July 2020  Vol. 1, No.1

The Sophisticated Innocence of Pam Smilow

Red moons, White Tree

Mixed media on canvas

54” x 84"

Picasso once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Perhaps the salvation of Pam Smilow was the pivotal decision not to go to art school. She grew up in a creative and inspiring milieu of art & design in the famous Frank Lloyd Wright Usonia community in Pleasantville, New York. Her father was a renowned modern furniture designer and a trailblazing business man who marketed his own work. Her mother, a Holocaust survivor from whom Smilow believes she learned to carry empathy, fostered arts & crafts at home. Despite a childhood steeped in art, and having had the benefit of an excellent high school level art program, she chose to study French at the University of Michigan. While she did take a few art courses while in France, this fateful decision allowed her to maintain her own independent vision and creativity, unencumbered by the tastes and demands of others. She stayed free. She did not have to find her own voice. She always had it.

Yellow Spruce Series

Mixed media on canvas

54” x 80"

At people’s house

Her work sustains an element of playfulness, comparable to Paul Klee’s unencumbered vivaciousness. Smilow’s use of color and imagery transmit idyllic emotion, a form of tenderness. Each picture plane has just the right tone. The same way Miles Davis sought to find the tone center with his horn and changed jazz, Smilow’s expressiveness resonates like sound and color. Her two-dimensional picture planes radiate with brilliance into a multi-dimensional realm. Yet, each painting evokes subtlety, a form of natural innocence. Her paintings are filled with objects, shapes and imagery that, as she stated, reflects “Things in my own world, my vocabulary, things I notice. Sometimes a boat, or trees or other objects, some of which have been in my thematic since childhood.” She defines her art as “primitive, whimsical, filled with material elements.” The result is joyous and magical.

Signs Series: Beige and Pink with Butterflies

Mixed media on canvas

54” x 84”

Tree of Life Series: Turquoise Green

Mixed media on paper

60” x 22”

She states, “I am an intuitive painter. I don’t always know what I am going to do before I start. Sometimes I start without consciously thinking. I like to work in series and I often stay in the same color family. I like to improvise”

Smilow, who lives and works in Manhattan, is unconventional in both her creative approach and in business. She is a successful, self-supporting artist of considerable national and international stature, whose marketing activities are predominately not based on the gallery model. While she participates in gallery shows, her primary income is derived from direct sales to clients. She also does not apply for grants. Over decades she has built a successful business while thinking outside of standard norms. Her network of clients is international and nationwide, from New York to Chicago to California and Texas. She works with interior architects and designers and holds some very practical approaches to art, “I want my work to find the right home. I intend to fit a space, to pick and create environment.” This approach is usually that of an interior designer. That understanding of the “place and space” has helped her be successful, but her art is not mere decoration. Her commitment to her soul is uncompromising. Her paintings are transformative dreamscapes, abstract, visionary and powerfully expressive. Complicated, yet simple. Not made for commerce, but to lift sensibilities and emancipate the spirit. Smilow has a simple mission: “There is so much pain in the world, I want to bring joy.” People understand it. This sensible bridge between the artist and the buyer has allowed her to make a living as a fine artist in a time when that accomplishment is harder and harder to attain. She is a survivor, independent and strong.

Midnight Blue

Mixed media on canvas

54” x 77”

Red and Green Composition with House, Chair and Boat

Mixed media on canvas

55” x 86"

Her late husband, the renowned Danish artist Gert Mathiesen, was her partner in life and work for twenty-five years. Mathiesen and Smilow were inseparable, sharing studio space and inspiring each other and marketing their art together. She recalled, “Gert was fearless, ambitious and unconventional. I was more restrained, free, but in a more quiet way. Our aesthetic was similar. Gert had a ‘The sky is the limit’ approach. He gave me confidence to trust in myself.” The creative partnership allowed each artist to follow their own direction. Their art was different stylistically, but similar in the absolute freedom and emancipation from external dictates.

 

Boat, Four Moons

Mixed media on canvas

48” x 78"

Green Houses

Mixed media on canvas

52” x 83"

In rapid succession, Smilow lost her mother, sister and husband. Her children live nearby in New York City, but now she lives alone in her Manhattan apartment where she also has her studio. During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic lock-down, alone and isolated, not able to visit loved ones, she could take refuge and get fresh air on her rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Yet, the effects of being sequestered, and the loneliness, triggered a change. For decades, she has stayed within a certain style that could be loosely placed in the abstract expressionism realm. Now, in these isolating times, her artistic expression transmuted and she surprised herself with a major artistic change. She had a visitation-dream when she met her deceased sister. That next day she decided to paint a portrait, which then culminated in an entire series of large portraits of family and people she loved, her husband, children, even the Obamas, as an antidote to the current political climate. Her new series find her as a portrait artist, although as unconventional and free as ever.

Through it all, she declared, simply, “I focus on positivity.” Lucky thing she grew up and remained an artist.

Manhattan apartment  studio

Portrait

83" x 36"

Portrait

83" x 36"

Frank Matheis
Writer. Photographer. Producer.


Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.