When Pam Toll is near water, she’s in her element. That’s one reason why the North Carolina artist and avid swimmer enjoys life in our coastal city.
“Water implies taking your feet off the bottom,” Toll says. “It gives you this sense of weightlessness and letting go.”
Buoyancy pervades Toll’s most recent show, titled “Water, Myths and Echoes,” now on display at PinPoint Restaurant through Oct. 20. Toll—cofounder of Acme Art Studios and assistant professor in the art and art history departments at UNCW—paints loosely, freely. Her subjects are suspended in rich hues of aquatic greens and blues, undoubtedly from a stream of consciousness bordering that of the surreal.
“Myths are stories, looking for an explanation without words and echoes,” says Toll, whose pieces are collage-like. Human faces and animals are swept into currents of mermaid fins and florals.
“We experience these relentless obsessions over certain ideas, memories, dreams, and visions,” Toll shares. “You might have an idea of what you’re doing. Then it becomes something else.”
That’s how Toll typically works. The artist will staple a canvas to the wall of her Acme studio and draw (usually from her head) with charcoal. “As I begin to develop the drawing, I start to see the boundaries of the painting,” says Toll, who then uses acrylic washes to create the base layer of color for the painting.
Sometimes the artist will add in mixed media elements—usually fabric from favorite clothes that have worn out or pieces from a quilt (there are lots of quilters in her family) or even remnants she has found. In her piece, “Sisters” (55 x 56 inches, oil and mixed media on canvas) one of her subject’s dresses is made from a Depression-era feed sack.
“Beginnings are physical, energetic and easy for me,” Toll says. “I have more ideas than I will ever have time.”
Toll paints in oil after stretching and priming her canvases with a transparent gesso or two coats of acrylic gloss medium. While beginning a painting is sometimes as simple as daydreaming on canvas for Toll, endings are more difficult.
“Some work takes years,” she explains. “Other paintings fly off the brush in three days. Ending is more like abandoning the process at some point.”
Perhaps it’s the unfinished quality of her work that makes Toll’s paintings so approachable and relatable. “I’m always surprised by what draws in people to my work,” she notes. “Sometimes one person might see my work and point out things someone else might not have seen.”
“Primitive Poetry” (55 x 92 inches, oil and mixed media on canvas) shows flesh-colored faces that permeate water and sky between creatures, like sea turtles, dragonflies and doves. The painting started as something much different.
“The first painting was of dancers,” says Toll, who captured a special moment from her trip to northern Spain. She was living and working at the Sianoja Simposio Internacional de Artista in Noja.
“There was a big celebration,” she details. “Bonfires were everywhere, and people were dancing in the streets. I remember trying to capture the moment—of the people dancing—but it felt so gravity-bound. Dancing is so much more than plodding along with your feet on the ground.” Instead of reworking the piece, Toll painted over the original painting.
“I posed another painting on top and decided to make it aquatic,” she tells. “To float or be suspended is kind of how it feels to dance. There’s movement when you’re dancing. It’s more joyful.”
Joy is important to Toll and her work. The artist has devoted much of her time and resources into providing disadvantaged children with the opportunity to also find joy and hope through art. The organization Toll is involved with, called Paint a Future, seeks to connect well-established artists with children from all over the world. The children are asked to paint a better future for themselves, and artists like Toll incorporate their pieces into larger-scale works. The paintings are then sold with proceeds directly benefitting the child artist.
Toll has donated more than 20 paintings to the program, and has collaborated with children from Brazil, Madagascar and Moldavia in Florianopólis, Brazil, and Rully, France. The sales of her paintings have helped to realize the dreams of these young artists by rebuilding homes and even paying for one South African student’s education so she could become a teacher.
“It’s the coolest project I’ve ever been involved with,” Toll says. “I see the ways my work with Paint a Future has impacted my work. There’s something about the freedom of the way kids make art.”
It is this same freedom Toll exalts that she also so humbly possesses. With the weight of gravity lifted, her ideas flow like poetry without words.