FOOD AS ART: Pamela Anderson’s Legacy Dinner

Posted by on Apr 3, 2017 | No Comments

Me and Pamela (Photo: Molly Snyder)

When I first wrote about the Pfister Hotel Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson a little over a year ago, I contrived a letter from her to me, written from a plane:

Dear Dominic,

I’m writing this from 28,000 feet.  Soon, I will touch down on the hotel’s carpeted runway and disembark in my new studio-for-a-year.  I haven’t met you yet, but I sense your imminent arrival at my doorway.  From the window seat–-a must-have when I travel–-I am snapping photos real and imaginary.  Right now, the sun guides the plane, a Catalan yellow sun the way Miró reimagined it (we’re actually over Lake Michigan right now, but my mind has traveled to Catalonia before).  The clouds are high, muting the sky in a pastel blue that Diebenkorn would have appreciated (I’ve traveled to the west coast with him before).  I’ve been around the world with painters past and present, Dominic, but would you believe that I’m only beginning to map my own voice now?

Now that she has passed the Artist-in-Residence “brush” to tintype photographer Margaret Muza, I have had occasion to reflect on her residency, the map of her artistic voice throughout her residency, our friendship, and her last week at The Pfister Hotel.  Even though one of her favorite places is the window seat of an airplane, Pamela couldn’t be more down-to-earth.

When I first encountered her in the studio, she had only just moved in to begin her year as the Artist-in-Residence and I was still applying for the Narrator position.  I was to write two sample blog posts.  It would have been easy to just talk to her about abstract art and color and paint, but instead we went deeper than that, almost right away.  

We talked about voice:

I certainly had a voice before.  I’ve been mapping it all my life, just as you have been mapping yours, the contours of your inscape, the swirls of your unique fingerprint–that’s what voice is.  Not necessarily something that can be heard or seen.  It’s always inside us, but it’s about developing it.  There’s so much in our world that we have access to visually, that for me, as a painter, finding that fingerprint has been difficult.  It’s difficult for all of us, because we have this sense that it’s all been done before.  You must feel the same as a writer.

And bravery:

But at some point in my life, perhaps after getting really good at painting floral scenes, I determined that I needed to be braver with my paintings. That’s an interesting word, you will say, to describe art: “bravery.”  It sounds like the stuff of heroes and soldiers and tightrope walkers.  But if we are to transform ourselves and find our voices, then we will have to be brave, a word, I’m guessing you know, that comes from bravo, Italian for “bold and untamed.”  So I’m trying to tap into moments that speak to me from 28,000 feet–I’m looking down now and see that Catalan sun reflect off the lake’s dark surface, creating lines of yellow, crests of white, the plane approaching the shoreline of emerging green fields (we’re south of the airport).  An almost invisible line stretches across my view–the flight of a bird?  An optical illusion?

And about artist’s signatures:

My massive paintings don’t have my signature on them.  That’s because I’ve decided to be brave: to let my tools, whatever they may be, guide me and let my paintings reveal my voice.  Many people get upset, in fact, when I don’t sign my paintings on the front.  But I think it’s better when someone can say that they saw one of my paintings from across a room or even a block away and said to themselves “That’s a Pamela.”  That means my voice is being heard.

Over the next year, I would get to know her voice (expressed with large tools as well as her own vocal cords), her bravery (bold and untamed but also refined and patient), and her Pamela-ness (I can recognize a “Pamela” very well now, I think).

I learned from Pamela’s voice that it is very important to listen, mainly because one has to: her voice is light and contemplative, often with an inflection that suggests that she is thinking several steps ahead even while she’s talking to you.  

I observed her paint a single stroke then step back to listen to the painting talking to her.  The next layer of color might not appear for hours.  I enjoyed coming back a few days later and seeing how it had transformed.

I heard her voice in the variety of instruments she used to express it–the brushes, scrapers, even mops–and the palimpsest-like layers of thick paint and light washes, blocks and lines, patches and wisps.  I heard a different kind of voice when we commiserated over political issues and social justice.  I heard other versions when she talked about her sick Kismet or her new house in Sherman Park or her friend Michael’s award-winning film or her Scandinavian heritage or a fabulous dinner she and her husband Steven had just made.

I delighted in little things like watching her mix her paints and clean her brushes, taping the outer edges of a paper, painting the edges of a canvas, changing the orientation of a work-in-progress to see if the new direction spoke to her.  

I enjoyed talking to her about emerging shapes, unique color combinations, the need for white space, and the power of creating depth on a flat surface.

Growing up, I always considered myself too by-the-book and representational and timid when it comes to creating art (I was a classical guitarist who could rarely play without reading the music and a ribbon-winning artist whose drawings and paintings were glorified tracing-paper pastiches of other people’s work).  The synchronous freedom and intention of Pamela’s work, then, excited me.  

What could I learn about my own creative process from observing hers? Could I learn how to paint with similar freedom and intention?  How could that be a good thing for all of us, in our daily lives, even without paint brushes?  

I’ll come back to these questions later.  But first, here’s another question: How does an artist as unique as Pamela celebrate the end of her residency at the luxurious Pfister Hotel?  With down-to-earth graciousness, humility, and gratitude.

And a five-course meal, of course, compliments of Chef Brian Frakes and his team.

About 50 people gathered in the Imperial Ballroom on March 21 for the inaugural Artist-in-Residence Legacy Dinner.  Pamela welcomed us with characteristic humility (“The whole year has been so special.  I’m kind of just getting the hang of it!  I am feeling blessed and grateful that I’m here, living my dream.”) and a reflection that set the tone for the rest of the evening: “The conversations with guests have been the most meaningful to me.  I have learned more about myself.  The conversations make you dig deeper into the things we take for granted as artists.  ‘Why color?’  ‘Why abstract?’  Yes, why color?  Why abstract?  Questions like these forced me to think about why I do what I do and how I’m developing my practice.”

Why does each of us do what we do?  Why do we do what we do the way we do it?

Some guests were asking these questions of Pamela when she invited them to write words on little pieces of paper while they enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails.  Not exactly little pieces of paper–more carefully cut out mixed greens, Belgian endive, even Styrofoam cherry tomatoes.  As people wrote down their favorite colors, textures, words, and such on the delicate papers, they knew somehow that they wouldn’t just be observers and consumers at this meal–they would be participants.  And if the paper cut-outs and Sharpies were any indication, the evening would be both elegant and fun.

If that wasn’t down-to-earth enough, each course was named after a different theme.

The first course was “Family”: Verlasso salmon belly carpaccio with beet cream, chive crème fraiche, and aquavit dill splash, accompanied by an arugula scallion salad, pumpernickel, and a glass of Maison Nicolas Pinot Noir Rose from France.  This little delicacy, we learned, was inspired by her Finish-Norwegian-Danish heritage, as well as her son: the Verlasso salmon came to our plates compliments of her son’s sustainable fishing business in Chile.  

Before we ate, however, another surprise for guests: former Artist-in-Residence Stephanie Barenz was on hand to offer her interpretation of the “Family” dish.

I am glad,” Stephanie began, “that Pamela picked this course for me to speak at because family and home have a big role in my own personal artwork.  I am always comparing point A, where I came from, to point B, where I am going.  And my guess is that whether you realize it or not, you are constantly doing this, too.  As we think about our homes we think of rootedness, what identifies us as individuals, and all of the experiences that have made us who we are.  The course we are about to eat is comprised of many different elements that speak to Pamela’s childhood and family memories. Speaking of rootedness, there is even a beet, a root vegetable, in this course.

“I am a drawing teacher, and one of the first drawing exercises I do with my students is a blind contour drawing.  In this way of drawing we look at the object or thing that we are drawing, and let our eyes follow the contours or outline of the object.  We don’t look at our page and we never let our pencil or tool leave the page.  There is a metaphor here.  As you move from point A to point B in your life, maybe away from your home to a new place or relationship, you look forward but still have your hand on the page, or in the place that you are rooted. So in this next drawing prompt, I want you to look forward at something in the room, maybe it is something that reminds you of home, like your partner sitting next to you or a familiar dish in front of you, and I want you to do a blind contour drawing.”

So, alternating between forks and wine glasses and Sharpies, fifty guests in the Imperial Ballroom broke into uproarious laughter as they trained their eyes on each other–of objects around the room–and got back to their roots, so to speak.  As they enjoyed a sophisticated salmon appetizer, they were transported to a younger time of doodling and giggling and writing on the table tops when a parent wasn’t watching.  (I forgot to mention that all the tables had white butcher paper table runners.)  It was certainly difficult to keep my own eyes off the paper and my pen rooted to the paper–and I wasn’t alone–but the challenge was certainly a refreshing diversion from customary dinner time propriety.

Pamela chose me to interpret the next dish, entitled “Comfort,” comprised of butternut squash ravioli, beurre noissette, maple charred cauliflower, fresh ricotta, amaretti gremolotta, and sage, joined by a Peter Yealand Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.  I had planned on recounting to the dinner guests how Pamela is, like this dish, both sweet and savory, but instead wrote a poem I called “Comforting Metaphors,” each line inspired by one of the components of the dish.  See if you can match them up:

The girl in orange pajamas hibernates in her favorite quilt.
A puddle of spring rain imprints a muddy field.
The charred sequoia has just released its seeds.
A lone cumulus hangs on a blue fall curtain.
The earthy spice of dry clay crumbles in the farmer’s hands.
But why should anyone die who has sage in their garden?

The last line is borrowed directly from folk wisdom regarding the healing properties of sage.

My haiku-like lines were no contender for the surprising stand-up by one of my predecessors, Molly Snyder, a (insert scare quotes, as per Molly’s demonstration) “local celebrity” thanks to OnMilwaukee.com.  After Pamela talked about growing up on a farm, we sliced into the “Wisco Pork” dish–a Meaux mustard pork tenderloin with parsley dust crust, horseradish, Yukon pea puree, chocolate pork jus, and a Zinfandel from Seghesio Angelas Tables (Sonoma)–and Molly regaled us with her story (more like a performance) of being an eating contest champ.  Arms flailing in front of her face to mimic stuffing her face with everything from cream puffs (“easy”) to bacon (the pork part of the story = “difficult”), she had us laughing in between succulent bites of pork.  

And have you noticed that each small plate came with a full glass of wine? The party was just getting started.

Enter me again to help introduce the “Peanut Butter & Jelly” course, inspired, as you might guess, from one of Pamela’s favorite childhood foods.  This was not your mom’s PB&J, however.  Chef Brian transported us with a peanut butter and chocolate terrine, a vanilla bean anglaise, and a Merlot blackberry syrup, and paired it with Dibon Cava Brut Reserve from Penedes, Spain.  And this was not an easy one for me transform into words.  How to make PB&J interesting?  (Thank you for the challenge, Pamela!)

I knew from talking to Pamela that she liked her sandwich to be made a particular way and that it often accompanied her when she began her life as an artist, crayons at the ready.  But it was all the other details she told me about, the specifics of place and time and light that intrigued me even more.  Therefore, like I had with my first imagined letter of hers, I borrowed her words and transformed them.  I called the poem “Plums”:

Do not pick the plums.

She knew the sting
of her mother’s voice,
like a wasp shaken from its nest,
if she dared eat a plum.
Less a wasp, perhaps,
than the irrational nip
of an adult who had heard
too many reports of children
choking on rippled pits.

Nonetheless, trousers rolled,
she tiptoes to the back stoop,
teetering a plate, a glass,
a notebook, a bucket–
one eye on the plum tree,
the other on her juggling act,
the third already composing
in her child’s mind
with the pandemonium of colors
she carries in her ice cream bucket
of crayons.

At least her mother
had buttered both sides
of the Wonder Bread
and slathered a swirled pillow
of peanut butter on one side
where the raspberry jam
could rest, blanketed
by the other wondrous slice–
softness upon softness upon
softness upon softness.
No danger here, though
when she takes her first bite,
a slick glob of jam will slide down her chin
and onto her shirt, which she will lift,

She finds the only slice of sun,
places the milk and sandwich
in the shade, listens as the crayons
thud softly onto the warm stone,
and nestles the notebook in her lap,
pausing to listen to the big elm canopies
in the front yard sway in the wind.

No coloring book today,
with its lines, its borders and rules.
Today she will fill the blankness
of these pages with a riot of red
and orange and yellow, of purple
clouds and black fields, scratching
the paper with prodigious swoops
of her arm, pausing occasionally
to bite half moons into her sandwich.

An arm jostles the milk glass.
The white splashes her hand
and seeps through the cracks
toward her notebook, but she finishes
etching a burnt square of sienna before
rubbing the milk on her pants
and snatching up her drawing.

She listens for her mother inside,
and walks defiantly off the porch.

She picks a plum.

She bites.

The earthiness of the peanut butter
meets the tart ripeness of the plum.
She shudders, but not because
she is afraid of the pit that lies inside.

When she returns to the porch
it is with sticky hands ready
for new crayons
and new pages.

Stephanie brought the meal to a close by inviting us to one more drawing activity to accompany dessert, themed “America’s Dairyland”: shaved triple cream, black pepper honey, and a fried cracker, served with another champagne.  She began by referencing one of the first paintings that I had seen of Pamela’s, one year ago, the one that inspired the 28,000-feet-in-the-air letter: “One of my favorite series of Pamela’s is a series she did of aerial views of America’s farmland.  You can see one of the paintings on the easel in the corner.  When you look at these aerial views, they appear to look like a quilt, all different colors, patterns, and textures coming together to form a tapestry of sorts.

“There is a quote by Wendell Berry, one of my favorite authors, that I really like.  He said, ‘Eating is an agricultural act.’  As you look at the food on your table, it is and has been a part of many different places and stories, which is a really beautiful thing if you think about it.  Living in Milwaukee, we get the privilege of being very close to the farmland or dairyland that produces the food that we eat.”

“Going back to Pamela’s paintings of farmland and to this idea that each thing we eat has a story, I would like you to create a mini version of this quilt idea. Take your crayons or pencils and put several different patterns or textures next to each other that remind you of rural Wisconsin. Maybe it is a red square next to a patch of green, that references a barn and a field of soybeans. Or a muddy patch next to swirling white, which may remind you of how the fields meet the sky.”

Just as Stephanie suggested, Pamela is going to take these “quilt” images–along with everything else sketched on the butcher paper–and create a new piece of art from our food-and-wine-fueled experiments. Stay tuned!  

Before the evening was over, however, Molly, Stephanie, Stephanie’s husband Zach Wiegman, and Pamela read the Word Salad to which we had all contributed during the cocktail hour.  The often surprising, sometimes humorous, juxtaposition of words was poetry in itself!

I was delighted that my year with Pamela had begun and ended with the Midwest Aerial Views series.  The abstract patterns–inspired by a blending of the organic and the artificial, the natural and the human–offer both a distanced perspective and an introspective opportunity to see oneself in the greater scheme of things.   It wasn’t just about colors and shapes and lines and scrapes; it was about seeing and understanding and interpreting and translating the world.

So, back to my earlier questions: What could I learn about my own creative process from observing hers?  Could I learn how to paint with similar freedom and intention?  How could that be a good thing for all of us, in our daily lives, even without paint brushes?

I’ll say this: I was an English teacher for 22 years.  I’ve probably had about two thousand students.  When, for instance, one student decided against becoming a sanitation worker so he could become an English teacher, that was one of the highest honors one could ask for.  As Pamela’s year at The Pfister was coming to a close, I finally got the guts to try painting with freedom and intention.  I’ve a long way to go, but I have Pamela to thank:



Pamela, you have not only “passed the brush” to the new Artist-in-Residence, you have also inspired me.

Photo credits: Molly Snyder, Cassy Scrima, Pamela Anderson, Shelby Keefe, and me

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