October 2020

The Evolution of an Artist: Pam White’s journey to a career that was meant to be

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.KAT Photography


Pam White is photographed in her garage studio in Sea Pines.

On a steamy August morning, artist Pam (PJ) White answers the door at her Sea Pines home, her sassy blond hair casually tousled to complement her “office” attire (shorts, T-shirt, sandals, and work apron). She disarms her security monitors (two suddenly vocal Bernese Mountain Dogs), whisking them to a back room and beckoning me to her garage/studio. The doors are rolled up, inviting in the day. This is where the magic happens.

Surrounded by an array of paintings that could easily be a collection of many artists’ work, White explained. “I’m always challenging myself. I love doing different things. Otherwise, I become a production person where I’m doing the same thing. I don’t want to be that person.”

White said she is “deeply in love” with encaustic wax (her current obsession). She also enjoys commission work and custom beach paintings that incorporate secret elements that hold personal meaning to the owner.

She paints Lowcountry marshes and abstractions, utilizing acrylic, wax, ink, oil, and a variety of organic and inorganic chemicals to bind and separate color. She has painted a large series of ladies (about 60 in all) from the back—no faces or expressions—with the intention of depicting the simplicity of a woman’s beauty.

A few years ago, she became intrigued with rust and started adding it into her acrylic art. “It’s very unpredictable, and it’s fun,” she said, which is a pretty fair description of her overall outlook.

Today, White has been up and at it since 4 a.m. because the creative energy never stops. “I think sleep is overrated,” she said. “I go through a cyclical insomnia, often waking up at 3 a.m. with an idea I have to get out of me.”

A circuitous route
White never saw herself as an artist. Painting wasn’t even a sideline or a hobby until it morphed into a second career. “Growing up, I never, ever thought ‘I’ll be an artist,’” she said. “The only artistic thing I ever did was during art class. I climbed underneath the table because our teacher was talking really long; I took some tempera paint and painted the back of her shoe. I never got caught, and maybe that was the only bad thing I ever did.”

From secretly painting her teacher’s shoe to becoming a full-time working artist, needless to say, a lot happened in between.

Originally from Clarks Green, Pennsylvania, White graduated from East Stroudsburg University with plans to teach special education. But when the job didn’t materialize, she got into medical transcription sales and dictation. Recruited later by a transcription company in Cleveland, Ohio, she moved—not knowing a soul—transitioned into sales and went on to enjoy what she described as “an amazing career.”

Along the way, she met her husband John, gave birth to two sons and landed in Memphis, Tennessee. Life was full—busy, and White’s interest in art was merely simmering in the background. “I loved art. We were art collectors. I appreciated art, and I became more curious about art as time went on,” she said.

The turning point
And then came the twist in the road. “I ended up with cervical cancer and had a radical hysterectomy and some other internal repairs. I was fortunate and did not have to have chemotherapy,” White said. Nevertheless, the health crisis was enough to give pause.

Five months later came the second close-up with mortality when it was discovered that White had four pulmonary embolisms. “The cancer really scared me, but then when I was sick again … I shouldn’t be here,” she said, reflecting on the seriousness of her condition and the uncertain road to recovery.

“At this point, I needed something different in my life,” she continued. “I couldn’t do a lot. I couldn’t be out in public. I had to closely monitor everything. I became more introspective.”

That’s when John stepped in with the brilliant idea that would change her course: he hired an artist whose work they had collected to come to the house and teach his wife to paint.

After taking private lessons daily, White later took classes and worked with another instructor who taught at Memphis College of Art. “She was the most amazing person ever. Everything in her home studio was bizarre, and it made me curious,” she said.

Reckoning with her health and bargaining with God, both Pam and John made the decision to retire early, “because life is too short, and I had been sick, and you just never know what’s going to happen next, White said. “You reinvent yourself! You ask, ‘How much is enough? Can we live smaller? What is our quality of life?’ We wanted to spend time with our boys.”

Subsequently, the couple bought a lot in upstate S.C. where they built a lake home that ultimately didn’t suit. “It was too desolate for our kids—it just wasn’t for us,” White said. So, they “re-retired,” moving to Hilton Head Island just over 10 years ago, when the boys were in middle school.

“Living here, looking at the sunrise every day, staring at the clouds, I was inspired. So, I started to paint. I did a little show at Coligny and sold out. I thought, this is what I want to do.”

Two years ago, White had another health encounter, falling backwards on the tennis court and breaking both arms. “After my recovery, I’m a lefty, but I started trying to paint with my right hand,” she said. She decided to go back to wax, a torch, and her carving tools, which inadvertently helped strengthen her arms. “I didn’t realize it, but I was doing my own PT every day for hours!”

Finding beauty
White credits her health challenges with fine-tuning her appreciation of nature. Consequently, a seemingly ordinary scrap of wood salvaged on the beach became a treasured work of art. “I was training for the New York Marathon. I was running, and it was pouring rain when I found a piece of driftwood. I called John to come get it, and it took two years to dry. But I saw the beauty in it,” she said. “Normally, I would have run right by—it was a brown piece of wood. I waxed it with encaustic and torched it. It looked like a bon fire. It’s beautiful—hard and glossy like a giant piece of turquoise.” (It sold in less than 48 hours.)

“When you are sick, really sick, you see color differently,” White said. “I’ve lived in some beautiful places, but I don’t think I saw them the same way until after I was sick. It made me so energized to see more and do more—to pick leaves out of nature instead of from the florist. Just seeing nature and being in nature, I’m much more appreciative of what’s here on this earth.

“Art is a great healer, and there is a story behind every painting,” she continued. “I’m happy! Every day, what I do brings me joy! I am going to find the beauty here a long time.”

Pam White’s work can be seen at Camellia Art, SHOP! A Feminine Boutique, Art League of Hilton Head, Sea Pines Community Center, and Island Recreation Center of Hilton Head December 1 through February 1, 2020. For more information and to view her collections, visit pjwhiteart.com.

Artists of Sea Pines
Pam White currently serves as director of the Artists of Sea Pines, a group of over 40 local artists who reside in Sea Pines. The organization, founded in 2012, is dedicated to the advancement of members’ work, supporting the creativity of its members by hosting receptions and exhibitions throughout the year. Several members personally show and sell their work at the monthly First Thursday Art Market from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at the Shops at Sea Pines Center.

The Artists’ gallery is located at the Shops at Sea Pines Center in the CSA Community Center Room and is currently open on Tuesday mornings from 10 a.m. until noon. Artwork may be purchased by calling the artist directly or Pam White at (864) 247-1194.

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