Award-winning TV writer Pam Douglas has made a career in Hollywood while also painting visionary art.
Pam Douglas, I Shall Return With the Tide, 2009
In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how creative freedom enables SoCal artists to make spiritual work as part of their practices.
To call Pam Douglas "multitalented" would be an understatement. A veteran TV writer, she's received multiple Emmy nominations; authored a book called Writing the TV Drama Series; acted as a member of the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, West; and is a professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where she teaches writing dramatic television. Yet, while she's obviously "made it"—even by Hollywood standards—Douglas is first and foremost an accomplished artist, with her subtly majestic paintings appearing in such well-lauded arts institutions as LACMA and the California African American Museum, just to name a few.
Before she came out west, Douglas spent her formative years in New York City visiting the Museum of Modern Art, where she discovered abstract expressionism. She studied art at Vassar College and earned her Master's degree at Columbia University. "But it wasn’t until I graduated that I found my inspiration in ancient Asian painting reflected through contemporary sensibilities," she tells The Creators Project. "Since then, much of my work pays respect to Zen artists of the first millennium who believed in using their instincts more than their brush, and for whom paintings were poetry."
Douglas' describes her own style as "conceptual abstraction," since her imagery is comparatively intellectual and not purely the result of subconscious impulses. "That isn’t to say that I don’t improvise or paint from feelings," Douglas contends. "But in my work I reach for an additional layer of significance." For Douglas, this technique arises partly from her immutable attraction to ancient Asian paintings such as the scrolls by contemporaries of the Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu. "That influence may not be visible in much of my work, but it’s my inner guide," Douglas explains.
In her earlier art, Douglas used inks and water-based media on raw linen, which resulted in delicately nuanced, mostly monochromatic works. She has since moved to creating more elaborate, complex pieces. Her method has expanded to include nontraditional media such as thread, twine, rope, and sand, which she uses to "draw" on clear plastic and raw silk, as well as on canvas. "The textures that evolve from those combinations suggest depths beyond the obvious, as I hope the works themselves do," she says.
When painting, the surfaces of Douglas' artworks usually lie flat as she applies her media, and she works silently and alone, often outside. "My aim is to empty the space of distractions for the images to come through," she describes. "Discovery and exploration are senses I bring to work. It’s never a question of meeting any outside expectation or standard, and is the opposite of imitation. Often I’ll bring a question to a piece such as the essence of a sound wave or the impact of crisis on a heartbeat or what happens at the end of life. Sometimes a literal interpretation of that idea is apparent, as in The Pulse of Our Time, where I cut newspaper headlines in the shapes of birds and had them flock across an EKG grid. That’s an example that veers closer to concept, though in other pieces the pure abstraction of movement or progression is more evident."
As someone who grew up "cold and poor" in New York City, Douglas wanted to flee her environment as soon as possible. "Like many other young people, I chased a dream of palm trees and possibilities. So, straight out of school I arrived with only a winter coat, a typewriter (in a time before everyone had a laptop), one small suitcase, no money, and not a single human contact [in LA] except for a sketchy job offer. I moved into a tiny apartment in Hollywood and took a job at an indie television station that went under three months after I arrived. The road from then to now was full of adventure, and I relish every step."
Douglas describes Los Angeles as a multicultural hub in which creative energy is transmitted through art. "A feeling of excitement is palpable in some new experimentation and interpretation, whether that emanates from street art or comic books, or videos or performance," she says, while careful to add, "However interesting some of that liveliness might be, and however enthusiastic the raw vigor may feel, we shouldn’t lose sight of the many older artists who are doing the best work of their lives. To me, the work of Ed Moses at 90 years old is more insightful and interesting than the 16-year-old with a spray can, though both are valid expressions of our time. One question is where the many different kinds of art converge to create LA art that is more than a fad or product of media hype—great art that lasts."
Douglas believes that the opportunity to investigate unorthodox tenets with support from likeminded communities in Los Angeles is definitely an uplifting and encouraging aspect of the city. But for her, being authentic with oneself is what's most important. "An artist is a vessel to manifest images, sounds, movements or stories that may not be visible to others until he or she brings them into this plane," she says. "The clearer the artist, the more those images are recognized as true, or give an insight into some aspect of truth."