By William L. Spence
For Inland 360
When Pullman artist Pamela Awana Lee attended college in the 1970s, it was the era of conceptual art.
Conceptual art is a movement in which the aim isn’t so much to produce a work of art as it is to come up with an artistic idea. The concept takes precedence over the actual making of the thing.
For example, Lee remembers one artist, Lawrence Weiner, whose concept was to cut a 2-inch wide, 1-inch deep trench across a driveway. That was the artwork. As she recalls, it actually sold, but she’s not sure if it was ever constructed.
Conceptual art, it turned out, wasn’t Lee’s thing. She ended up switching her major to psychology.
“I’m drawn to representational art, rather than non-representational,” she said in a recent interview. “I like the look of the material world. I’m fascinated by textures and colors.”
Having retired in 2018 after 32 years teaching art history at Washington State University, Lee is now a full-time artist. She said that’s the only situation in which she has full control over the world. For every drawing or painting, she decides what goes in and what stays out. She seeks to create layers of interest, ranging from the subject matter itself to the way objects are arranged, the use of light and shadow, even the posture of a cat.
It’s a very finite world, Lee said. But it goes far beyond mere concept.
“I want to make a world that people enjoy and want to look at again,” she said.
Lee’s work is on display at Colter’s Creek Winery in Moscow through May 15.
She described her style as “detailed representational,” meaning the compositions are realistic, but don’t replicate an actual scene.
Her Colter’s Creek exhibit, for example, includes a work entitled “Tacit Tango.” It shows a bird perched on a cat. Both appear to be stalking something outside of the frame.
The idea for the drawing came from the dead birds she would occasionally find around her feeder, killed by a neighbor’s cat. She wanted to change that dynamic by showing a different reality – a tango, rather than a life-or-death struggle.
Lee had the idea for a number of years, but waited until she found the right bird and right cat. She saw a photo of the bird – a Guam rail, which is nearly extinct in the wild – in a guidebook. The cat came from a cat encyclopedia she found in the WSU library.
She’s dipped into the cat book repeatedly over the years. The animals appear in many of her paintings, as do birds. The Colter’s Creek exhibit, in fact, is called “BirdCat,” since one or both species feature in almost every piece.
Lee has two indoor cats, but said she only uses them for detail work. She’ll get down on the floor and stare at them, to make sure she gets the eyes or whiskers right.
“My cats think I’m fascinated by them,” Lee said.
Some of her paintings and drawings also have a haziness about them, a fuzziness somewhat reminiscent of French post-Impressionist Georges Seurat’s pointillism style. She refers to it as an “atmospheric quality.”
“I’ve done a lot of work with sky in the background,” Lee said. “My sister-in-law said there are always clouds in my work. And yes, we are in the clouds. We may not recognize it, but we exist in sky.”
The comparison to Seurat doesn’t distress her, either. Growing up in the Midwest, her mother often took her to The Art Institute of Chicago to see one of Seurat’s most famous pieces, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”
“It’s one of my favorite artworks,” Lee said. “Every time you look at it you see different things.”
That’s a quality she aspires to with her own art.
“I’m very detail-oriented,” Lee said. “I like the challenge of drawing or painting something that’s hard. For me, that’s really satisfying. I want surfaces that are rich in detail. I want to make pictures that are interesting to look at over and over again.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “BirdCat,” an exhibit of work by artist Pamela Awana Lee.
WHEN: On display through May 15.
WHERE: Colter’s Creek Winery Moscow Tasting Room, 215 S. Main St.
OF NOTE: Hours are noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. In-house seating is limited and masks are required.