“DESPITE THE RUST, LET’S EMBRACE THE GOLD.”
By Carolyn Males
Pam White picks up a blow torch and aims it down at an angel’s wing. Blue and orange flames lick at the encaustic surface for a few brief seconds. Then, putting the yellow canister down, she picks up the painting and tilts and moves it around until a blue thread of wax runs in lines that please her.
A rainbow of wax drippings and paint, the legacy of angels, waves, marshes and other paintings past, speckle her work table. Atop those splatters, pans of colored encaustic she’s mixed from beeswax, powdered pigment and resin simmer on a griddle. Dipping a brush into another tin, she drizzles more hot wax onto another one of the wooden panels that are her canvases.
Nearby a mysterious rusted pig, or at least a big chunk of it, lies on an adjacent table. The large piggy bank had resided—and rusted—in her Hilton Head yard for years, where it collected dollars from amused family and friends. Recently she’d broken it open, not for the cash (which had disintegrated) but for the flaky iron oxide she’d be brushing off its crust and incorporating into her angel encaustics.
Earlier when I drove up to big open doors of White’s garage studio and stepped out of my car, I came face-to-face with a large blue ocean wave she’d just finished. Immediately I was drawn into its depths. That’s the thing about art rendered in encaustic: It’s dimensional. This wave, like the sea itself, doesn’t lay flat but comes “splashing” out. Stand there long enough, and you can almost feel the mist off its breaking crest.
Beyond the big blue wave I could see that the studio was in disarray. Last time I’d stopped by, the space was devoted to White’s art.
Over the last five years her open-air workshop has been a fixture on this corner of Sea Pines, where art lovers and friends have casually dropped by to see what she’s creating. But today she, her husband, John, and son, Evan, are in the middle of packing for a move so the bays are stuffed with boxes and furniture awaiting transport to their new home a few oyster shell throws away from a marsh in Bluffton.
Taking a break from painting and packing, White parks herself on a stool to talk about the wild artistic ride she’s been on as galleries in Charleston and now Venice, Italy, as well as past and new customers clamor for her work.
[Local Life] Why beeswax?
[Pam White] Four years ago I fell backwards on the tennis court and broke both my wrists. I’m left-handed, and my left-hand break was worse than my right.
After three months of physical therapy three days a week, I had improved one percent in my wrist flexibility. I was devastated. I’d already learned encaustic at a class I’d taken at the Greenville Museum of Art, so I said to my husband, maybe working in wax is more forgiving than painting the detailed oil pieces I’d been doing.
I bought all the equipment — wax, pigments, shellac, carving tools, wood panels, griddle and blowtorch. But I found I couldn’t lift the canister of gas and press the on-switch at the same time. Instead, I needed to use both hands. It was really hard, but it became my physical therapy. That was the only thing that strengthened my arms enough. Later when I was strong enough to go back to painting in oil, I realized I was really in love with wax.
[Q] You’ve said your art career itself was born out of overcoming adversity.
[PW] Sixteen years ago I had cancer along with four pulmonary embolisms. I was weak and couldn’t do anything. At the time, I didn’t think I had a creative bone in my body, but I loved art. We’d been collecting art locally in Memphis where we lived at the time as well as when we traveled.
When I was recovering, John called up Terri Panitz, one of the artists we collected, and asked her to come to our home and give me lessons. Then once I felt I could leave the house, I took classes from a Memphis College of Art professor. She would make us take National Geographic magazines and using a cardboard viewer move it around an image until we found an abstraction to draw. I did the inside of a pine cone. She said “You’re an artist.”
[Q] In your angel art, you use rust as symbolism for life’s difficulties.
[PW] Everybody has a little rust in their lives. They’ve been through something, whether it be illness, financial burden, divorce, break-ups and the pandemic. But everyone also has gold in their lives too. So I start every angel canvas, except for those for babies, with rust and seal it with clear wax. Then I decide what I want to do and carve it back to reveal some of the under layers. Next I paint in my angels and carve in their hair. Toward the end, when I’m almost done, I mix dry gold pigment with wax and shellac and torch it to finish.
People will say to me, “Pam, I bought this angel from you and now my daughters each want one.” So they’ll send me their photos and they might say, “the middle one, the blonde, has a lot of rust in her life but she’s had gold, too.” So I add rust and gold accordingly. My philosophy is, despite the rust, let’s embrace the gold.
[Q] Your angels are ethereal but much of your work is about the ocean, the marshes, the rivers.
[PW] When I walk on the beach, except for when I’m doing trash duty [White is an ocean conservation advocate], I stay close to the water. I’m not looking for sharks’ teeth or shells. I’m looking through the waves and that calms me. And no, the waves aren’t the blue of my paintings but they are the clear white mist in the air coming off of them. I just want viewers to smell the salt water and see those little droplets come down as the water crests and say, my gosh that’s such a happy place. LL
LOCAL ART & POETRY
Hive by Jo Dye
Spring, Love and Honey
You know how
nice things in life
can be messy and tangled
Drenched in a gentle rain
Sinking into soft mud
soaked in the spring sun
plunge into love