Creativity Talks: Pamela Viola

In January, I announced a new feature of my blog: Creativity Talks, short interviews with creative people about what drives them to create, how they work, what advice they might give us, and whatever else comes up…
Pamela Viola is a photographer and mixed media artist who lives in Old Town Alexandria, not far from me. I met her about 14 years ago, in creative writing classes at Duke University, in North Carolina. I recently reconnected with her.

Her explorations and productivity in multiple media impress me, and I was delighted that she could talk with me about “what makes her tick.”

Turner Houston: You had a very successful career in the film industry where you were part of large creative efforts. When did you start making your own art–and what drew you to that art form?

Pamela Viola: I started making my own art long before I started working in the film industry. All through school and university I intended to become a fine art photographer. I lived in New York City so I was in the right place geographically, but in the pre-internet days it was difficult to get to the right people who could champion you and get your work seen.

After a few years of not making a living with photography, I knew I had to do something else. I went back to school at NYU and earned a certificate in filmmaking.

My first job in the film industry was on “Fear, Anxiety & Depression,” directed by Todd Solondz. What a way to begin a career, right? Anyway, I worked in the production office and that started me down a business path. As a Production Coordinator and Production Manager I was on the non-creative side of the industry. My work was all about budgeting, scheduling, contracts, negotiating and hiring.

Of course, I worked on personal creative projects in between films, but it wasn’t enough. After 15 years I left the film industry to do more creative art work.

TH: From where do you draw your inspiration? Does inspiration come to your heart or your head first?

PV: I have found my work shifting recently. I would say definitely in the past ideas started in my head, but idea genesis is now coming equally from my heart and my head.

During the past few years, my work has mostly been about pushing the boundaries of my digital photographs by compositing images, layering textures and mark making. Almost all of my work was being output digitally, and I started missing the handmade quality and the tactile process.

I started feeling myself rebelling against our frenzied digital world. Making things by hand and slowing down my process has become very appealing to me. I’m interested in integrating the various pieces of my life into my art now.

I have always been attracted to the beauty found in imperfection, in the humble, wabi-sabi. My interests and aesthetic tend towards quiet pursuits. I walk 4-6 miles most days, practice yoga, and meditate. On my walks I pick up plant life to use in my cyanotypes and I have recently started thinking about incorporating slow stitching into my work as a meditative practice.

“I’m not saying you should chuck everything and live your dream of being
a musician, painter, ceramicist or whatever, but just reconnect
with what you enjoyed playing with as a kid.”
— Pamela Viola

TH: How often do you make art? Do you work at making art, or is the making of art your life?

PV: Both! Making art is my life and it’s also my job. I’ve been a full-time artist since 2009, ten years. My studio is in my home, but I am very disciplined. I’m an entrepreneur. I approach my workday as most people do. Five days a week I spend 6-8 hours doing the variety of tasks that must get done. If I have a deadline, that’s at the top of my to do list for the day. Otherwise, I like to start the day creating and then move on to other tasks like researching, marketing and accounting.

TH: What are your current creative projects? Where do you think they will go?

PV: In addition to my commercial digital photography work, I’m exploring the historic alternative photographic process of cyanotype.

Making cyanotypes is a slow and imperfect process. I enjoy the experimentation of coating various materials with the light sensitive chemicals, gathering bits of plant life along my walks and waiting for the resulting image to emerge. The hands-on slowness is very satisfying. From my cyanotypes, I intend to create handmade products for home decor and layered fine art prints on fabric.

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What are cyanotypes? They are essentially blueprints. Two chemicals are combined to create a light sensitive mixture that can then be applied to a porous substrate such as paper or cloth and then allowed to dry in the dark. An image is then created either by using a digital negative or everyday objects and exposing the coated surface to sunlight. Once the exposure is made, the print is washed in clear water becoming Prussian blue in the areas exposed to sunlight and washing away where no exposure occurred.

The English scientist Sir John Herschel discovered the procedure in 1842, and a few years later, Anna Atkins created a series of limited-edition books documenting ferns and other plant life from her seaweed collection. Anna Atkins was the first to create a book with photographic images and is considered by some to be the first female photographer.

TH: What advice would you give to someone who has grown to believe they are not creative, but who would like to learn to appreciate art, and perhaps to try making things them self?

PV: This is a question that is close to my heart. I am certain that all humans are born creative, but by the time we are in our teenage years most people no longer exercise their creativity.  Either they don’t think their work is as good as the next person’s, or societal pressure discourages creative professions as a viable way to earn a living, or any number of other reasons to push it aside.
Studies have shown the stress reducing value of creative pursuits. I’m not saying you should chuck everything and live your dream of being a musician, painter, ceramicist or whatever, but just reconnect with what you enjoyed playing with as a kid.

For instance, as a kid like most children, I drew. In my teenage years I decided I wasn’t very good at drawing and stopped. Every now and then I’ll take a two-day workshop in drawing and it comes back a little. From the morning of the first day, to the afternoon of the next, there’s a vast improvement. The ability is still there. Drawing may not be my chosen or strongest artistic medium, but it’s fun to revisit it.

“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

07_Pamela Studio
Pamela H. Viola Biography

I was born and raised in New York and New Hampshire, and I currently live in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, across the river from Washington DC.

I’m known as a photographer and mixed media artist. My aim in creating is to make beautiful, in a new way, simple forms and shapes around us. Through deliberate color palettes and compositions, I want to make people smile.

I work often with art consultants and interior designers on projects that range from intimate residential spaces to large-scale corporate and healthcare environments and hospitality settings.

When my parents insisted I not go to art school but instead get a liberal arts degree, I majored in philosophy at Bennington College and graduated from St. John’s with a degree in English and philosophy. Along the way, I trained in a wide range of artistic disciplines from photography to painting and printmaking.

I’ve studied with a variety of teachers including Jay Maisel (color photography), Henry Horenstein (black and white photography), and Pat Adams (painting, printmaking).

Additionally, I had a fifteen-year career in the film industry working alongside directors Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone and Barry Sonnenfeld. Multiple artistic influences throughout my life have led me to explore and create diverse and unique bodies of work.

My work is exhibited throughout the United States, Paris, France and Oporto, Portugal. My work regularly appears in television shows such as “Scandal” and “Revenge,” in publications including Art Business News, Elan Magazine, and Northern Virginia Magazine, and is held in public, private, and corporate collections worldwide.

[Pamela Viola’s website:]

[More on the cyanotype process:]

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