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Local artist continues to enjoy painting well into her 80s

Pamela Adams-Somerville does not take her talent for granted, "I am incredibly grateful, to be creative is wonderful."

Pamela Adams-Somerville is a professional artist with a profound love of nature.

She has spent the better part of her 86 years sketching and painting the great outdoors.

Sitting in her North Bay home, surrounded by trees and wildlife, the petite soft-spoken woman shares insight into her work.   

“It is very important to me. I like to look at patterns and designs in nature. I like to look at negative spaces, and I love the rolling countryside and the shape of trees against a wild landscape. And really the only thing more exciting than that is when you add colour to it all. It is perfectly lovely,” explained the artist who has worked with oils and watercolours, even painting on silk with French dyes, but her “absolute favourite” is oils.

“And large, very large. If somebody hadn’t already got the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I’d have liked it,” she laughed.

Based on her experience, oils tend to be more forgiving.

“Watercolour is much more demanding.  You have to sort of think in reverse with watercolours. You have to think of all the light areas that have to be left or the white areas that have to be left and you sort of have to work backwards. Whereas with oil, you can over-paint, you can shift it around for several days. It doesn’t exactly dry right away so it is very convenient to be able to do that.”

Unlike some artists who may resort to taking pictures of the subject matter first, before transferring the image onto canvas, this artist prefers to be guided by emotion.   

“I don’t work from photographs at all, I work from sketches. And I write notes to myself all over my sketch about how I feel about the clouds and how I feel about the greenery and the background and the middle ground and the foreground. I write all these notes around and then I transcribe that scene when I get to my studio, onto a canvas or onto paper.”   

Originally from England, the English countryside was a great source of inspiration.   

“I’ve been painting my whole entire life. I grew up in a war. My father was in the Air Force.”

During the war, she and her mother would travel with everything they owned in two little suitcases, staying in people’s homes along the way.

“My mother said to me very definitely early on that I must be very quiet when I’m in somebody else’s house because otherwise, they won’t want us to live with them. So that is probably what started me doing a lot of painting,”

Her parents soon recognized that their daughter had a special gift, something they encouraged and no doubt was inherited from them.  

“My father was very good with watercolours and my mother could paint too. So, I guess it was kind of a natural for me,” she said with affection in her voice, crediting her father with teaching her about perspective.

“We would be driving down the road and he would say ‘Look at those telephone poles. How do they look to you?’ I would think, what does he want me to say? They’re big brown poles. And he would say ‘Look at the size of them. Look at the size of them as you look down the road.’ And I said, ‘They look like they’re very little a long way away.’  And he said ‘That is called perspective. And I will show you how to draw those,’” she shared.

“And we would get home and he would show me how to draw poles that looked as if they were going down a road or a building that looked like it was a good substantial-looking building, how to put the windows and how to put the doors in. So, he showed me those things.”

When she was about five years old, the young girl sent her father a letter which included one of her earliest drawings, a copy of which she has kept.  

“I drew pictures. My father was at the Battle of El Alamein and I sent him a letter with a picture of a dog laying down.”   

Her most recent work hangs in her living room, a large painting she has lovingly named Misty Morning which she worked on last winter.

“It is hanging there because I’m not sure it’s finished. I kind of sneak up on it, ” laughed Pam with a twinkle in her eye.

“I woke up one morning and it was sort of misty outside and I looked out at the trees and I thought it was so interesting how things seem to kind of creep towards you in the mist. And you could have something with wonderful colour in the front and yet be all sort of very soft and subdued and sort of relaxing in the background. And so, I just started to paint it, and that was that. I love the idea of a little bit of open water at the front and the colour all coming into the reeds and the rushes and the wild rose hips. I just wanted it to sort of melt away into a kind of softness.”

Adding to her life experiences, the painter has travelled the world extensively, cherishing the trips taken with her late husband Don, a dentist who had a passion for painting and writing.

“My favourite I think probably has been the northern territories, partly because the landscape is wonderful and you feel as if it breathes and you can see forever, but it is not just that. I mean, the people make a huge difference, and we were very warmly welcomed by one family that Don was very friendly with.”

In 1985 Pam made the move to North Bay, making it her permanent home.

“I came here and got married to Don who was the first dentist in Manitouwadge. We’d been great friends and we were ready to get married, and so we did. I miss him very much. He died in 2017.”

She found it difficult to pick up a brush after her best friend and beloved husband passed away.

“And that was very strange to me because I couldn’t go two days without painting. I found myself edgy and needing to be in the studio. When he died, I realized that I had lost the person who was most supportive and had lots of wonderful ideas,” she reflected with sadness.

“If he couldn’t make it down to the studio he would say, ‘If you can, bring it up and we’ll prop it someplace while we eat dinner and we’ll talk about it.’ And so, suddenly I didn’t have that.”

The artist need only look out the window or go for a short walk to get her creative juices flowing.   

“I love my birds and my animals of which there are a lot. I was laying in bed reading one morning and out of the corner of my eye I saw this black shape and it was a bear. It was climbing up on my carport to find out if there was anything in the bird feeders. There wasn’t anything and as she came down, I tapped on the window and I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And she looked like a dog, she turned her head from one side and then the other side,” she laughed thinking of the encounter.      

“I didn’t paint the bear, but I can still see the look on its face. It was probably a second year. She was very lovely and I felt sorry that there wasn’t anything much for her to eat. It was spring and she had just come from hibernation. I also have deer, pine martens, and foxes here.”

It took a recent health scare to get her back into the studio.

“When I got ill, I got a new procedure done in Sudbury and it worked. I walked out into the hospital parking lot and said ‘I’ve been given another chance. I better start painting again.”

She looks back at her earlier work with fondness.

“I can see sometimes there are things that might be wrong but I wouldn’t change a thing because that is what I was, at that time, and now I’m something different.”

Like asking to choose your favourite child, the artist claims to have no favourites.

“You relate to things in moments and experiences and you put it down on the canvas and you have that feeling about a particular area. Yes, I loved that spot, but now it is time to go on to something else.”

Initially, she found it difficult to part with her paintings.

“It was hard, but it’s not now. I guess because I’m old now I like the idea of sharing. I want somebody else to enjoy them,” she grinned.

“My first show was in 1980 at Cedar Ridge Studio and Gallery in Scarborough. I taught there and so I sort of said I would like to have a show and they said ‘Well, that would be great, but it will be a year from now.’ Quite often galleries will say two years from now and I didn’t have a single, solitary painting at that point.”

By the time her show opened, she had completed 42 paintings.

“I worked very hard, not all of them were large, some were much smaller. And I painted them according to the subject. And when people came to the show, they wanted to know how many artists were showing there. There were three huge rooms and when they were told just one, they said it didn’t look like just one, it looks like several.”

She is currently concentrating on adding to her collection.

The finished pieces will be showcased on her website for people to view with the option to purchase them.

Pam has never taken her talent for granted.  

“I am incredibly grateful. To be creative is wonderful and it is useful. I spend all winter knitting for the church. I made baby blankets and big blankets, booties and jackets and toques and mittens. Creativity I think is a lot of pleasure to the person doing it and the person receiving it.”

Remaining creative also helps keep the mind sharp.

“When I paint, I paint swiftly and I have paint all over me. Someone who paints really well here in town said, ‘I really envy you’ and I asked him why and he said, ‘Because I think you have a really good time.’ I just want an impact.”

The impact she makes is evident by the work found on her website

Fans will be excited to know there is another project in the works which will take her in a different direction.

The winter project will honour her husband Don by taking his collection of photographs from their travels throughout the Northwest Territories, along with a line or two from his writings and organizing them into book form.  

Luckily for us, the creativity just keeps coming.