By Pamela Burke/February 4, 2012
I have come to know a wonderful artist thanks to Hostess Brands filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When I read about their financial debacle last month, I was in shock. How could such an iconic American pastry like a Twinkie or Hostess CupCake disappear? Was it really going the way of Pan Am and Polaroid? Then I saw the giant piece of chocolate art accompanying the article.
It was a photo of a beautifully painted canvas displaying Hostess cupcakes in all their glory. They looked good enough to eat. My mouth was salivating, especially for that creamy filling part. Who could paint such a masterpiece? I saw Pamela Johnson’s name attached and rushed to her website for my sugar fix.
Not only were the cupcakes there, but more heavenly junk food delights in brilliant oil paints…chocolate Easter bunnies, circus animal cookies and even M&M’S®.
Here Pamela answers my questions about her delectable wonders, her fascination with gummi bears, and junk food in general…
EYE: Your paintings are a feast to behold. You seem consumed by junk food as an artist. What is it that inspires you so that you want to paint it?
PAMELA: I see junk food as cultural icons and feel that these foods are emblematic of many aspects of American culture. We live in a culture of excessive consumption, where quantity is often preferred over quality.
I feel that my images of the mass-produced, artificially flavored, and overly preserved foods that are so prevalent in our society provide an inviting way to talk about these aspects of our culture.
“As an image it perfectly encompassed the ideas that I wanted to explore.”
EYE: What was it about Hostess cupcakes that drove you to the canvas?
PAMELA: Hostess cupcakes are an extremely iconic and classic symbol within our culture. As an image it perfectly encompassed the ideas that I wanted to explore. For many people it was a part of their childhood and there is a certain nostalgia related to that. Many of those same people are now adults and are disturbed by the artificially flavored, overly preserved ingredients within those same cupcakes.
EYE: There was a time centuries ago that artists painted food as a still life. Are you trying to revive that art?
PAMELA: I would not say that I am trying to revive food as a subject matter, so much as reference the tradition of using food in a still life. Food opens a window into the culture at the time of the painting.
EYE: How did this fascination with painting begin? Did you paint as a child?
PAMELA: I have always enjoyed creating things and have been drawing and painting as long as I can remember. It was a later in life decision to pursue painting as a career.
EYE: I understand you studied and practiced engineering before you turned to art. Was it hard to give up that career and go in a totally different direction?
PAMELA: There are definitely many challenges in making a living as an artist. Things like income and health insurance are much less reliable. Putting my personal creations out there for public critique took some courage in the beginning. But it was something that I really wanted to do. I was very excited to be focusing on something that I really loved doing. That made it easier to want to work through the difficulties and to do the hard work necessary to make it as an artist.
EYE: I read where you spent time in Japan just before you turned to painting full-time. Was there something in that culture that inspired you to become a full-time painter?
PAMELA: I think at that time I was already very determined to make the change to go into the arts. There are aspects of the Japanese culture that were inspiring and transformative for me. The Japanese have a strong work ethic and focus to put in the time necessary to master a skill. To be immersed in that was very inspiring.
Also I was not expecting culture shock when I returned to the U.S., but I saw my own culture very differently upon returning. Many of the excesses and the hugeness of America were overwhelming after having been removed from it for some time.
EYE: Are you trying to make a statement about over-consumption or just trying to paint a beautiful image?
PAMELA: The focus of this series is to comment on the massive amount of consumption and overindulgence in our society. Even though the underlying issues in the work are very serious, it is important to me that the images are also inviting. The excesses and waste in our society can be disturbing, but on some level the thing that we consume are still be appetizing. This conflict is an important aspect of the work.
“When choosing a subject, I think about objects that have interesting textures, color or packaging.”
EYE: What are your criteria when you chose an object? What inspires you?
PAMELA: This body of work is about consumption and I have chosen to use junk food as the subject matter to talk about that. The actual objects that I choose to paint are then decided by what I think will make an interesting painting to view. When choosing a subject, I think about objects that have interesting textures, color or packaging.
It has been brought to my attention that most of my paintings are of sweets, which was not really a conscious decision. Sweets just happen to have more sticky gooey textures and brighter colors that are more interesting to view in a completed painting.
EYE: Will you continue to paint food or move on to other images? What might fascinate you next?
PAMELA: I will continue to paint food, although I plan to paint other subject matters too. I prefer to create work that is thought provoking on some level. I am not sure what the next series of work will be yet, but it will discuss some aspect of our culture or existence.
EYE: What’s your favorite junk food? Do you ever eat any?
PAMELA: I am not a huge fan of typical mass produced junk food. I have a strong sweet tooth, but I also love to bake. So my indulgences are usually something that I have baked up at home.
EYE: Did the story on the bankruptcy of Hostess lead to a lot of interest in that painting? Is it sold?
PAMELA: I have had several people comment on the fact that Hostess is in bankruptcy and the potential impact this will have on my work. I feel that this body of work is a discussion and commentary on American culture at this time, so in some ways the bankruptcy of Hostess provides a very specific time period for this body of work. Fortunately there are still numerous other types of junk food being made, so I will not be an a loss for subject matter.
EYE: Where can folks get to see your art in the near future?
PAMELA: They can check out my next show in North Bethesda, MD at the Strathmore Hall Foundation. It’s called “You Are What You Eat” and will be there from Feb. 11-Mar. 17. Please come!