The Familiar Distance in Going Home: Visual Narratives by Pam Wallace Toll
“To have a whole life, one must have the possibility of publically shaping and expressing private worlds, dreams, thoughts and desires” Azar Nafisi
The red earth of western Oklahoma is still wedged behind my fingernails, embedded in my DNA, and situated in the fertile imagination of my childhood. Every few years, I drive west from North Carolina to stretch my eyes across those flat plains. These trips “home” still include seeing the remnants of my extended family in Oklahoma City, but my heart navigates towards places intrinsically linked to memory: Burnsflat, where my father graduated from high school; Dill City, where my mother’s family briefly owned a laundry; Anadarko, where we went to Pow Wow’s in the summer; Sulpher, where my sister and I swam in a pool that smelled like boiled eggs and Cordell, where I still drive the circuit around the county courthouse to our grandparents’ place next to Gib Giblet’s used car lot. I see trees bent permanently from relentless wind on the plain of tilled earth and the poetic relief of cottonwoods near the Washita River.
I was born in Stillwater, Oklahoma while my father was attending OSU on the GI bill. The maternal and paternal sides of my family grew cotton on tenant farms in the Washita River basin beginning in the late 19th century. My great grandfather, Voleny Meeks, came from Texas at high noon on April 22, in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Mom’s folks, my grandparents, lived with them. My father’s family, the Wallaces, migrated from Georgia westward through Texas birthing nine children in the many states along the way.
My creative practice and visual language derive from a childhood steeped in family story telling. In these oral narratives, the men discussed the outside world – sometimes dark but often full of humor. Grandpa (Deputy Sheriff) Meeks delivered dark but true tales to the grownups, while my sister, cousin and I camped out nearby, listening but unseen. PaPa Wallace and his bachelor brother Floyd spun humorous stories about farming and animals and, later, vignettes about their adventures as high school janitors. The women delivered their stories while snapping beans, shucking corn or washing dishes. They covered birth and dying, and everything in between, and laced the details with gossip. Some of the women were like artists to me, working with thread, seed sacks and other found fabrics to make quilts.
These family narratives and experiences defined my childhood and are the genesis of this body of work. I set out to make a memoir, but soon the paintings develop story lines of their own. Using as source material family and my own childhood photographs (I received my first camera when I was 12), I constantly move among memory, myth, and the present, between the spoken and the unsaid, and between the conscious and the unconscious. Both photographic and mental fragments seem to swim in chaos, and characters come and go. At some juncture, the painting begins to lead the narrative, with intuition and intention resolving the various impulses. All that I am and know merge in the paintings, and I become the storyteller.
Pam Toll, an Associate Professor at UNC Wilmington, received a BA in Art and English Literature from UNC Chapel Hill has been painting since childhood. Her studio is located at Acme Art Studios (Wilmington) which she co-founded in 1991, as a work and exhibition space for artists. She also co-founded No Boundaries International Art Colony (Bald Head Island, NC) in 1998, a residency program that in the last twenty years brought over 200 artists from around the world with the goal of creating a cross-exchange of cultures and artistic practices to share with our local community.
Solo exhibitions include Native Landscapes (2017), Water, Myths and Echoes (2016), both in Wilmington, NC, Dream Time, a solo exhibition, at the Palacio Albaicin in Noja, Spain (2010) and Excavation at the Cultural Arts Gallery, UNCW (2011), six weeks of live drawing inspired by art residencies in Macedonia.
Recent group exhibitions include Bljarica Art ,Marko K. Gregovic Gallery in Crena Komuna, Petrovac, Montenegro (2018), the 20th Anniversary Exhibitions for No Boundaries at Wilma Daniels Gallery and Acme Art Studios in Wilmington, NC (2017) The 30th Anniversary Exhibition of the International Art Colony St Joakim Osogovski, Macedonia (2016); She Tells a Story, Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC (2016); I am Woman, Cassoria Contemporary Art Museum, Naples, Italy (2015); Asolare Foundation Residency Exhibition, Lexington, NC (2015); KTO Karatay University International Science, Culture and Art Symposium IV Exhibition, Konya, Turkey (2014); Burren College of Art Residency Exhibition, Ireland (2013); Cromarty Arts Trust Residency Exhibition, Scotland (2013) and Art Pointe Gumno Residency Exhibition, Macedonia (2013).
In addition to work held in many private collections around the world, her work also resides in the following public collections: Bljarica Art Collection in Petrvac, Montenegro, Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC; Bald Head Limited Corporation, NC; Karatay University, Konya, Turkey; Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul, Turkey; Cromarty Arts Trust, Scotland; Casoria Contemporary Art Museum, Naples, Italy; Art Pointe Gumno and St. Joakim Osgovoski, both in Macedonia; Simposio Internacional de Artistas en Noja, Spain.
Commissions include the design of ten stained glass windows for B’Nai Temple in Wilmington, NC (2014). Service projects include participation since 2007 in Paint a Future, a foundation that realizes children’s dreams for a brighter future through collaborative paintings based on their dreams and leadership of a mural project, designed and painted by art students from UNCW, at the Good Shepherd Homeless Shelter, Wilmington, NC (2017).