WORDS Karen Parr-Moody
Customs House Museum and Cultural Center in Clarksville, Tennessee
September 6 through November 20
Tattered satin on a trapeze artist, a one-eyed elephant, hyperbolic acts—Woman of Steel! Human Cannonball! Tattooed Lady! A traveling circus of yesteryear tossed out the glitter, but the underbelly was grim. A sinister whimsy lurked beneath the cheery artifice displayed for the crowds.
The same spirit inhabits the paintings of Pamela Wilson, a Santa Barbara, California, artist who says, “Behind the scenes they’re smoking cigarettes and working hard and the animals are abused. That’s me. I’m in the decrepit old circus where you try to put on that smiling face, but you’re really just lugging buckets of water behind the scenes. I’ve always had a circus bent to my work.”
Wilson’s oil portraits will be on view at the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center in Clarksville, Tennessee, from September 6 through November 20, with a reception on October 25, as part of the annual Women Painting Women exhibit. The artist sells much of her work through RJD Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York.
Indirect painting is the technique Wilson uses to build up layers of paint and glaze that create a unique depth and luminosity.
“My work is very translucent and alive,” she says.
In popular culture, to run away to the circus is a romantic act of rebellion, yet it has historically been rare for youths from stable families to do so. Rather, the circus fostered a motley crew of personalities who had arrived by way of brokenness—they were physical “freaks,” social outcasts, and wayward souls.
Ironically, Wilson’s paintings are a result of childhood spent on the run, so to speak. As a child, she was regularly chased throughout her home by a troubled brother who threatened to kill her with long, sharp knives.
“I was afraid for my life,” Wilson says. “I don’t like to make it a major thing, but the older I get the more I realize how that darkness informed my work. I try to channel that darkness poetically.”
Her parents didn’t take these problems seriously and, as can be so typical within the confines of social norms, the family appeared perfectly happy to outsiders. “I had this double life,” Wilson says.
This backstory can be read in the faces of her subjects. Their strength and vulnerability brew just below the glazed surface. In Jamais Vu, a young girl peers out fiercely. In Hologram Girl, a child lets the viewer in on a joke—it could be naughty. In The Grievance, a child solemnly protects something sacrosanct.
“Every time I try to get real, there’s that pain and fear—and pride in surviving,” Wilson says. “In me lives the scared little girl, so I’m still trying to heal her. It’s therapy when I paint.”
A more benign influence on Wilson’s work can be traced to her “weird and kooky” grandmother, who kept two rooms in her home filled, floor to ceiling, with antique dolls. She inspired Wilson to collect antiques, and she does so with a predilection for machine-like finds, such as goggles and binoculars, as well as vintage brass instruments and violins.
For years Wilson collected innocently, like a magpie, from a number of eras. Then she had an epiphany while pursuing her MFA from University of California, Santa Barbara: She could costume her subjects with these finds to create more meaning in her work.
In The Grievance, a girl stands in a copse of aspen trees, like some dryad of Greek mythology, wearing a witchy German headdress that dates to the early 1800s. In Sweet Secrets in Pale Delirium, the subject wears old-fashioned pantaloons and a ringmaster-esque top hat.
“I truly think I invented steampunk,” Wilson says, laughing. “I’ve been painting goggles since 1984. But in my mind, I didn’t see steampunk. I saw myself taking the viewer off guard.”
Beyond taking the viewer off guard, these antique props are instrumental in creating a magical world that inhabits the past and future simultaneously, much like the dystopian future depicted in the film Blade Runner.
“I’m leaving the viewer in a place that isn’t in time so that the viewer can use his or her imagination,” she says.
Wilson leaves little half-thoughts and clues to tantalize her audience—an approach that is far more subtle than any circus act. She depicts something ephemeral that we can’t put our finger on. Still, the subjects of her paintings communicate with the viewer intensely and intimately. This can be attributed to the details of the face, which Wilson captures with her particular stripe of realism. She grasps the merits of this ability, because it takes years to refine. However, she never wants to hear viewers say, “It looks like a photograph.”
What does she want viewers to say?
“I was really moved by that.”
How could they not be?
Wilson’s oil portraits will be included in the exhibit Women Painting Women on view at the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center in Clarksville, Tennessee, from September 6 through November 20. An opening reception is scheduled for October 25. For more information, please visit