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. One of my pals in nursery school rode his tricycle around on one of Jackson Pollack’s paintings.


I grew up in a very rural and beautiful part of Westchester County; at least it was then. I was close enough to the City so that in high school I could take the train into New York to take drawing classes at the Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts. I studied anatomy and drawing with Stephen Peck, and got my spending money by modeling at the art schools.


My first husband and I knocked around Europe, North Africa 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 the summer of 1975, before my senior year, I went to Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, and there met my second husband, Rackstraw Downes. We lived in NYC and in Maine.


Though our marriage lasted only a few years, 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 to come to her studio to give her a critique of some printings she was working on. I realized then that although they were more experienced as artists, we are always evolving.


I am deeply indebted to my friends, some of whom I am still very close to. The list is long. Red Grooms, Neil Welliver, Alex Katz, Bill Sullivan, Yvonne Jacquette, Rudy Burckhardt, Edwin Denby, Lois Dodd, Philip Pearlstein,  John Button, Rocky Sapp, John Yau, Gerrit Henry, Catherine Murphy, Jane Wilson, Richard Merkin, Don Perlis, Deanne Stillman, Tomar Levine, Anne Arnold, Phil Bailey, Richard Cooke, and Brice Hobbs who taught me the importance of honesty in drawing.


So many more supported me, especially when I was a single mother again. I was included in the milestone exhibition, “Figurative Art in New York”, and was mentioned in Hilton Kramer’s memorable review of it. Gil Einstein gave me my first solo show at his gallery, G.W. Einstein. He was a wonderful dealer, and he showed and sold most of my work for 20 years. All I had to do was paint.


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, and Robert Joy were among the talented actors who hung out at my studio on Greene Street and posed for me. I had remarried and had a second daughter, Eleanor Boynton. Both she and her sister, Tanyth Berkeley, are very talented and prolific artists.


In 1980 I was attacked by a dog, and lost the use of my right hand for more than a year. After micro surgery to reconstruct my severed nerves I was able to recover.  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 was able to control the brush and paint on a much larger and more aggressive scale. What had inspired me changed. I was now able to paint life sized humans in fantastic landscapes. I dressed up my actor friends in costumes and put them in various environments with animals and weather.  


Slowly, I have gained complete use of my right hand. I’m painting again all that inspires me. I’ve never been able to paint a straight still life or landscape. I’ve always needed to combine the imagery; throw in a dog or a gold fish or something alive.


I’ve received several  awards: the NY State Council for the Arts CAPS award; the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Art and Letters award.


In the 90’s I was invited to join the United Scenic Artist Union Local 829. I painted sets for films, TV and Broadway, and generally acted in the capacity of charge and camera scenic.


I moved to the Berkshires after the Towers fell in September 2001. I am remarried, live in the woods, and have a good life. I have been painting private commissions: murals; portraits of people, animals, homes and estates; fanciful scenes. Now my work is taking yet another direction. Still lifes, landscapes and animals, but something else in the light and shadows is drawing me. My work has been called “Magical Realism”. I’m not sure if that’s not just a catch phrase. The latest paintings seem to be painting themselves and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. What’s in them, the light, colors and shapes, the time of day, the weather, the seasons. Throw in a little trompe l’oeil... did I catch that prismatic rainbow?