What began as a private passion has turned into a public project for painter and philanthropist Pamela Sukhum ’93.
When Pamela Sukhum ’93 started painting, she did it in secret and as an escape. “I painted in the evenings and on the weekends; I painted before work,” she says. “It was like I had a secret lover. I would say I was going out for lunch, but I was really going home to paint.”
Her passion for painting began in the summer of 1996. Although she enjoyed her job as a researcher with a medical device company, “part of me yearned for something purely creative,” says Sukhum, who majored in biology at Carleton. So she picked up a how-to book on painting, and from her first brush stroke, she knew her life had changed. She took a leave from her job and spent that summer painting 12 to 15 hours a day.
After returning to work in the fall, Sukhum continued to paint obsessively in every spare moment, stacking canvases to the ceiling in her Minneapolis apartment. Some of the canvases she built were so large they couldn’t fit through the door, but that rarely mattered, because she wasn’t showing her work to anyone at that point.
Then a close friend’s death caused Sukhum to reassess her life. In 2003 she quit her job and has painted every day since, working in a studio in downtown Minneapolis. About 20 galleries across the country (and one in Dubai) carry her work, and her paintings are in private collections all over the world.
When she starts a new piece, she places the canvas on the ground—some are as large as 10 feet across, while others are much smaller—surrounds herself with pots of paints, and uses big brushes and palette knives to add colors. “I get completely out of the way and just become a vehicle [for the creative process],” she says. Next, she begins a weeks-long process of adding layers of detail, sometimes with brushes so fine they have just 10 bristles. This, she says, is like meditation.
Sukhum recently began holding public painting performances of the initial stage in her studio, at galleries, for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and even in the Minnesota governor’s mansion during a celebration of the building’s 100th anniversary. (A video about her artwork and story aired on PBS in fall 2012.)
Her finished work is unmistakable: Sukhum’s hallmark is deep textures, with light seeming to glow from behind the layers of paint. While inspired by nature, most of her work dwells somewhere between the abstract and the concrete. In her Natural Surrealism series, she paints rhythmic patterns of flowers—but what kind of flowers? Or are they, in fact, feathers? The questions her work inspires are intentional.
“My first paintings were detailed and tight, almost like I was trying to replicate something that already existed,” Sukhum says. “But I quickly realized that wasn’t why I wanted to paint. Painting, for me, represents freedom, so I decided to make it a constant practice of stepping into the unknown.”
That approach to her artwork has spilled over into other facets of her life. A John Muir quote—“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread”—inspired Sukhum to start the Beautiful Project in 2006, with its mission to empower underprivileged children and adults through the creation of artwork. She took the project to a refugee camp in Chad in 2007 and the Central African Republic in 2008–2009 with the support of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Working with partners who were already providing for refugees’ basic needs, Sukhum gave children and young adults paints and art supplies and encouraged them to draw their lives as they are now and as they hope they will be in the future.
Images created by the refugees were exhibited at Art Expo New York, and the program expanded in 2008–2009 to other refugee camps in Chad and the Central African Republic. With donor support, Sukhum and her team trained UNHCR and UNICEF staff to carry out the mission of the Beautiful Project in African regions to this day.
Sukhum also has expanded the Beautiful Project to work with children with Down syndrome in Atlanta, families in domestic shelters in the Midwest, and war veterans and low-income seniors in Minnesota.
In May 2013 she will unveil a mobile studio and gallery space in a 30-foot trailer with a foldout stage that will enable her to take the Beautiful Project on the road while still allowing her to paint and exhibit her own artwork with her partner galleries. Sukhum envisions painting, performing, and doing Beautiful Projects everywhere from national parks to inner cities across the United States.
“I figured the only way this could be possible is if I could bring my studio with me. So I just put everything on wheels.”
Talk about freedom.