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Bristol artist makes her mark with multicultural Madonnas

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BRISTOL ARTIST PAMELA Smith will be exhibiting several of her large-scale, papier-mâché creations at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore as part of a year-long show.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell


August 10, 2007

By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — Papier-mâché sculptures of the Madonna, usually dressed in clothes native to Nepal, graced Bristol’s Main Street in the window of Folkheart for years until the store closed at the beginning of this year.

For many in town they were one set of unique Christmas decorations among many, but to their creator, Pamela Smith, they meant a lot more. To the 56-year-old Bristol resident the sculptures are a way to honor motherhood, which she feels is underappreciated in our culture.

“If you’re having a child, the most important job is to raise that child so that they’re healthy, mentally and spiritually,” Smith said. “We all come from a mother, and I think that we need to give them credence.”

So far she has made the Madonnas for her own family or for her family’s store, but Smith will soon receive some outside recognition: Smith took five sculptures to Baltimore over the weekend, where they will be exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum as part of the “All Faiths Beautiful” exhibition, which will open Oct. 6 and continue until August 2008.

Smith said the papier-mâché sculptures were inspired by paintings of the Virgin Mary she saw while on a family trip to Ecuador about 15 years ago. She has made one almost every year since 1994. Her interest in the theme began when she became a mother herself (Smith’s eldest child, Zim Pickens, is 27) and the experience made her think about what motherhood really means.

“When you don’t have a monetary reward, you don’t feel as valued, but that’s really skewed,” Smith said.

For years, Smith’s daughter Sophie Pickens, 22, worked with her mother on the Madonnas. In the early years Sophie would simply suggest a detail like cutting up a dress to make a lacy blouse for one sculpture, but she contributed more and more as she got older.

“On the later ones, I did more of the legwork,” Sophie said.

Smith said that her daughter’s input has been valuable on many of the pieces, making them a team effort. “We’re really good at collaborating,” she said. “I’d have an idea, and we’d explore it together.”

Smith submitted pictures of her work for consideration on the advice of friends and former Folkheart customers. “People used to come in the store and they had been to the museum and said ‘They would love your stuff,’” she said.

At first, Smith couldn’t believe she had been accepted. “I was stunned, really stunned … It’s a very happy occasion.”

One of the five sculptures she will exhibit was made specifically for this show. Called “Holy Mother,” it is a Madonna like her other sculptures, but the woman’s face has African features over her bauble-encrusted Nepalese dress. Smith said the “All Faiths Beautiful” exhibition is intended to celebrate the diversity of world religions, and she thought a mix of Christian, Buddhist, and African symbolism would perfectly embody the goals of the show.

Like all artists featured at the American Visionary Art Museum, Smith is self-taught. She had taken a class on painting around 1990, which also had a focus on the Virgin Mary, but she learned sculpture mostly just by practice.

Her sculptures began with a frame made of chicken wire, which she covered with a layer of masking tape. She would then apply about five layers of papier-mâché — the strips of flour-and-water-coated paper that many people first experience in nursery school — to the body, followed by a layer of paint. All Madonnas are also clothed or painted in a style native to Nepal, Bali, or another Hindu culture and festooned with intricate beads, feathers, costume jewelry and more.

Most of the Madonnas also included a baby, except for some who are depicted pregnant. Making the baby usually belonged to Smith’s daughter. “That was our tradition,” Sophie said.

Most of the Madonnas took Smith about two months from start to finish. The piece called “Holy Mother,” though, was completed in about half that time to have it ready for the show. She was still putting the finishing touches on it a couple days before it was taken along with the others to Baltimore.

“This one, I had to do in high gear,” Smith said.

Smith did not start the family tradition of artistic expression. She said that her mother was a painter and always encouraged her to do the same.

“I resisted it a really long time because that’s what I had always been told to be,” Smith said. But in the end, she couldn’t stay away from the creative process entirely. “It feeds my soul. It’s a very spiritual thing.”

Smith’s children are following in her footsteps. In addition to Sophie’s help with the Madonnas, she and her brother, Zim, are members of the Bristol-based 9:37 Productions, a group devoted to promoting and bringing together local artists and media creators who work from personal experience.

While honoring motherhood, Smith’s Madonnas proved to be a powerful element of her own maternal experience. Working on the Madonnas also provided Sophie an opportunity to spend a little more time with her mother.

“(Our relationship) was able to develop because we spent time together on projects like this,” she said. “We’d chat and listen to music and just be in each other’s presence.”

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