Pamela Berkeley

Born in Biloxi, MS

Lives & works in Sheffield, MA

 

I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve always known what I wanted to do and have had really smart people around me to guide and encourage me. My parents were well educated bohemians, as were many of their friends. A friend of mine in nursery school rode his tricycle around on one of Jackson Pollack’s paintings.

I grew up in a rural and beautiful part of Westchester County, NY; at least it was then before becoming suburbanized. I was close enough to the NYC so that in high school I could ride the train into Manhattan to take drawing classes at the Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts. I got my spending money by modeling at the art schools and for local artists.

 My first husband and I knocked around Europe, Morocco, Colorado and the West Coast for a few years. I was widowed at 22, left with my infant daughter. It was then that I began to draw and paint seriously, and was able to support us by modeling and selling small paintings. I went back to college at Brown and Rhode Island School of Design, and received my BFA in painting and printmaking. In the summer of 1975, before my senior year, I went to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, and there I met my second husband, Rackstraw Downes. We lived in NYC and in Maine.

Our marriage lasted several years, and I met people whose work I had seen and had admired. In those days the art world was much different; much smaller and more intimate. I was impressed one day by Yvonne Jacquette asking Rackstraw and me to come to her studio to give her a critique of some paintings she was working on. I realized then that although we become more experienced as artists, we are always evolving.

As a single mother and artist, I am thankful for my friends, and am still close to many. Red Grooms, Alex Katz, Bill Sullivan, Catherine Porter, Catherine Murphy, Rudy Burckhardt, Edwin Denby, Lois Dodd, Yvonne Jacquette, John Button, Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson, Anne Arnold and Ernie Briggs, Richard Merkin, Rocky Sapp, Don Perlis, Marcia Clark, Margaret Grimes, Philip and Dorothy Pearlstein, John Yau and Garrit Henry. (The list is long! How grateful I am!) Some, sadly, are gone now.

I was included in 1977 in an important exhibition, “Figurative Art in New York”, and my work was mentioned favorably in Hilton Kramer’s memorable review of it in the New York Times. That year I had my first solo exhibit at the G.W. Einstein gallery, located first on the Upper East Side and later in SOHO. Gil Einstein was a wonderful dealer. He had the reputation of being the most honest person in the art world. He showed and sold most of my work for 20 years. He did everything: the solo shows, the group and traveling shows, the museum exhibitions and the advertising. He brought in the collectors and the critics. All I had to do was paint.

In 1980 I was attacked by a dog. My right hand and wrist were bitten through and paralyzed. After micro surgery to reconstruct my severed nerves I was able to recover and eventually to paint.  There were, however, limitations in that I could no longer do the small scale, tightly controlled still lifes of lace and fishbowls set in landscapes. I could, however, control larger brushes, and paint on a much larger and more aggressive scale. What had inspired me also changed. I was now able to paint life sized humans in fantastic landscapes.  I took some of the landscapes from the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History.

In SOHO, in the 70’s and 80’s, everyone knew each other. Harvey Keitel, John Lurie, Theresa Russell, John Malkovitch, Mark Metcalf, Willem Dafoe, Robert Joy and Isabella Rossellini were among the talented actors who hung out at my studio on Greene Street and posed for me. I dressed them up in costumes and put them in various environments with animals and weather.  

I got great reviews and my paintings (mostly) sold. I received several awards: the NY State Council for the Arts (CAPS) award; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Rauschenberg Foundation grant; and an award from the American Academy of Art and Letters award.

In the 90’s the stock market and art markets crashed, and my dealer became ill and the gallery closed. I was fortunate to be invited to join the United Scenic Artist’s Union, Local 829. I painted sets for films, TV and Broadway, and generally acted in the capacity of charge and camera scenic. It paid well, but I had little time or strength for my own work. This accounts for the gaps in my resume. Except for a few paintings, most of my work then was commissioned. Although there were many pieces, and good, they were not “mine” in the sense of my choice and so they are not included here.

And then The Towers fell.  The day before, September 10th, I was working on a painting on my Upper West Side rooftop, a still life of cornflowers. I was never able to finish it, but it was a good piece anyway. I gave up New York City because of the horror and the smell and moved up to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. I live in the woods and have a different life. My studio is small, so I paint much smaller works. I supported myself by doing commissioned works (mostly portraits) but most of my time went into caring for my mother who had dementia. After she passed away, I was again free to do my work. I remarried and have more time, and am happy now.

I exhibit at the Blue Mountain Gallery in NYC with friends I’ve known for a long time. It’s a cooperative gallery and the other artists are very accomplished. I exhibit and sell and sometimes work on a commission. The art world has changed, and so has my work to some extent, though the subject matter is similar to my earlier pieces. My main preoccupation in my paintings is the tension between the still life objects close to the picture plane and the distant imagery (landscape) that is the farthest away. I don’t have “backgrounds” in my work. Foreground imagery and what is behind are of equal importance, painted at the same time, side by side, and locked into each other. As tightly drawn as my work is, there are underlaying influences of my love of abstract painting, and ironically, yet more obviously, the Pre-Raphaelites, shown in the love of color, paint and brushwork. I paint with small red sable brushes and good oil paint using a limited palette, and I mix my own medium.

As sparing as I am, and careful with my tools and materials, I find myself saving up cash for brushes and paint. Good brushes, even small ones, are expensive! My husband Bill is continuing to work from home as a software developer. My Social Security and small pension go to town taxes, gallery dues, etc.. I would love to be able to purchase the materials I need, and maybe even go to Maine for a few weeks to paint by the sea again