The story told in Collectable Memories rightly begins with “Swim Lessons,” in which the self-taught artist reveals an intuitive feeling for composition by crowding together five children, one of them her own daughter, in the shallow end of the pool — as well as in the lower left corner of an eight-by-ten inch sheet of paper. They grip the pool’s edge, beyond which a pair of floating lane ropes invite them and the viewer’s eye, like the cliché railroad tracks of a lesson in optics, into an expanse of blue water. This is the outset of a journey into life itself.
The parents of any family with four children are bound to collect memories of toys used by a succession of their young as tools to aid in growing up while practicing the life lessons modeled for them by family and friends: primarily by those same mothers and fathers. If, by chance, one of those caregivers is also an artist, that one will have not only an archive of memories, but a physical archive in the form of images that capture and reshape those days. She will remind us that, for a child, play is a form of work: the labor of becoming ones self.
The first lesson in life is self-expression, particularly language, which is quickly grasped as the key to getting what one needs and wants. After that, given the number of years the average American child spends being transported, and how central the means of that coming and going are to independence, it’s not surprising that things with wheels, ultimately automotive, are perceived similarly as access to power. Painter Pam Baumeister has recorded these iconic objects of desire, both those achieved and the ones that got away, among her painted recollections of childhood: her own and those of her family.
“Vintage Trike” presents a sampler of childhood wheels: the title three wheeler, which the artist credits with installing in her a love of the wind in her face, which she later transferred to a grown-up, two-wheeled version. A car-shaped wagon, complete with headlights, forms a transition to a pedal-powered car with an actual steering wheel. Here the grownup child comes into conflict with her parental identity as she recalls thrills like rushing madly down hills—unforgettable delights she wishes she could pass along, but which collide headlong with responsibility for her children’s safety.
The inevitable fate of earliest accouterments comes across in “Lonely Wagon,” in which a red Radio Flyer seems about to roll right off the edge of the page, followed by its symbolic shadow. The accurate perspective rendering of the wagon contrasts with the way the sidewalk and lawn rear up, either to formally present it or to drop it from the frame.
Each of the real cars she depicts subsequently becomes a milestone in her family’s life: the Cadillac her brother coveted but could not afford, the red Corvette he finally bought and meticulously cared for, the ’57 Chevy she idolized, the Stingray that connected with her avocation to become a marine biologist … each stands for an era in a life as well as a moment of climax and transition.
More so than most art media, watercolors fall on a continuum between meticulous planning, drawing, and careful filling-in of color on the one hand, and spontaneous, inventive brushwork on the other. Pam Baumeister seeks the point where the depiction is accurate and intimately recognizable, but not so tightly controlled as to rule out the freedom to connect ones own memories with those she has tracked down over a quarter century of art. Those who enjoy her approach to nostalgia, but see enough cars during a daily commute, should appreciate that her versatility extends to playing in the snow, on boats and at holidays, and includes some of the many places she’s visited.
Pam Baumeister: Collectible Memories, Sprague Branch Library, Salt Lake City, through Dec. 9