This week’s interview is with Pamela Ashton. I was enticed by Pamela’s artwork due to her impressive color blend technique and her coverage of various subject matter. Whether she’s concocting an abstract piece or a stunning landscape, Pamela continues to push her creativity to new levels while also maintaining her unique style. Learn more about Pamela in our conversation.
Me: Can you speak on the significance of using art as a form of activism?
Pamela: It’s this police piece I did, that really hit home because it’s a subject that a lot of people like to just throw under the rug and not take it for what it really is. I basically wanted to create the awareness and bring to light what’s going on especially when it comes to police brutality. It basically speaks about black men, women, and children who are disproportionately being killed by the police and how the police force came into existence in the first place. A lot of people don’t know that this was the original slave patrol. It was a group of white men with no training, hired to catch enslaved Africans who fled the plantation. There was a piece done by Basquiat that inspired me to do the piece as well called Irony of a Negro Policeman. It’s so simple, but man it speaks volumes. He was more or less speaking to the black police officers who join an organization that literally kills black people and he just couldn’t understand how a black person could join a force like that, that doesn’t even fight for them.
Me: It’s a phenomenal piece by the way!
Pamela: Thank you! I get a lot of backlash from it but I don’t care though because it is what it is! There’s a meaning behind everything that you see in that piece but people get so caught up in their feelings that they get offended because they just don’t understand it. That’s what happens when people don’t understand, they go negative.
“There’s a meaning behind everything that you see in that piece but people get so caught up in their feelings that they get offended because they just don’t understand it.”
Me: Yea, because we’re so ingrained with the racial structure of this country which was built on white supremacy and some people are just in denial.
Pamela: Exactly and you don’t just have white people who are in denial you have black people who are in denial too. People seem to think if you’re speaking out about these things like systemic racism and the new Jim Crow that it’s a necessary evil. I think a lot of people don’t like to come into the truth because it sounds like hate. I’ve done research upon research and I’ve found that I’ve been lied to my whole life and it’s painful.
“People seem to think if you’re speaking out about these things like systemic racism and the new Jim Crow that it’s a necessary evil.”
Me: Yea, it does make you feel outraged from the fact that this information was suppressed for so long. Once you find out the truth about our history, it makes you more observant and assess what’s really going on.
Pamela: Right. When my kids were going to school they were so gung-ho about the DARE program. I was all for it too because the way they made it seem like all the police were here to help in the community and keep people safe. However, that program was actually a part of the school to prison pipeline. It seemed so crazy because after that you had police within the school with metal detectors in the hood.
Me: That police piece is definitely spot on to what’s been going on. I see another piece that you did on Queen Califia, could you dive deeper into that one?
Pamela: Oh yea, when I did that one, I was surprised that a lot of people didn’t know about her. I did a lot of research about civilizations where only women existed before men. That’s where the Queen Califia piece plays off of – an era where black women ruled the Earth and there were no men in existence yet. I’m so enthralled with that piece, I was just talking to someone about it on Instagram because she put up a meme. It basically was saying that she was a black queen who ruled over a land of other black women. She didn’t know that California was named after her though and this person lives in California. Queen Califia has a theme park named after her and there are statues depicted of her across the state. That also leads me to believe that she was a real person. It’s so crazy because the further you dig in history the blacker it gets (laughing)!
Me: Exactly, the archaeologists are finding that out too. I see another painting you did of a women with a pill in her mouth that says “Truth.”
Pamela: Oh yea that one was so draining! It was draining in the sense that I sat there and tried to find the words to put into the piece. I had to do a lot of research on them in order to fit the narrative of the piece. Every word correlates with each other in that painting. I had to literally pull those words from within me to feel the meaning and how other people especially white people portray these words. White people know that their skin carries them a long way regardless of how poor they are. That’s the reason why the caste system was created honestly. Even though the system is jacking them around too, they still have white privilege which puts into their minds that they’re better than anybody that isn’t white. Instead of taking things for face value, you really should dig deeper.
Me: What stimulated you to dig deeper and do more research about our history?
Pamela: I already knew about certain things going on like how redlining and gentrification were used to oppress black people, but I really wanted to learn why white people did that. I dug so deep that I took it all the way back to scientists who found out that black people were the ones who actually gave birth to civilization. What I’ve learned is that it all has to do with Power. There’s a lot of people that are waking up including some white people. In essence, the reason why they eradicated Jim Crow was because black communities were thriving meanwhile white communities were declining. They pass it off as wanting to be inclusive but actually integration is what destroyed the black community. As you know, when you go into predominantly black communities today, you hardly ever see any black businesses.
“In essence, the reason why they eradicated Jim Crow was because black people were thriving meanwhile their communities were declining.”
Me: You dropped so much knowledge right there Pam! Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from – when you started painting, family background, and education.
Pamela: I lived in Wilmington, North Carolina until I was 15 then we transplanted to Ohio. My Mom was a single Mom and I have three siblings with one being my twin. My oldest sibling did most of the rearing because my Mom had to work a lot. I’m a self-taught artist and I’ve been doing art since I was eight years old. I used to just draw when I was a kid, I didn’t learn how to paint until later on. I would mostly draw things like dinosaurs, tropical fish, and seashells because I grew up on the beach. I went to a local college here in Ohio where I got a degree in Early Childhood Education. I worked in a Daycare for quite a few years so I originally wanted to run my own but, my passion for art took over. Art won as you can see!
Me: That’s awesome! Did you ever consider being an artist as a career option growing up?
Pamela: Oh yea, ever since I was eight. Even when I had kids when I was raising them I always wanted to do that, but I didn’t pursue art seriously until 2003. I’m glad I did that because my kids had no idea that I could do those things. Once they started seeing how I was creating something triggered in them, and now I do collaborations with my oldest son and my third to oldest son. Actually, my first serious art piece was a fish (laughing)! I went back to my childhood and I did that for a while but then it got mundane. So, I had to really get serious if I wanted to present myself in galleries. I had to go inside myself and tap into my creativity. I used society, child rearing, and things from childhood to really get me started.
“I had to go inside myself and tap into my creativity.”
Me: That’s great and it’s definitely reflective within your art because you cover so many different subjects!
Pamela: I do, I call myself an eclectic artist.
Me: Yea, that’s a fitting title for you! I was looking at your IG and I was like ‘whoa she’s all over the place!’ (laughing) I see paintings from people and scenery to abstract. Everything is incredible though, praises to you!
Pamela: Thank you! It may look easy on IG but man let me tell you, I have a lot of failures too especially in the beginning! I would get so mad that I would literally bend my canvas, throw it in the trash, and walk away from art for like a month (laughing). It was so new and intimidating once I used the paintbrush, I thought I was horrible when I first started painting. Then I was like either I’m going to let this defeat me or I’m going to conquer it. So, I just tackled it and I’ve been at it ever since. I have so many paintings and I had no idea how many of these pieces came out of me. If I had to guess, I probably did over 500. It’s a lot of pieces that I’ve sold and I’ve given away or I’ve just donated to charity. It’s not something that I just want to make a profit off of. To me, the profit is just the icing on the cake because it’s something I love to do. I like to tell people that I’ll be an old lady still painting in my house.
“It was so new and intimidating once I used the paintbrush, I thought I was horrible when I first started painting.”
Me: I can definitely see that passion! Describe how you approach your creative process; what’s your ideal environment to bring out your full range of creativity?
Pamela: Now I’m doing fluid paintings. Before that, my art was focused more on social issues which was draining. I will get back to that but I’m doing the fluid paintings now to decompress. My creative process especially when I’m working on my Miss Chocolate Stars Series is centered upon black women’s empowerment. My ideal environment is to be locked in my room with no distractions. It just allows me to pour my emotions out on the canvas.
Me: I feel you and what type of music do you like to listen to while you create?
Pamela: I listen to meditation and classical music believe it or not. I never thought I would be listening to Beethoven while I create, but it really puts me in a whole other mindset. It allows me to think clearer and express myself better. Between that and the flow of creating, it’s amazing! I found that out within the last four to five months.
“I never thought I would be listening to Beethoven while I create, but it really puts me in a whole other mindset.”
Me: Nice. I’ve heard people say those things about classical music too before, I don’t actually listen to it myself though.
Pamela: Yea, it’s exactly why a lot of white people in particular flock to these orchestras and operas because it puts them in a mellow mindset. I think if they were to play classical music and put meditation within these schools in the hood, I think more kids would excel.
Me: Cool and if you could collaborate with any artist on an upcoming piece, who would it be and why?
Pamela: Now, I’m actually in the process of collaborating with David Snipes aka davedoinartnow on IG. Hopefully, I’ll be meeting with him at the end of the month. I talked to him before on the phone and I wanted to do a James Baldwin piece with him, this was around the time when the documentary came out. I am super excited to collaborate with him because of the way he does his portraits. He makes it seem so effortless!
Me: Yea, he does! I remember when you commented on his interview when I shared it on my Facebook, that meant the world to me! (laughing)
Pamela: (Laughing) That was a good interview!
Me: Thank you! In your opinion what do you think young black visual artists can do to create more opportunities for themselves?
Pamela: I think the main thing black artists can do is be consistent, even if it causes them to create something everyday to help them keep that creative process going. You know there’s a lot of distractions with the internet, the smartphones, and social media. It’s a lot of distractions for young people for real. Also, they should learn how to create for themselves as opposed to doing what others want them to do. Being a creative you get bombarded with a whole bunch of subject matter you really don’t know how to do. It’s a lot of stuff I get asked to paint that I just can’t do but I always try to redirect them to someone who can. There should always be a ‘why’ to what you create. I always go back to ‘why’ because I like to ask questions (laughing)! They should ask themselves, “what inspires you to do what you do?” The inspiration could come from what somebody else has done or something that you believe in or something that you’ve researched that you want to convey to the world through art. The simplest of artwork can have the biggest impact.
“The simplest of artwork can have the biggest impact.”
Me: That’s some wisdom right there. Social media can play mind tricks on you too and it can make you feel less confident about your own art at times.
Pamela: I understand, but I always tell others that’s not a reason to give up though. Whatever level they’re at, someone else’s work may have sold for millions of dollars. Now my 16 year old is pushing me to do collaborations with him on artwork. One of the pieces we did together was of a guy with a television head. He wasn’t happy with it at first but I was telling him about Basquiat and how simple his work was. I explained that his police piece I told you about earlier sold for $5 million. So, that gave him more confidence.
Me: That’s great! You mentioned a critical point about knowing your ‘why’ when creating.
Pamela: Right. When I started out I didn’t have a place of why but when I looked at other artists’ work then I started asking questions. That gave me a sense of how people convey messages through art aside from just literally reading words on art. What it boils down to is convictions and emotions, those that are within you.
“That gave me a sense of how people convey messages through art aside from just literally reading words on art.”
Me: That’s true. What’s your favorite piece that you’ve created so far?
Pamela: I got a lot of favorites (laughing)! But, if I had to choose it would be my Miss Chocolate Stars series which features the black women with symbols in their hair. I created those pieces just to let my sisters know that they are queens – they are beautiful and strong. They’re the reason why this world even exists. They deserve to be on a pedestal, that’s exactly where they belong.
“I created those pieces just to let my sisters know that they are queens – they are beautiful and strong.”
Me: I agree, they gave birth to civilization so we need to pay homage to them. We wouldn’t exist without y’all.
Pamela: (Laughing) Absolutely! Even though their profiles are similar, I do try to change up the backgrounds and symbols. The only reason why it’s called the Miss Chocolate Stars series is because the very first painting had a black woman with stars in her hair.
Me: Oh okay, that’s dope! I know you mentioned your sons but are there any other artists in your family?
Pamela: One of my uncles is an artist on my Mom’s side. I had no idea until I had a conversation with my Mom. I figured there’s got to be other artists in the family, I got to be getting it from somewhere. When I was growing up I used to always go to one of my Aunts’ house and every Christmas she would have a picture of Santa Claus hanging on her wall. I never knew who drew it until I became an adult. That’s when I found out my uncle drew it. A few years later I found out that my Mom’s dad was an artist. I was like ‘Oh wow, okay!’ I definitely got it honest! (laughing)
Me: Wow, it’s in the roots, artists run deep in your family! What was the most challenging piece you’ve done?
Pamela: The most challenging piece would have to be The Burden of the Brutalized is not to Comfort the Bystander we talked about earlier. It is named after a quote that I got from Jesse Williams’ speech he gave at the BET Awards last year. That quote inspired me to do that piece along with the blindness of other people. I think what people hate the most is that even though he’s mixed, he’s still able to convey from a black perspective being that he is a black man. He can’t go into a store and not be followed. They’re going to look at him and see his black features and automatically deem him as a black man. That piece was really challenging because it was so draining in researching and understanding systemic racism, apathy, psychosis and why people think that way. I had to know the root of each word and find out the truth behind them.
“That piece was really challenging because it was so draining in researching and understanding systemic racism, apathy, psychosis and why people think that way.”
Pamela: Awww man it’s so amazing how deep cognitive dissonance is and how everybody likes to associate those two words with just white people but other races also have it too. To me, it’s just more prevalent with white people because they know their history just as much as we know their history yet they don’t want to face that. They’re so used to being brainwashed into thinking that they’re superior. They’re comfortable with being in that position. I know we had white abolitionists back then but at the end of the day they’re still benefiting from what our ancestors went through.
Me: Exactly, and they didn’t really do anything to stop the same system that has oppressed us in the first place.
Pamela: Not much has changed for us as far as being equal – we’re still fighting for equality. To me, it’s still an incomplete piece, I still have a ton of words that I can put in it. The only thing I regret is that it’s not a bigger piece.
Me: I feel you! Police brutality is the modern-day lynching. I can imagine how difficult this piece was for you though! You did your thing on that one!
Pamela: Thank you! I do get a lot of backlash for that one too but I don’t care because I know where it comes from. The only people who are going to know are the ones who want to see.
Me: Indeed, if it resonates with someone so be it. Describe a time when you experienced a creative block, and how did you overcome it?
Pamela: (Laughing) Woo, I definitely have those! You wouldn’t think so by looking at my IG though because I’m always posting something different. When I do have them, I usually study other artists’ work, read and listen to different philosophers. Right now I’m listening to Allan Watts. I also meditate like we discussed before and I do a lot of research. I basically put all of those things together to come up with many of my pieces. When I just want to be fun and creative I’ll do something cartoonish or I’ll do an abstract piece.
“When I do have them, I usually study other artists work, read and listen to different philosophers. Right now I’m listen to Allan Watts.”
Pamela: I watch a ton of YouTube videos, I think I may have graduated from YouTube University like five times (laughing)! It really helps me learn different techniques because I never want to be stuck in a mundane place creatively. I have to learn something new. I hate when I go to these art shows in downtown Columbus year after year seeing the same thing. I like to see progress with my artwork and I like to present different things.
Me: (Laughing) Have there been any specific documentaries you’ve watched that have made an impact on you?
Pamela: There’s this one documentary I watched called 13th by Ava DuVernay. It’s about voting and how all of these big corporations like Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Whole Foods are benefiting off of the backs of these prisoners. It’s just basically another way to keep slavery going. It also talks about voting and how people seem to think that their vote counts but really it’s the elite people that run these major corporations that lobby these politicians. I definitely want to do some artwork based off of that documentary.
Me: Wow, I haven’t seen that one yet! By the way, what’s your opinion on the art scene in Columbus?
Pamela: When I first started putting my artwork out there in shows 10 years ago, the art scene was booming. There was like two or three galleries on a block especially downtown. Now you have galleries, but it wasn’t nearly as many as it was 10 years ago. There were more opportunities to show your work back then. Now you have to meet all of these requirements like having an art degree or some kind of professional art background in order to be featured in galleries.
Pamela: There’s only two galleries I know of now that you can be either new to the game or a professional. It’s one gallery that I’m a part of called ROY G BIV. They take local talent and show in their art galleries even if you don’t have a professional arts background or degree. What’s happening now though is the West Side which is where I had my police piece showing at a gallery there. They have a huge art scene there, it’s a lot of places popping up over there. I think it’s easier to thrive here if you’re more established versus being new.
“It’s one gallery that I’m a part of called ROY G BIV. They take local talent and show in their art galleries even if you don’t have a professional arts background or degree.”
Me: Gotcha. I like to get different perspectives about what the art scene is like where they are. How has your artwork shaped you as a person?
Pamela: It definitely allowed me to be more expressive verbally. I was one of those kids that was deathly shy. Me being able to do art really brought the shyness out of me. Even as a young adult, I was never one to speak my mind or express how I felt about a particular situation. Art along with life experiences of course really helped me out in that aspect because I was able to talk about my art and I’m so passionate about it that I could talk about it all day! You can’t shut me up now or come at me sideways! (laughing)
“It definitely allowed me to be more expressive verbally.”
Me: I can definitely relate, I was the same way. What is your most proud achievement so far as an artist?
Pamela: I think just being a creative is good enough, honestly. If I had to choose a specific event it would be Summer Jam because it was the first time I’ve shown my artwork at a festival. The Summer Jam is only three years old and it takes place on the West Side. That let’s me know that West Side is really becoming the new art scene of Columbus. Just me being a part of that festival, showcasing my work, selling it, and conversing with the people in the community makes it my proudest achievement.
Me: That’s phenomenal! Would you like to share any upcoming projects/exhibitions?
Pamela: The next one that I have is this year’s Summer Jam festival in July. It’s a huge venue, I’m going to be one of 12 artists and they’re going to have crafters, gardeners, face painters, and food. It’s a nice festival and it grows every year. This is going to be my second year doing it. That’s the only thing I got coming up right now.
Me: Cool and when did you sell your first piece?
Pamela: My first piece I sold was of the American flag and it sold in an art gallery called 83 Gallery. That was about eight years ago. I have this one collector who’s a professional photographer in New York and my big break came from her. She was renovating her house and she wanted pieces in every room. She bought the majority of my art – she got like 30 or 40 pieces.
Me: Wow! Go ahead Pam! What has been some things you’ve learned from being an art entrepreneur?
Pamela: I learned to present myself in the most professional way. If someone inquires about a piece, I get back to them right away. I try to give my clientele the best experience possible. I feel that if you want to sell your art and gain customer loyalty, then you have to go above and beyond. How else are you going to keep them coming back? I’m very selective on who I like to buy art from because of bad experiences I’ve had. I learned to put insurance on my work because my artwork would literally get stolen out of the post office. Then, I would have to redo the piece in order to accommodate the customer. I make sure I insure my pieces now just in case they get lost or stolen, I’m able to refund their money.
“If someone inquires about a piece, I get back to them right away. I try to give my clientele the best experience possible.”
Me: Yea, it’s just like any other business, you got to be on point in order to keep customers. That’s a good point that you mentioned about insuring your work. What’s your vision for the future in terms of your artistry?
Pamela: My vision for the future is to start my t-shirt business with my husband. I ultimately want to open up my own visual art gallery. Black artists aren’t represented a whole helluva lot here. If there is a black-owned art venue here in Columbus, I don’t know where it is.
Me: Excellent, that’ll be a great look for the community as well! You’ll definitely have an impact with these rising black artists within the area. Well Pam, it was an absolute pleasure! I appreciate you!
Pamela: Thank you! This was so much fun, I enjoyed it!