The Decorated Betsy by Pamela Spiro Wagner
The Mental Health and Creativity contest winners were chosen in June. At the convention, in NAMILand, a table was set up with a laptop where you could view a streaming video of the artwork.
The winners are:
Betty Marschner, peer - Life on the Prairie with Bipolar Disorder
Dorothea Bawks, caregiver - Eleven Years Later
S. Dawn Pawlowski, peer - Depression
Pamela Spiro Wagner, peer - the Decorated Betsy
Holly McCoy, caregiver - Your Bipolar Disorder
Storie Hawkins, peer - Living with Schizophrenia
Astraya, significant other - the Hall
I was pleased to interview Pamela Spiro Wagner about her work, and would like to talk with Storie Hawkins, too. Storie, if you're reading this, maybe you could contact me via the Connection e-mail. Your painting was beautiful.
Pamela Spiro Wagner is a poet and author who is also an artist. Here now I'll transcribe the chat we had on the phone one night shortly after the convention.
CB: How did you start doing art?
PSW: My mother started us all out by teaching us. We did lanyards-that was my first memory. Billy Collins-the poet laureate-has a poem about lanyards that's very funny. It's an experience a lot of people have. That was my first art or craft experience. From there she had us in front of an easel doing paints from when we were young. After that, I started doing art of all sorts. I always did art-I didn't take it up professionally and I wish I had been encouraged to.
CB: What materials do you work with?
PSW: Right now I work with papier mache which includes paper, clay, and various different adjunct clays but mostly papier mache and I make jewelry. The papier mache also involves acrylic paint, and I smooth it out with modeling paste and paper clay and things like that.
CB: Then you have to spray it or is it shellacked?
PSW: I varnish it with polyurethane sometimes. The acrylic paint is fairly waterproof so you don't necessarily have to use polyurethane.
CB: How did you get involved with the jewelry making?
PSW: The reason was I wanted to try my hand at taking a course. It was the first time in a long time. I looked at the adult education courses in Wethersfield where I live. There wasn't much I dared take because I didn't want to take an academic course. I thought of taking traveler's Italian for the fun of it but was afraid of taking something academic, if you know what I mean. So I saw this thing on Central American jewelry and said, "It's a craft, okay. It's working with your hands. It's not going to be something they test you on or that I have to study." I thought, just try it-what's the worst thing?-I lose fifty dollars.
CB: That's a positive attitude.
PSW: I signed up for it and the first thing we made was a bracelet, it was so easy-with memory wire-wire that keeps its shape, basically a bracelet shape and you string it with beads. That was simple. It was so simple that it got me excited. Then we made earrings and a necklace and we learned how to make a loop. After that you couldn't stop me.
CB: You posted photos of your jewelry on your blog. They look like gallery pieces.
PSW: I wasn't very good at first, I couldn't make a loop to save my life. What I told myself was that all these people who make the costume jewelry you buy must sit at a table all day long and make jewelry for some assembly line. They must have learned to turn a loop after making millions of them, and so they can't all be naturally talented, they learned by practice. So I said, "I'm just going to practice. I'm going to practice and practice and practice until I can finally turn a loop and then I'll be able to make a decent necklace." That's what I did-I made necklaces out of brass and steel and tore them apart and made another one and tore it apart until I could finally make a necklace.
PSW: After that, I started learning what I call "stitches"-different ways of bending silver. I start with copper or brass and eventually do it in silver. I haven't made that much, but people have stopped me in stores and asked, "That's a lovely bracelet." Or, "Where did you get that necklace?"
CB: They're quite beautiful.
PSW: Oh, thank you. I do the jewelry when I'm tired of the papier mache. The papier mache is what I really love doing.
CB: Is art for you like therapy?
PSW: Yes, art is. I say that writing was my first love. I always did writing throughout my illness but it's almost like healing has come through art. It's only in recovery that I've done this kind of art and with recovery I've had the stamina to do big pieces, which is thrilling. It's thrilling to do big pieces I can get my whole self into other than the miniature things I used to do. There's something about sinking your teeth into a huge piece and trying something that takes weeks to do. I never had the stamina or the attention span to last that long. Something I couldn't finish within a day or two I'd never finish because I couldn't sustain the energy or attention to keep up with it. That was why I did poetry all those years-because I could do it in one sitting. Now if I have a project that takes a month, I can do it, which is wonderful.
PSW: So art-and expressing myself that way-for some reason I find it relaxing and get into a flow state I almost don't get into when writing. It's hard to describe but it's joyful and I don't think about anything, I don't worry. I create. It's good for the soul. You're using a different part of the brain when you're doing something non-verbal. That's good for your brain, for your heart to do something that isn't verbal. The little people-they come when I'm doing art, it's not bad voices but also even if they don't come it's a peaceful time, and if they do, it doesn't bother me in the slightest. It's entertainment.
CB: What are you working on now?
PSW: I made my sister a wedding necklace that of course she can't wear because she's wearing a strapless gown and the rose quartz blends into her skin. It's silver, she loves it but she's not tan and the rose quartz is transparent so it fades into her skin. So I'll make her something different.
CB: She could always wear it another time.
PSW: Right, over a white shirt or something.
CB: You're working on a papier mache chair?
PSW: I am. The hardest thing was to get it rigid-a chair you're making from scratch and it's not made of wood but paper-to get it rigid. It was floppy at first. Now it's standing up straight and looks like a real chair. I'm thinking of calling it "the illness chair" because of what I'm going to put with it. I'm not sure exactly, I want to do some symbolism, some symbolic objects with it to represent recovery, in other words. The chair represents what you leave behind when you recover. I haven't gotten that far in terms of how to execute it.
CB: That's wonderful.
PSW: If I can do it. I call it the illness chair because it should have items that I make out of papier mache that would represent that.
CB: Talk about the Decorated Betsy. How long did it take you to work on her?
PSW: Exactly a month from January 1st to January 29th. Do you want to know what she's made of, aside from papier mache?
CB: Tell me.
PSW: Her torso is a wastebasket. That's the armature as you call it. The only thing that's fake. Her torso is also papier mache but the shape is a wastebasket. Then I put papier mache over it. Everything else is paper. I cheated on that. Actually, it wasn't cheating. It was a process called lost form papier mache where you have a mold and put the mold inside the papier mache, and sometimes you take it out, and sometimes it's lost, as they say. It's simply left inside. That's called lost form. It was with acrylic. I painted Betsy with acrylic, a metallic acrylic. I had a lot of fun making it.
CB: You have an art studio now in your apartment.
PSW: I turned my bedroom into a studio. I have nothing in there except art work. I sleep in my living room.
CB: Where can people view your work?
PSW: You can log on to www.ArtID.com/turtleworks where I have a gallery, so to speak.
CB: Are you selling your art?
PSW: I am, at the ArtID site. Also if anyone wanted the Decorated Betsy, if there was a mental health association or some organization that was worthy enough, any organization that wanted Betsy for some good purpose, I would simply donate her. That's what I would like to do.
CB: Maybe at a charity auction.
PSW: That would be fine if there was such a thing and they wanted it, if it were a good enough prize. I don't know if anyone would want her.
CB: Your art has helped you to heal.
PSW: Definitely. It's almost-I have a cat, I've always had a cat. You know how people say a pet helps you stay out of the hospital or heal or recover? It's almost like the art work has done that, it's given me something that takes up my time, gives me something to look forward to. It's healthy. I wake up in the morning and it's the first thing I want to do. It just, something is working about it.
CB: Do you have any suggestions for peers who would like to do art?
PSW: The same things I would for writing-find something you want to do and follow your bliss. [I didn't coin that phrase, Joseph Campbell did.]
CB: On that note, I'm going to end here. You inspired me. My muse is calling. I think I'm going to follow my bliss.
Published On: July 15, 2008