell me it’s done.
What do you do when you’re stuck on a piece?
I usually do something really drastic like add a color that was completely not part of the painting. I am not afraid. Encaustic is a really forgiving medium, so if I don’t like something I can scrape it off.
What subject have you painted the most? Why?
I took a photograph of a stand of aspens in the fall and I have probably done 10 paintings from it. I love that image and I’ve played with it on the computer to change it up. So I come back to it. I’ve made paintings from it that I really like but there is still more there.
What is your favorite season?
If I had to answer quickly: fall. I love fall. I love the colors. I love all of it.
I find beauty in every season, but summer is the hardest. It’s hard to find something compelling, something interesting. One of the things I’ve had to learn as a painter is you don’t want things to be too pretty. You want there to be some dissonance, some edginess, some conflict. It’s more compelling if it’s not all pretty.
What are you currently inspired by (reading, listening, other)?
It’s not like I read something and want to make a painting. It’s the opposite. I have the theme and I go looking for how to bring it together. I have my poets and songwriters that I really like. Some of my favorites are: Billy Collins; The Beatles; Shakespeare; Robert Frost; Joni Mitchell. I think Sting is one of the greatest poets ever
I don’t know how I got on this Shakespeare kick, but there’s a line from Sonnet 73 that I really love: “…love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
What do you do besides your art?
My husband and I have a blast together and we love spending time with our grandkids. We also love houses and architecture.
What is your favorite destination?
Jackson Hole, Wyoming and that’s the truth. I have really blossomed in this place, so it’s my favorite place.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
The best advice that comes to mind is from when I was driving along with my 5-year-old grandson and I’m trying to find a good song on the radio. I finally said, “I give up!” He’s in the back seat and I hear, “Don’t give up grandma, push through!” I can’t tell you how many times I am in my studio and I hear his little voice,”Don’t give up, push through!”
All written and visual content produced by Helen Dodderidge. Emme’s Rain video was shared by the artist. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.