By Ann Carper
As a child in Colorado, Burleith resident and artist Pam Rogers created cities from pine cones and bark and populated them with people made from hollyhocks. She tended plants in her bedroom and loved to garden with her grandfather. For the past two decades, her fascination with nature has manifested itself in paintings, drawings, sculpture, installation, and botanical illustrations.
Pam’s works on paper and installation are currently on view through February 13 in Petworth’s Civilian Art Projects’s Mutations exhibition, where she “explores the relationship between humanity and the natural world where nature is challenged, contorted, filtered, and reborn.” She’ll be participating in an artists' talk at the gallery on Saturday, February 13, at 3 pm.
Here's what I learned about her work and process.
Q: Some of your work incorporates plant materials, minerals, wood, soil, and naturally-derived pigments. How do these organic materials hold up over time or are the works meant to be temporary?
A: I like the idea of decay and ephemerality and let that come through in both my painting and sculpture.
I’m aware of the archival issues with natural paints, and I try to be honest and up front with people about these issues. Some are very sustainable; others degrade rather quickly so I try to avoid using these. I keep detailed notebooks on my materials. I have some great successes, most often with pigments from soil, and some horrific failures. I also try to use “proven” recipes. The artist Cennini (15th c. Florence) wrote a book, the Craftsman’s Handbook, which I regularly consult for his Renaissance-era recipes. When I do work with commercial paints, I choose to use powdered pigments, then mix my own palette with gum arabic and oxgall liquid and the dry pigments. Most of these are from Europe and are ground from natural sources.
The sculptural work I do is ephemeral and often, if an exhibition is 2-3 months long, the piece changes as it dries and contorts, bindings loosen, and the work takes on a new form and new identity. I love this aspect of the work. I do try to use some plants that have aromatic qualities—herbs from my garden or bay laurel.
Q: Where do you collect your art materials?
A: I collect materials locally when I can. I like grounding the work in the location where it is created. I have tried to use my garden as a starting point for most of the current work and also the grounds around my studio at the Arlington Arts Center. I go through yard waste and stop to gather trimmings from landscapers in the area during the warmer months. I find some great materials in clippings and trimmings. When I visit other areas or work in my studio in Denver, I collect locally as well.
Q: Your artist statement says you “enjoy presenting beautiful imagery measured against presumed sinister and threatening elements that challenge the viewer to question what lurks beneath.” Can you explain?
A: Often we see still life paintings with beautiful examples of nature, flowers, and cuttings. Botanic art tends to highlight this beauty. But often on the underside of a flower or plant there are thorns. Or there might be irritants (like stinging nettles) or even toxins (mistletoe and poinsettias). I am interested in using these “silent threats” in a metaphorical context for other aspects of life.
Q: How does the exactitude of botanical illustration differ from your other work?
A: My paintings are often detailed and have many very exactly rendered bits of plants in them, but the general narrative of the paintings is much different. I am not trying to show an exact replication of a plant that exists, but rather I am working to create a totally different narrative using pieces of these plants. I like having large areas of abstract paint juxtaposed to detailed moments in my work, whereas a botanical illustration shows something exactly as it exists.
Q: How is your work influenced by your interest in anthropology?
A: I use artifact imagery in a lot of my work, incorporating bits and pieces of various cultures of both past and present. My interest and studies of various cultures is seen specifically in the bits of fabrics that are illustrated in many of my pieces. I use symbols from various cultures, such as cuneiform writings, hieroglyphs, and cave painting images, to reference the beginnings of art in culture. I also use reoccurring elements related to current culture, such as electrical switches, computer chips, and circuit boards.
Q: What do you do for the anthropology department at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History? Anything forensic like the television show Bones?
A: Nothing like that at all. I measure and draw—it is not glamorous—but I love drawing so it is great for me. I look at certain shards or portions of vessels and through measurements taken with scientific tools, I can recreate the missing portions. I also draw many artifacts as a schematic—as if you were looking at it sliced down the center. This shows the viewer how thick the walls might be and that can lead to one knowing what pottery workshop the vessel might have been created in, what era it came out of, or even a specific location where it might have come from. This can lead to knowing how cultures spread throughout the world and identify various trade routes.
Q: Has your work changed over time?
A: I hope so! I do not want to become static. I do know the importance of working to gain expertise in one’s area of work, but I hope I always continue to experiment, go in various tangents and directions, and keep the work fresh and growing.