Pam Sheehan

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Visiting the painter Pam Sheehan gave us one of our rare treats—the New York home of an artist—there are so few of them now and there is something about the authenticity and ‘undesigned’ aesthetic of artists’ houses that fascinates us. As JH said while he was photographing, “Every frame is a still life.” Pam, who also makes her own exquisite gold-leafed frames, currently has a show of her small, intensely-felt landscapes, animal studies and still lifes at the Davis & Langdale Company (closes March 12th).

Have you always lived as an artist?

Um … does that mean unemployable? Yes, absolutely. I have been teaching for over thirty years but I didn’t try other things because I wasn’t good at other things, other than climbing trees and swimming. I wasn’t a good student and I have three older sisters, so my parents were done trying to form and shape [their children].

Is that what being an artist is—you are one by default?

Not when you’re young because I meet a lot of young people with tremendous talent but they have talent in many areas, so the focus is difficult.

Hanging in the entrance way is a portrait of Bob Kulicke by Wayne Thiebaud.
A view from the foyer into dining and living room.
L. to r.: On the foyer wall, a pastel sketch of Bob Kulicke by David Fertig hangs above “Gull” by Kathi Fertig. The limestone Corinthian capital was found at auction.; On the dining room north wall, a pastel of a seagull by Kathi Fertig hangs above a flower painting by Bob Kulicke.
A small dining room has been turned into framing and kitchen cabinet area. On the left, a green guillotine wood- chopper with pot lids on top. The photograph on the top left is by Daniel Kazimierski.

But [for you] can you not be an artist?

Well, no … no. The pressure is internal, I think. The idea of what’s worth doing … and this seems to be it.

Do you think there’s a necessary friction between making money and making art?

It certainly determines where you will be ten years later. There are a lot of art students and the attrition rate is just enormous … one percent stay with it. You don’t make any money … the whole recognition thing … the fortune thing.

The kitchen window sill.
Unfinished frames.
Above the sink, the central painting is by Frances Wells. All flower arrangements are by Jacque Sheehan.
Dining room window sill, east wall.
In the north facing foyer, a Japanese scroll hangs above a small chest of drawers.
A slant-front desk from Pam’s grandmother stands below a flower painting by David Fertig. The Japanese walking sticks belonged to husband, Bob Kulicke.

And where are you with the ‘recognition thing’?

Pretty anonymous but I am fortunate in that I have two galleries that represent me.

That’s enough?

It’s enough … it’s fabulous.

I don’t know … that’s something I dislike about myself, the thirst for admiration, the need for recognition. I haven’t enjoyed being published [as a novelist]…

Isn’t it interesting, the outcome is very different? You have the dream and I imagine if you do, then you’re surprised: Why am I not walking on air? It doesn’t work that way.

You get over that fast. There’s something very humbling [about it all] because there’s a lot of failure.

I read that you like to work outside.

Actually I’ve transitioned into still life, which really is more portraits of cats and the birds there.

A frame by Pam surrounds a still life by Bob Kulicke on the right wall of the bedroom hall. The clay head was a study by Pam when she taught Rockland Community College.
Hanging on a wall in the bedroom hallway is Sarah English’s portrait of her grandfather, Bob Kulicke. Paintings left to right are by Carol Anthony, David Fertig and Ron Schaefer.
The bedroom hallway wall with painting by Carol Anthony.

A view of Pam’s bedroom.
Displayed on the east wall of Pam’s bedroom is a collection of paintings by various painter friends including Stuart Shils, Francis Wells, Jeff Hester, Joel Levy, Jill London and Herbie Katzman.
A blanket chest was antiqued and repainted by Pam.
On the east wall, a Chinese bookcase is filled with part of Pam and Bob’s vast collection of art books.
A cherry wood, Shaker design bedroom dresser stands next to the handy ironing board.
The bedroom dresser with a landscape on right by Pam Sheehan. The painted box was a wedding gift from close friends, Kathi and David Fertig.
The southwest corner of bedroom.
The south facing bedroom window keeps Pam’s plants well and alive.
A view from the bedroom window across the interior courtyard.
Closet doorknobs are currently functioning as hangers for Pam’s bags. The cabinet is decorated with Pam’s student’s works.

How do you catch a cat?

It’s very mysterious. There’s a struggle. Sometimes it can happen quickly and sometimes it will take six months or a year. I work from reference, sometimes from a sketch because the mistakes that we make in the drawing, when everything is not perfect—then the life comes in. These creatures, particularly cats, I know them, so they have their own personalities … that’s Momo [indicates a portrait of her own cat] … he’s ridiculous … he is currently at his lakehouse.

Yes, I loved the Matisse exhibition recently that displayed works where he had deliberately kept in his failed attempts at a line and his other mistakes. He felt that the mistakes were as important as any paint mark he had made.

Well I learned this very early in life when I became very interested in Dante’s Inferno, all those Rings of Hell. And the one that was most pronounced to me was the one where the sculptors were in this quarry creating these masterpieces and Dante couldn’t imagine how this was Hell, so he went up to one of them [to ask] and his answer was: “We can’t make a mistake.” There’s something about painting that is impossible and yet it is forgiving. It keeps giving you chances.

That must be what is tantalizing about it … almost torture!

It is torture, yes! And yet it’s a way in … a lot of painters that I know often go into blocks and that is very difficult.

A selection of paintings from Pam’s show of small, intensely-felt landscapes, animal studies and still lifes at the Davis & Langdale Company (231 East 60th St., 212.838.0333). The show closes March 12th.

I’m not sure I believe in painter’s block or writer’s block … I think you can get stuck, but that’s a different thing … you’re in it and you have to get out. Block is more to do with a huge loss of confidence, a fear of rejection.

You’re right. And sometimes ‘stuck’ is not a bad thing. I think there is a reason why people who devote themselves to painting have odd lifestyles because to mature as a painter … I have to paint and then I have to do something else and then I come back. I’m always thinking about it … but to be always doing it—there’s too much failure.

There’s also so much solitude.

There is, and that’s way it’s really important to know other painters, so I have a whole community of people who are represented on my walls that I see everyday. And that is the other thing, living the way that I do with paintings around me all the time is comforting.

A sneak peak at Pam’s exhibition currently showing at the Davis & Langdale Company.

I know there is one painting that you were very surprised he chose (‘Peach Sky’, a somewhat more abstract rendering of a landscape)

Yes, because in every body of work there are these little stray things that are about the future … every once in a while there will be these paintings that just happen and they don’t look like any of the other paintings at all.

Is there a risk when you decide to work small that people might think ‘cute’?

Or not important – oh absolutely. I like working in a small scale because it gives me more confidence because I know that if I’m going to be sitting there for three hours, chances are I’m going to be able to complete one or two paintings.

On the living room north wall, cat portraits on left by Pam Sheehan, with a portrait of a girl in a red hat by David Fertig below; cityscape by Seymour Remneck, two small 19c landscapes. On top of the Chinese cabinet a Mexican Santos sits on a painted cigar box painted by Roy Davis. Further right is an early still life by Bob Kulicke and marble portrait head.
On the east wall of Pam’s living room new paintings for Pam’s next show are on display. The carved Chinese screen, found in Chinatown, work as divider between Pam’s painting studio and the living room.

On the west wall, a limestone Buddha from an antique dealer in Cold Spring stands next to a wall filled with flowers painting by Bob Kulicke.

Flat drawers double as a coffee table. The prints are by David Fertig, the drawings by Pam.
A closer view of Bob’s flower paintings.
View of the studio area, in the foreground the ceramic creature is by potter Deb Mathews, the wood print by David Fertig.
Looking into the foyer from the living room. Pam found the Asian chest from an antiques shop, “Cat Bamboo” in Nyack.
More views of the living room east wall.

What can you pinpoint as being the hard, hard thing about painting?

Well, my [late] husband [Robert Kulicke, painter, jewelry maker and inventor of both the Lucite ‘plexibox’ frame and welded aluminum frame] spent a year in Berkeley, California with Wayne Thiebaud. Bob would say, “Wayne, baby, how’s the painting going?” and Wayne would say, “The painting is going good, Bob, but how do you put the art in?”

That remains the mystery. We don’t have any control over it. We can only hope to create the conditions to allow that to come through.

So now you have been preparing a show for Davis & Langdale—how many paintings did you have to complete and how many were picked?

I presented a wall of paintings here and here (around forty) and Roy [Davis] came around with his little roll of black tape and put a bit there and there … he has an amazing eye. It’s not necessarily about picking the best paintings, it’s about picking the paintings that work together as a whole. And then when I go on and see the show on opening day, there’s a brilliance to that.

In Pam’s studio area a table is set up for frame finishing. Sketches of flowers for future paintings are pinned up on a wall lined with homasote board.
Landscape painting by Pam Sheehan.
L. to r.: South facing studio window.; Easel and palette with painting in progress.
A painting of ducks by Pam hangs near a box overflowing with painting supplies.
On the southeast corner a Mexican reliquary stands on a carved column. A pastel by Kathi Fertig hangs above more bookcases.
Frame storage.

Do you have a particular artist or the work of an artist with whom you’re currently in love?

Well, you were saying as writer you learn through reading, well, I remember Bob would always say, and this would be his advice to painters: “Choose your family.”

And who are your family?

Well, Corot and Constable and Turner … and Morandi.

Is there just one painting in the city that you have to go and look at?

At the Met? Sometimes it’s not looking at the painting, it’s just being in the room. I love to go to the Medieval section and just breathe it in, kind of thing … and also I kind of visit Bob there because there are so many of his frames.

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