When I was younger with kids at home, there were days when the heat of South Carolina, which normally just lay on you like a suffocating stillness, took a turn. When I sensed the change I’d grab them both and we’d walk and run and skip to the end of the street across from the bay. Though we couldn’t feel it six houses away, some force in that spot gathered up the breezes from the water and spun them by their tails, and we’d stand with our faces upturned and our arms stretched wide so that as much of our bodies as possible could catch that magic and let it run right through us in an unexpected gift of renewal.
I spotted these six sisters on a walk yesterday. They’re watching and pulling for us, and I’m pulling for them too.
There are those who ask me why I love to travel. In a few words: the exploration, the reversion to a simple and spare life, the crisp solitude of being alone in a new culture and unfamiliar language. Quite simply, stripped of my accustomed ways of being, I open my eyes and see. I remember who I am (and who I am not) and redefine the ways I want to experience my finite number of years. Travel sets me free to choose anew and gives me focus.
Below are a few things I’ve learned about myself during a cultural immersion week in Orvieto, Italy, and a handful of images to remind me when I’m tempted to give in to big city ways and forget.
I Want to Live a Life
I want to live a life on the edge — a life between consciousness and culture, between solitude and community, with easy access to the gifts of both.
I want to live a life where city walls both shield and embrace, but also beckon me past my accustomed boundaries.
I want to live a life engulfed in scents and tastes and textures, with visual surprise around every corner, be it a new village or a just-unfurling jasmine bud.
I want to live a life where the strong and stalwart and majestic serve as constants for the fragile, a land where the porosity and lightness of stone do nothing to diminish its fortitude.
I want to live a life where both the dead and the living are honored, and joyously — a life where Etruscan tombs from 400 BC sit beneath the waving of wild cherries, and a waiter from lunch three days ago will wave you down in the lane for a smile.
A life where it’s okay to say hello to anyone you pass, to acknowledge life wherever it exists, including your own.
I want to live a life on many levels, from the surety and abundant offerings of ground and field to the communal path, the surprise and joy of rooftop gardens, the soaring art on soaring cathedrals to cotton ball skies and Jupiter shining above the lane after dinner in Charlie’s gardens.
I want to live a life where children in gingham smocks gather magnolia leaf bouquets and squeal with delight, where song is a part of every day’s curriculum, where physical safety is a given.
I want to live a life as many-layered as this cypress, this town, these rooftops.
I want to live a life with as much community as these vibrant streets and as much peace as these convent gardens.
I want to live a life as broad as this vista, completely unbounded by my psyche and conventions, my habits and my fears. I want a life with such clarity and vision that all of my options are recognizable.
I want to live a life where unexpected joy exists stunningly, and sometimes consists only of a gathering of simple greenery. Where the breezes dance, where the air is cool and clear and food holds the tastes of sunshine, rain, and origin.
People ask me why I travel. I travel to pull myself out of daily habits and rituals that keep me from growth. I travel to empty and refill my soul, to recapture moments that makes my heart beat faster.
So Go. See. Assimilate. Love It Up and let it make you better. And do whatever it takes to sear those images and awakenings onto your heart for the days ahead. Take photos. If there’s one thing I’ve learned taking 57 million photos of life, it’s this: turn around. From every position, there are at least two views, and they will constantly surprise you.
P.S. I’m very blessed to be traveling for six weeks in Italy and Ireland. Endless thanks to Adventures in Italy for giving me the fabulous opportunity to teach, to the loving and adventurous group that accompanied me to Italy, to Olive Stack Gallery in Listowel Ireland for gifting me an entire month to explore and create, to the inimitable and wondrous Olive herself, and to Laura McRae Hitchcock, best residency partner on the planet. You can read more about my Irish adventures for the month of June at https://exciraanddelira.wordpress.com. Love to All!
My daughter arrived on Wednesday, creating a little hurricane in my carefully organized room, and isn’t that what we all need? Someone to stir the pot, to rustle us from the same old, to say “no” to our plans and shoulder us into the new?
She was ten when we first came here together, posing beneath the miniature Statue of Liberty in Luxembourg Gardens and dressed all in purple and pigtails. She won’t let me show the photo and she knows a secret: Honor the past, but don’t let it define you. I need to remember that myself.
Dressing this morning, she pulled a straw-like and scythe-shaped grey hair from her locks and held it toward me. I told her it didn’t belong there and not to worry; it had most likely blown off the weathered head of a boat captain as we walked along the Seine last night. Another gift from getting outside your self. He knows secrets too, but we decide to only imagine them.
So I’m wandering down an empty lane thinking about how I’ve gotten myself into a place where time has me by the short hairs when I glance up and suddenly burst out laughing, quite alone and suddenly quite relaxed to spot my feelings so blatantly displayed for all to see. How likely is it that someone would have taped up this clock and dropped it onto my path on the very day I’m feeling overloaded? Strapped for time, that’s me, and a big thank you to the universe for letting me laugh it out in a big way.
I’m not sure about the nature of time. I know we all want more of it, but we’re quick to specify that we want *this* kind of time and not *that* kind of time. More time with those we love, and less time paying bills. More time to learn and create, and less time studying for finals. More time to savor a good meal and less time standing in supermarket lines. Of course there are a few enlightened souls among us who can make the most of the lines and the numbers and the tests and find joy there, but mostly we tend to bargain with time — this for that — rather than changing the way we experience it.
Like most, I experience change and attribute many of those changes to the passage of time. But how often have we said “it’s as if time stood still?” So change isn’t dependent on time, and time doesn’t always equal change. If I allot eight hours and fifteen minutes to a flight, I can walk the streets of Paris instead of Charlotte’s, but can I not *feel* Paris in an instant on any day of any year? And I can guarantee you that I’m able to dedicate eight hours to writing a proposal and get absolutely nothing of value accomplished. So honestly, the concept of time is pretty wishy washy, and how can I hold myself so accountable to wishy washy?
Let’s say I have ten great years left, and fifteen good ones, and five glad-to-be-here years. As a girl, my dad was really big on the Ten Year Plan, and he was always asking us about ours. At 25, I figured I was young enough to feel my way through it. At 60, planning my next Ten Fabulous Years has become high priority. Fortunately I’ve learned along the way that life can be pretty much exactly what you make it, and I love that daily creation.
Except for the unexpected. Never discount the unexpected. After 50, always eat dessert first. Don’t put aside your hopes and dreams.
So I’m going to look at this giant banded clock another way. Instead of Time wrapping her arms tight around me and demanding a response, I think I’ll tie these big blue bands around *her* for a week and breathe, dream, plan, and grab my joy. Sometimes You Gotta.
I try my best to remember how long it’s been since I traveled alone. Where I went, when I last felt this blossoming possibility of quietly intense discovery, the possibility of returning to the pulse so firmly silenced by the minutiae of days upon days of falling further behind with every tick of the clock. Melodrama, and yet the truth of it eats away at me.
I’m certain there are bad meals to be had in Paris, and certain that the odds are good on a street just off the plaza in front of Notre Dame, but the dressing on my salad of bright greens and deep purples is as light and crisp as air, and the generous slice of quiche is so breathy and moist that, having baked a gazillion quiches in my life, I can’t imagine what alchemy has gone into this one, how the maker has combined eggs and cream and cheese and ham and crust to bring forth a meal totally unlike what I know as quiche. And it strikes me how life is like this: how often we look in the same direction we’ve always looked, grabbing the same materials to create a life day after day. I am a mix of A, B, C, and D, and that mix creates X. Why do I so rarely see that ABCD can create P just as easily? How are we clear-eyed and blind simultaneously?
I’ve come to Paris to meet my daughter, who’ll be reviewing hotels. But I’ve arrived a few days early to get my bearings on my own terms first. It was a stroke of genius, but the timing is awful. I’m hopelessly behind on several deadlines, struggling with remnants of the flu, and I’ll return amidst frenzied preparations for our biggest event of the year.
And yet, of course, the timing is perfect, coming as it does at the moment before implosion. I’m at a tipping point, and I desperately need the space and time to reinvent. How much easier it is to take the hard looks and consider alternatives surrounded by strangers instead of those we don’t want to disappoint. How much easier it is to imagine change when everything I see is already a drastic departure from my everyday.
The girl at my left has managed all of her salad, a slab of French bread, and at least 4/5 of her enormous quiche. She sips randomly on a lemonade, an ice water, and a glass of white (not bothering to choose only one), scrolling her phone and smoking in the breezy sunlight. A couple several tables over pays and stands up to leave, the woman becoming louder and louder as she speaks with agitation to the owner. I can’t/don’t-want-to hear her, don’t want to know if she is French or American or Other, don’t want to wonder what stuck in her craw on this gorgeous day of freedom and light. She leaves and we all shake it off and try to move back to ourselves.
So what will it be Pam? In the last 37 hours of flight and flu recovery, I’ve slept 16 hours, read a 451 page book, eaten two meals, and downed 8 cups of tea. I’m primed. Let’s get to it.
The walls are not actually white, but a not totally unpleasant pale taupe. The sheets are white, though I supplement them with a blue and white geometric print comforter, which I remove from the closet, unfold, and put back at the foot of the bed every time the aides fold it up and put it away. And it’s true, he is warm, and the room is warm, but I know he likes it this way, and I know the blue and white comforter has been on his bed since 1978, and it’s pretty and ordered and architectural and civilized, and he would like that, not to mention the whole normal-life-ness of it all.
If he could see beyond the blue and white comforter folded over the footboard, he could look beyond to the grinning cherry-lipped sock monkey sitting on the desk, and behind him the full-size French flag pinned to the wall. The flag is new. Not new but newer, and still the red edges which hang toward the floor are a fringed jubilee of red threads from so many summers high atop the rafter at the peak of the beach house, burnished by the sun and whipped into a Marseillaise frenzy by seabreezes and Northeasters and summer suns. Our older version, which we still have, split into thirds at the color joins one winter, the white section ripped completely apart. My father sewed a white pillowcase between the blue and the red and ran it right back up the pole, undeterred, until one of us gifted him the new version, which was perhaps less fitting but rather more socially acceptable among some of the less imaginative locals.
The drawings that fill the walls are black on white, an aging white that claims an “I’ve been around the block and I’m still the best looking gal you’re liable to lay eyes on” cachet, and it’s true. The houses, varied and elegant and in no way restrained, are all hand drawn (“there is no art in a straight line,” my father said), and show evolutions of design and clientele and becoming and grabbing back and unleashing again. Above them is a long rectangular work made my grandmother, a Paris art student who spent her later years tearing up perfectly nice books to make collages that are rather stunning.
The large and exuberant artworks on the not-quite-white walls were made by his children, of which I am one, and framed and hung and moved from house to house and office to office by my father over the course of 49 years. That’s love, or at least the love I know.
And so the room is not very white. I won’t let it be white. But white is for beginnings and I see them everywhere here: the once blank pages, laundered and bleached sheets warm from the dryer, the cord for the call button, the slats of blinds that let in or keep away the light.
There are moments when he looks like he’s praying, and you might think prayer is white, but I think not.
I wonder if there is enough to hold him here, but he was never one to walk away from a challenge, or sit quietly. Never one to be bored or tired or to say “I’ve done it all” because when you’re game to take on the world, there’s always always more and backing away is never even a smidgeon of a thought. And you can say, “but there is fatigue,” but I’ve never seen that, or any kind of “been there done that” because creators can’t not create, can’t stop making the world new and bright and more than it was.
Some find it hard to wait in rooms like this, to watch and breathe the breaths and count the seconds between, to dampen the forehead and smooth the ruffled hair, to watch the face I’ve known for 60 years morph through the day from the rattling of an 86 year old man with pneumonia to a man of 40 taking a 20 minute rest between the morning feat and the afternoon magnificat. The familiar snore that might stop of a sudden with an abrupt sitting and then a booming voice and jubilant invitation to walk the beach or lay a terrace or thrust fingers into fresh-boiled crabs or hoist a kite.
The pillow is white. His hair is white. His breath comes in staccato bursts that punctuate the Rachmaninoff like a practiced bow. The watching and holding of a heart is joyous, and not unlike the watching of his children as they slept in early days, or my mother through her final nights. This man who almost never slept is sleeping, and I watch, and I’m not sure what this is like, other than a heart breaking.
Fifteen years ago I bought a house with white walls, which had come into vogue again and were shown in all the crisp magazines. I whitewashed the floors and gave it a good go, but within a week I had bought paint in pretty greens and set about glazing the walls until they sang, or perhaps more accurately, until I sang. It’s funny that we can love something without being able to live with it.
One day soon, and perhaps tonight but no longer than next week, the room in which I sit and he lies will be white again. Not because I have removed the colors of a life but because he is gone, with his fully-feathered largeness and 86 years of stories. There are little breaths now in my ears — a soundtrack of life. They sit with me while I wait outside the door during changes or turnings, and sing with me while I walk to the end of the hall and back to get the blood moving.
It’s funny how many times you can think, “He’ll be fine as soon as we can get him home.”
For Sherman Pardue, 1929 – 2015, child of New Orleans, who loved my mother and his, architecture, travel, music, New Orleans and French cuisine, furniture design and fabrication, cooking and family, spending many weeks of the year sitting on the lawn of the family home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. He was a spirited pianist, playing entirely by ear, a prolific writer, a determined gardener, and a lover of fish ponds, designing and building them for every home of every family member throughout his life. He took joy in everything he did, researching the process and going at it full throttle, as comfortable laying bricks and digging drainage ditches as taking pencil to paper and designing estates or writing poetry. He shared his love of exploration, both territorial and philosophical, with his children and grandchildren, and was delighted when his eldest grandchild Jason followed him into the field of architecture. He studied at NC State School of Design and Harvard, attending small groups with Frank Lloyd Wright and studio sessions with Buckminster Fuller, and received a national award for Classical Design in 1992.
Because spring is too lovely for hard hearts, because it is the ninth anniversary of my mother’s death, because I buried a mother-in-law last week, and because my father lies dying too slowly of advanced dementia paired with cruelly efficient good health, I’m going to tell you a story. It has nothing to do with a pink sweater or a nine inch blade, but there are sticks involved.
When I was a girl, our weekends were always the same: an hour or so of hard labor behind the wheelbarrow, tracing a familiar path from garden to street and back again before my sister and I were set free to play in the neighborhood for the long idylls of childhood. I can’t remember whether or not I grumbled, but I do remember loving the vast oasis that my parents created in our modestly-sized yard. As soon as I had my first patch of dirt, nothing could stop me from transforming it, even though it was a scrappy bit behind a two bedroom condo on a busy street. In went the brick terrace and planting bed walls and matching semicircles on each end, laid as my father had taught me, and using scavenged brick, which is always, somehow, the prettiest. I learned the name of every plant I saw and sank the sweetest into the tiny two foot wide beds, and to be honest, the hours spent there were the best part of my introduction to marriage — working together to create something lovely.
I was an odd child, and my parents worried about me. Far too quiet, they were never entirely certain what was going on with me and I consistently refused to spill, never learning to love the sound of my own voice when there were so many deeper, richer, more exquisite voices to attend to: leaves rustling in the wind, clear water spilling over mossy stones, or whispery moments of tender stillness. As I grew, my passions fell into categories like: You Can’t Make a Living at That or Pam, Don’t They Teach Anything at Duke That You Could Put on a Resume? And so the Dreamer/Watcher/Seer/Knower/ became a woman of immense awareness and modestly practical skill sets who still runs on quiet passion and an infinite belief that anything is possible.
And so it happened that I recently spent many days in preparation, scouting perfect malleable fresh and willowy newly spring-trimmed branches of hornbeam, cherry, redbud, crape myrtle, and ligustrum, loading them into a truck with my partners in crime, hauling them home and stacking them to the size of a small cabin, and then taking each in hand and clipping every side branch of every stick until each inch was long and lithe enough to slide unfettered into new life.
On Sunday we eased them back into the truck and Laura and her boys delivered them to the gallery, all in lovely bundles tied with white bows and standing coyly against the brick like wallflowers hoping for the next dance. On Monday, a bevy of us gathered around the welded frame created by our friend and partner Amy, and began to circle and consider and select and place, which just happens to perfectly match my non-paying skill set. Most came by for an hour and stayed for three or four. Passersby stopped and gladly accepted a branch to place. A news videographer finished filming a same-old event two blocks up, made his way back to us, and bemusedly asked question after question as he added his own pieces to the whole. A gentleman in a hurry made sure we knew he’d like an extra bedroom added on, and that in exchange, he’d build the brick terrace. In herringbone please.
So yes, on March 30 I spent a day doing all those things that pay nothing and yet have made me who I am today, considering and placing, building and creating something where there was nothing before. It’s what I do; it’s who I am, and it may not look like much (“Every time I look at her she’s staring out the window,” a co-worker once said), but isn’t that how the universe is born? Brick and mortar, leaf and bloom, novels and poetry and art (we are all masters) all begin with staring out the window for hours at a time, and then it begins, twig by twig to masterwork.
And to be honest, of course, I’m no Patrick Dougherty. But I’ve become, in some small way, a bit of a stick whisperer, as have the many Ciel artists, family members, and strangers who’ve worked alongside us to birth an idea for the simple joy of creation. This was, in short, one of the best days I’ve spent — under glorious skies side by side with those I love in both body and spirit. But it was more. It was a deep and powerful and abiding connection with my childhood Saturdays, with the attention and joy embedded in the gardens created from scratch by my mother and father and mother-in-law. I know my mom is shaking her head just a tiny bit at what is aptly called a folly, but I know it feeds her joy just as it feeds mine, and I know my father is placing twigs alongside me and showing me how to frame the arch above that window. And even though it hurt to be without them on March 30, I know they were there with me, and we were all happy to be making something pretty on a beautiful day.
I’ve always been a believer in signs and wonders. Sure the signs are written in cryptic scribbles and wonders are all-too-often mirage-like. I know I saw this yesterday . . . didn’t I? Or was that the day I had three desserts for lunch? Nevertheless I work to recognize them, roll them around in my consciousness, and act … always the hard part. But the universe tends to take care of our reluctances and procrastination as well, usually by giving us first multiple signs, then several open doors, and finally a whack over the head. And honestly, don’t we sometimes need it?
In the early spring of 2006, my mother died after an all-too-brief and wholly-unexpected illness. She left me some money, also wholly unexpected, and over the next couple of weeks, a small studio in the arts district of Charlotte became available. It was a mess, and therefore a blank slate, and of course as it follows, completely irresistible. I had never considered running an art gallery, but there it was, and I happened to know all too well that mosaic art was often overlooked and in dire need of exposure. Ciel Gallery was born of an intersection of fate, opportunity, and need. Taking that unanticipated step, a step that had never once wandered around in my what-to-do-with-this-life wallowings, changed my life. And it changed me.
I’ve always reveled in behind the scenes work, creating in the low digit hours after midnight, wordsmithing the minutiae of contracts, or divining the exact intersection of visual and mental in graphic design. I’m the worker horse, never the face. Opening a business, and a cutting edge business at that, demanded more of me than I ever considered giving, and skills I would have been quite happy never to develop. But I did it, and it wasn’t as scary, in the end, as all that.
In 2008 I opened a gallery called Ciel, and I grew as a person and artist by leaps and bounds. In 2011, Ciel grew to include five partners and a brilliant new space, bringing in an all-star cast of visiting artists for workshops, hosting critically acclaimed exhibitions such as the Emma Biggs-curated Pattern Now, and coordinating the 52-artist mosaic mural Unfurled with Lin Schorr. I don’t care what others think about Ciel’s run — it knocks my socks off.
In true Pam fashion, I gave a lot of thought to the next step, but when it came, again it was universe-orchestrated. As of March 2014, Ciel Gallery + Mosaic Studio will become Ciel Gallery, A Fine Art Collective, with seven Member Partners, thirteen Member Artists, and a handful of consigners from North and South Carolina. Our new partner base is hugely talented in a variety of media, excited, generous, brimming with ideas, YOUNG and energetic.
I am thrilled and excited for a new venture. Of course it’s been bittersweet, and not without lingering moments of the unsettledness that bleeds from giving up your identity and wondering if there is a “next.” I know Ciel will thrive. I know the mosaic community now has ample opportunities for exhibition, and that I have had a part in that expansion. I know the Charlotte community and visitors will revel in greater access to local artists, and the art-hungry will thrill to offerings from new teachers. We’ll still feature mosaics of course, and we’ll still bring in visiting artists, but mosaic will no longer be isolated from other artforms. A good thing.
I worry about losing touch with the artists who’ve become close friends over the years, and who have, in so many ways, created Ciel right along with me. I feel angst about deserting a community that has made me who I am today, but at the same time, I’ve watched you all become superstars, and I’m excited to have new conversations about design and technique, or Gaudi and zellige instead of pixels and tracking numbers. And speaking of tracking numbers . . . NO MORE TRACKING NUMBERS! No more Box Room! No more trips to Office Depot for 50 more rolls of packing tape!
Instead of packing boxes and the daily details of gallery-running, I’m giddy at the idea of more art and more writing in my life. I’m thrilled with the growth of Mosaic Art Retreats and upcoming mosaic travel to Barcelona, Morocco, Costa Rica, France, Italy, and Greece. And over the moon with the beauty of Unfurled, my first and hopefully only-the-beginning collaborative public art project with Lin Schorr and 52 fabulous participating artists.
I’ll still be at the gallery weekly, still educating art lovers about the fabulous art of mosaics, still planning and hanging exhibitions and dreaming up new ways to infuse the universe with art. I’ll also be actually making art, spending time with my dad, cooking a bit, and maybe even jumping in the car for an impromptu visit to Asheville (or Creemore or Michigan or Sedona) with my guy.
So you’ll still know where to find me. What neither of us knows is exactly who I’ll be next time, because the universe may have a few more unexpected paths lying in wait. And I will walk them. With bells on.
Endless love to all who have supported Ciel (and me) through all our incarnations. Please stay with us for the rest of the ride. Paths diverge and reconnect. Never goodbye.
A young man came into the gallery one day and, like many, stood with his mouth agape staring at the art on the walls. “What is this?” he asked. “It’s mosaic!” I answered with a smile. “Well how do you make it? Where do you get all these little pieces of glass?” “We cut them,” I said with a little glow. “Cut them? You mean you have to cut every one of these pieces?” “Yes,” I said. “Every piece.” “Oh man,” he said. “Why would anyone do this? There’s got to be a way to streamline this process. Somebody needs to sell the glass already cut. Doesn’t anyone sell pre-cut glass?” “Well, possibly,” I said, “but then I wouldn’t be interested.”
And there you have the answer in a nutshell. I make mosaics because it’s hard.
During the monthly and often weekly classes I teach, new students will often take on a familiar stricken look when they first start cutting. I tell them to relax and cut for the pleasure of exploration — that making mosaics means learning the love to process. And the process is hard.
Some might say I like a hard life in general. I’m a good one for trudging through the minutiae of a situation, considering every possibility, and then selecting the most time and soul-consuming avenue. To me, this simply equates to actually living my life rather than just going through the motions. It’s the same way with cooking, planning, picking out (and decorating) a Christmas tree, traveling, thinking, loving, and art. Either I do it to the max, or I don’t do it at all. Otherwise, what have I gained? What have I given?
I love mosaic art. I love the interplay of color. I love the dancing of light. I love the intention of andamento and the way it makes your eyes move. I love the heft of a piece, and not only the weight of its gathered materials, but the sum of thought and labor involved. I love the antiquity of the artform and the accumulated labor of so many who have labored before me. But most of all, I like the slow, intentional, repetitive, considered and exacted repetition and thrill of determining the perfect cut, achieving it, and fitting it into place to create, many hours and days and weeks and sometimes months later, a piece of art that demanded and received my full attention — my full passion.
One of my favorite mantras is from the movie “A League of their Own,” when Gina Davis admits that something is hard. Tom Hanks (isn’t it always Tom Hanks?) says “Of course it’s hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The Hard is what makes it Good.” He’s so right.
It’s a funny thing about “easy.” There are many things that I do because they are “easy” for me, like sorting or folding laundry or unloading the dishwasher or writing a press release — I can have them done in the time it takes to think “oh — I should do this.” Accomplishment is a powerful feel-good, and we can rack up way more of the easies than the hards. But does that make them good? Well, no. None of my easies will ever make it to my Very Favorite Things list.
But give me something hard: determining and creating the ideal ratio of perfect cuts to “human touch” in art, cooking the (very) occasional meal that takes alllllllll day, raising a child, or growing the balls to be my fullest self, and I’m all over it.
So yeah. I love mosaic because it’s damn hard. I think we all need to love and engage in something that tests us, that pushes us flat up against the wall and says, “Do your best. Now.” What tests you? And what do you love about it?