A Vashon Islander Faces the World

I first met painter Pam Ingalls of Vashon Island on a cold winter day in 2011. She was one of many artists attending our Art Projects application workshops. I was pleased to see her application arrive. Her project idea was well thought out and the peer-panel voted in favor of her receiving an award. In this guest blog post, Pam shares her experience of what was once just and idea discussed at a workshop.

Pam Ingalls, Grace, Oil on Board, © 2012 Courtesy of the Artist

“The more we feel connected to other people, the more we care about what happens to them – and to the world where all of us live,” says Ingalls. Six years ago she began a portrait project that has connected her – and the people here in King County – to individuals in different parts of the world. Each year she exhibits 40-50 portraits of people from one small community at The Hardware Store Galleryon Vashon Island. After the first show of 50 Vashon Islanders, she painted villagers in: Jamaica, Alaska, Guatemala, and people in one apartment building in New York City. Support from 4Culture was used for her exhibition of  the Khasi people in Shillong, India.

“If the power of connecting by looking into someone’s face can change the world – even just a little – we are all richer,” she says. “These paintings are my tiny way of making peace.”

I didn’t even realize Meghalaya was part of India when a Catholic nun from India, who was giving a lecture at Green River Community College, invited me to paint portraits there. Even most Indian tourists don’t go to the northeast corner of India. Eight months later I was on the 7 hour drive from Guwahati airport to Bellefonte Convent with a driver and another dynamite Catholic sister, Helen. I loved every minute of the drive through muddy “highways,” stunning people in flowing colors, bizarre fruits, crazy construction techniques, (even a working elephant!). Sister Helen told me about her life growing up in a tiny village and a little bit about the Khasi culture. Who knew that there was an area of India that is about half Catholic? And that there was a true matriarchal society that has existed for thousands of years in the mountainous land just north of Bangladesh? I was about to paint portraits of these fascinating people – who look more Cambodian than Indian – and to fall in love with them.

I travel with a small oil painting box, a few paints, brushes, small canvases and a little video camera. I painted portraits of my hosts while I was there (14 Catholic sisters) to leave for them as gifts. When I wasn’t painting, I roamed the unpaved streets, exploring Shillong – usually with a sister at my side.

At home in my studio I painted from video stills that I collected on those daily adventures. My Vashon studio filled up with large and small versions of sweet, serious Khasi faces. My heart filled up with the desire to share these people with others. Painting is an intimate, solitary process, that ends up so public.

Forty portraits of Indian people exhibited at The Hardware Store Gallery throughout the month of May, 2012. Visitors came from all over King County. Even Sister Helen came to The Hardware Store (though a bit before the show). Everyone got a small taste of what people in that area of the world are like. Patrons who bought portraits will think about the Khasi people for years as they live with a portrait on their wall. The show even inspired two Vashon Islanders to travel to Shillong later in 2012 to build composting toilets for Bellefonte Community College. Each portrait subject in Meghalaya received a print of their painting; and as the paintings sell, they receive a portion of the sale.

I think of connections like thin threads between people. Sometimes they’re fine as fine as silk; sometimes they’re like steel. If enough threads connect people, communities and countries, they create a beautiful tapestry of strong bonds. I hope these portraits created more connections to add to the tapestry. The project will continue growing as the remaining paintings are shown in various exhibitions. And hopefully, some of the connections will last a lifetime.