“Go on, Pam, keep telling your story.”
Dr. Pamela G. Taylor
This Legends and Legacies interview with Dr. Pamela G. Taylor, Professor of Art Education, Virginia Commonwealth University, was conducted by Dr. David Burton on May 11, 2017. Dr. Taylor retired in 2017.
Pamela Taylor: I was always drawing. I don’t remember exactly when I started. My earliest recollection was to always draw. My father would give me the cardboards that were in his shirts. There wasn’t a lot of drawing materials back in the late fifties and early sixties. I would just draw on anything. I was also fortunate to have parents who were somewhat creative in that they had a floral shop, in addition to my father’s job, traveling for the tobacco industry. With a floral shop in our backyard, there was all sorts of floral supplies, which meant there was all sorts of art supplies. My father was also very interested in art and we would draw together. He would help me make things for school and the county fair.
And then, of course, there was Sailor Bob (a local afternoon children’s television show; Pam’s “first love”). When I got home from school, I would turn on the Sailor Bob Show and he would draw, and I would draw along with him. That was every day.
We didn’t have art in elementary school. It would just depend on the teacher. In second grade, Virginia Evans was very interested in art and we really did a lot of art. She kept all of the artwork and then she had a show in the little town library maybe twenty years ago. Then she gave all the artwork back to the families of those children. My uncle had a frame shop so he framed my artwork. I did a portrait of Mrs. Evans and she had the biggest smile, so the smile (in the portrait) is from here to here.
When I was in kindergarten, I was Little Bo Peep, and I have thought about that way too much over the years. I guess I was still into it in second grade, so I did this great mixed media piece with the sheep and the tempera background top to bottom. The best thing Mrs. Evans taught me was the freedom to be creative. She would ask if anyone had a story about something they had done that they would like to share and that they had written on a piece of paper. I raised my hand and said, “Yes, I did,” took a blank sheet of paper, and stood in front of the class and told my story. Marshall Lynch said, “There’s nothing on her paper.” I just looked up, shocked that he could tell, and Mrs. Evan said, “Go on, Pam, keep telling your story.” She didn’t admonish me or anything; that has stuck with me.
And then in fourth grade, I had Mrs. Wilson, who was also an artist. I had Mrs. Evans in the sixth grade, who recognized that I loved art. She encouraged me and had me do all of the bulletin boards. Then I had her again in seventh grade which was really great. I’ve seen her recently, and her husband was a good friend of Sailor Bob. Small world, huh?
I took art when I was in high school. We didn’t have middle school back then. You went directly from seventh grade into high school in eighth grade. Then we moved to Bristol, Tennessee, and Mr. Hite was my art teacher. He allowed me to come into art class for two periods, and then when I was a senior, for three periods. It was awesome! I took mechanical drawing; I was the only girl.
I was also a ballet major. You know, you go where the money is, so I went to Sullins College, in Bristol, Virginia, for dance for two years. I did a minor in studio art and art history. It was mainly drawing from plaster casts. We did have some clothed models for life drawing. Then I went to Virginia Intermont College after that. My mother went to Intermont for one year back in the forties. So I majored in Art Education there. But the reason I did art education was because, like everybody, I wanted to be a famous artist, but my parents said, “Well, let’s just have something to fall back on.”
Marvin Tadlock was my professor at Virginia Intermont. He taught all of the art education classes. I had Ted Blevins in studio.
Then, student teaching happened, and I thought, “Oh, well, here we go…” The first day of student teaching, it just hit me and I felt so wonderful. I was there, I was sharing. They were so excited. I could see differences in the kids. Mr. Lockett was my cooperating teacher. It was just a dream and I figured it was definitely something I wanted to do.
I couldn’t find a job. I married my high school sweetheart and stayed in Bristol. I did land a highly-coveted job for the Bristol newspaper as their senior staff artist. I got to do editorial art and that was the best. Then I moved to Nashville and worked for an advertising-type house. I got another job working for the Nashville Scene, a magaloid—half magazine, half tabloid for the entertainment industry in Nashville, which was really interesting. I did a little bit of drawing, but that’s when I first started writing. I did a little bit for the Artist’s Beat, reviews and such. It gave me an idea what publishing was about.
Then I married Ron Solomon in 1984. We lived there a while and then moved closer to his kids and my family in the Roanoke area. The Roanoke school district had started having elementary art, so I realized I could finally get to do my dream job. I had a really good portfolio because I had been working for newspapers. I got a job in 1988 at Christiansburg High School and Christiansburg Middle School. I loved it; it was awesome! I taught there from 1988 to 1997.
I decided to go back for a Masters. So I went to Radford University. I finished my masters in two years because it is very studio based. My professors were Lynn Gordon, Noel Lawson, and Charlie Brauer. When I had my orals, they said, “Well, what do you want to do next?” I said, “I would like to do what you do (teach college).”
I decided to go for a doctorate. I needed to go to the university that was closest to where I lived, and that was Penn State. I took a year’s leave from Christiansburg. I lived in a tiny efficiency. I studied with Marge and Brent Wilson, Paul Bolin, Patricia Amburgy, Al Anderson, Charles Garoin, Bob Ott and Elizabeth Garber. I finished all of my classes in one year. I would take six at a time. The second semester, Brent Wilson asked me to work for the Getty Institute and travel around. That was amazing to learn about that and be included. I went back to Christiansburg High School and did my research.
The year after I graduated a position came open at Radford University. I got to work with Charlie Brauer which was just a dream. My interest in service learning started when one of my art education graduate students at Radford came to me and said, “I wanted to do a little service around Christmas so I would feel better. I found this group called Beans and Rice, and I was just going to volunteer for a day. I just wanted to wrap presents, but I found out that you have to do more than that, and I thought of you when I found out more about it. Here is the woman’s name; I thought you might be interested.” So, I said, “OK”. Then I called her. Nelda Pearson was her name. She taught social work at Radford. We had lunch and my whole world was changed.
The idea with service learning is that you can be learning while at the same time making a difference in the world. I learned so much by coming to the Virginia Campus Outreach Opportunity League workshops that Nelda Pearson told me about. The workshops helped me understand that service is not charity. There is a huge difference between service and charity. You should be treating people as equal partners. That was a hard lesson for my students to learn. We had so many programs at Radford. We had a Little Masters Program where the (middle class) kids paid to attend. They were polite and appreciative. Then we had a program in the library where the kids didn’t pay but they were also polite and appreciative. But at the low income housing, it was really hard. The kids acted up, they talked back, they wouldn’t listen. They were not cute. I would listen to my students’ complaints (Paolo Friere says to listen), and then I would say, “OK, which group needs you the most?” Until you stop trying to teach at them, and begin to learn with them, then it can became a goal for me in your life. Working with, being a part of, should be a part of what it is to be human. It’s not like a special thing you do in class. It should be just what you do; it should be habitual.
I meant you (David Burton) when we attended the Virginia Campus Outreach Opportunity League workshop at the University of Richmond. I had started doing work with the Beans and Rice Program at Radford and I applied to be a Service Learning Fellow. You came to my presentation when I presented my dissertation at the NAEA convention in Washington DC.
Then I went to the University of Georgia in 2001, and stayed there until 2004. I met Joe Norman, the printmaker, there. He taught me a lot about social justice and racial and ethnic issues that I had no idea about. We would go to lunch every day and I was taking notes because I was writing my book about him.
I remember when I was at Georgia and I used to have arguments with Edmund Feldman on a regular basis, and he would shake his finger at me and everything. I was looking at it from a more Postmodern view than his Formalist view. One time, toward the end of my time there, he said, “You know, you’re just publishing so many things, and you know what I think, you’ve got a lot of stuff to say.”
I came to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2004. I have become very interested in data visualization. I was awarded a $1,000,000 grant to develop eLASTIC, a data visualization, hypertext educational system.
What have been some of my most memorable experiences? The kid who was just a pain, doing everything opposite of what he was supposed to. He banged the Elmer’s Glue bottle down on the table and the glue shot right up into his eye. The MSDS sheet said to flush for 15 minutes under running water. I held his eye under the water—“You have to stay under the water for 15 minutes or else you’ll be blind!” It was great!
I set up a still life of things that mattered to them. It was homecoming, so there was a football helmet and pompoms. They were loving it. I got little table easels because you can’t have 30 big, standing easels in a classroom. The shop cut pieces of Masonite for me. There’s this big football player there, painting, looking around and smiling, because he’s just loving it, because he felt like a real artist.
Another time I was teaching Hokusai’s Great Wave of Kengawa. It was a writing activity. I said, “I want you to choose one of the figures in the boat. That’s you and you’re writing a letter home.” There were these big, burly football players who would write letters to their mothers, “Oh, mama, thank you for everything you’ve done for me…”
Probably one of the best things was Kerry Gwynn. I taught her when she was in fifth grade in middle school, and then when I was at the high school, she was in my ART 1, 2, 3 and 4. Then I went to Radford and she was with me all four years. And now she teaches at Christiansburg High School in my old artroom. That’s really wonderful to have someone go along like that.
I had a student, Nathan Alsite, who was in my dissertation. He was a pre-med student but he became interested in hypertext and changed his major, much to his parents’ chagrin. When I came here, Ryan told me he had a student named Nathan Alsite, and it was him. He finished the degree and now he’s teaching in California.
Because I’m retiring this year, more students have written me notes, saying things like, “I didn’t know whether this (art education) was right for me until I took your course. Thank you for allowing me to be me.” I do talk to my students about what the job is like.
I think one of my proudest moments was when I was editor of Art Education, the NAEA Journal. I felt really empowered to say and do what I needed. I tried to use my power as the editor to enable other people to say some things that might be difficult to say. I really did enjoy that a lot. It was a lot of work.
Of course, the million dollar grant was big. That was always a dream. Qatar was really eye-opening to see the art in the schools and to see the teachers’ values, understanding that they couldn’t necessarily do the things they wanted to do.
The work I did in Cuba was pretty amazing for me. Tim Rollins (KOS: Kids of Survival, in New York City) was influential on me. Carmen Colangelo was amazing! He was the Director of the ---- School of the Arts. I learned so much from him. And Rick Toscan (former dean of the VCU School of the Arts) was really instrumental in support of my research in Qatar and of art education.
Steve Carpenter, Christine Ballengee-Morris, Billie Sessions and I wrote our book, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Teaching Art in High School, together. NAEA published it in 2006. Steve and I wrote a lot together in the early part of our careers. In fact, he came down to Georgia and we spent days working on things. He brought his brother. His brother would sit there and help us find words. We called him “Theo”, short for “Thesaurus”.
I’ve served VAEA in the Higher Education and Research offices several times. With NAEA, I done the research groups, not the Research Commission. Being editor of Art Education journal is the big one, and then working with USSEA. I received the Zeigfeld Award, the Cathy Conners Award from the Women’s Caucus, and I was elected to the NAEA Distinguished Fellows. I also received the NAEA National Higher Educator of the Year. Probably the biggest thing in my career was the million dollar grant.