"Hymns to Nature" at the MN Arboretum - Pamela Sukhum Solo Exhibition - Press Release
A scientist turned artist: Pamela Sukhum
Minnesota-born Thai-American painter uses chemistry skills to make her canvases glow
By Sarah Jackson
Have you ever looked up at the sky, across the water or over a landscape and been moved by the grand scale, the beauty and the resulting sense of peace and awe that such a moment can bring?
It’s these moments, including many experiences right here in Minnesota, that have inspired world-renowned, Thai-American, Minnesota-born painter Pamela Sukhum to create works of art that somehow seem to glow from within.
Sukhum — who opens a highly anticipated show in the Arboretum’s Reedy Gallery on Sept. 8 — seeks to “honor that sense of joy beyond comprehension” humans can access when faced with nature’s glory.
Art fans and collectors in Minnesota are getting a rare treat as the exhibit is the artist’s first showing in seven years in Minnesota, where Sukhum lives part-time in Sartell.
Sukhum’s exhibition, “The Art of Pamela Sukhum: Hymns to Nature,” includes pieces that range from 6-inch-square “Mini” treasures to immersive 4-foot-by-6-foot masterpieces. With the exception of a few prints and two graphite-on-paper drawings, the 54-piece show is composed almost entirely of mixed media on canvas.
But these are not normal canvases, not normal colors, not normal brushstrokes, not normal paints.
Sukhum’s works deliver a depth of texture, a richness of hues and an otherworldly shine, characterized by both broad sweeping lines, as well as delicate intricate details.
Beautiful Life by Pamela Sukhum
Unexpected career change
How is such innovation and vibrancy possible?
The answer lies in Sukhum’s chemistry background.
Sukhum was working as a researcher in cardiovascular health and electrophysiology at the University of Minnesota, when she became an artist.
She had always loved the sciences and all her education and training had led her to that point.
“That was really the life I had anticipated for myself,” she says in an “Inside the Studio” interview with Roxanne Hosken. “But there was a part of me that was longing for something completely creative and unbounded.”
Though she had never painted before, Sukhum bought art supplies and, not having a proper easel, set the canvas on a radiator in her apartment.
“I remember the moment my brush touched the canvas,” Sukhum says in her talk with Hosken. “As soon as it did, something opened in me, this sense of openness and vastness and possibility, and it was intoxicating.”
A secret side project
Sukhum’s love of painting blossomed, and she continued in secret.
“No one knew what I was doing,” she tells Hoskin. “It was like this secret love affair I was having.”
Sukhum left the biomedical field in 2003 to pursue her true passion. With barely enough money in hand for the first month’s rent, she moved into her downtown Minneapolis studio space to begin her new journey.
Years later, Sukhum — who today has studios (and easels) in both Minnesota and Colorado — has had her works featured in prominent fine art galleries in North America, Canada, and Dubai. Among her many honors, she was awarded the prestigious Director’s Choice Award at ArtExpo New York.
Sukhum’s corporate collections include Ernst & Young, Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Novartis, Deloitte and Clifford Chance Worldwide, Dubai.
Sukhum has used her success to help others as well with her “Beautiful Project.”
Since 2006, Sukhum has worked with the United Nations and several other groups serving underprivileged children and communities in Africa, Europe, Central America, and the U.S. — including Minnesota — helping youth use art as a healing and self-empowering force in their lives.
Azure Skies 5 by Pamela Sukhum
Scientist at heart
But let’s get back to Sukhum’s science background and how she makes her paintings seem to glow from within.
At least twice during her art career, Sukhum has been inspired to innovate by formulating her own paints.
The first time she was inspired by glass art. Looking up at the works of Dale Chihuly at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Sukhum wondered: “How could I get my paints to look like that — like glass?”
So she went back to her studio and figured out how to incorporate ground metallics into her mediums.
The second innovation came about due to practical matters. Sukhum’s heavily layered works required long drying times between coats due to thick layers of painting — in some cases a staggering 6 months.
So Sukhum tried different types of drying agents and experimented with options. Now she has a customized process that allows her to paint almost continuously thanks to faster dry times.
“I still have that heart of a scientist in me,” she says, adding that her favorite tool is her 20-hair brush that allows her to create intricate stems, leaves, petals and a sense of movement in her works.
Sukhum says in a PBS interview that her paintings take shape not in advance in her mind, but instead as she is painting, often as she reveals colors from layers underneath.
“I go over every square inch of the painting with that 20-hair brush with oil paints,” she says. “That’s when the story behind the piece reveals itself to me.”
Diving Into the Mystery by Pamela Sukhum
Connected to nature
Speaking of stories, Sukhum will be showing pieces from multiple series of her work during her Arboretum show, including “Bamboo Amongst the Oaks” and “Azure Skies.”
The latter, her most recent series, reveals the blues, pinks and purples so often found at dawn and dusk in Minnesota summers, especially on the open banks of the Mississippi River.
“These paintings honor that sense of joy beyond comprehension and what we experience when looking up at the sky,” she says. “It’s that sense of expansiveness — that same sense we can find within ourselves.”
Sukhum’s “Bamboo Amongst the Oaks” series speaks to her younger years when her family moved to a small town outside of Sartell.
“When I was growing up, we really did not feel like we fit in,” she says. “There were no people of color within a many-mile radius.”
Sukhum felt like a little tiny bamboo amongst all the mighty oak trees. Over the years, she’s come to see that everyone endures the feeling of being the odd one out.
“This is something that connects all of us,” she says. “There’s something beautiful about that: You see all of these colors and shapes represented. They celebrate the beautiful diversity and unique and distinct gifts each of us brings to the planet.”
International and local
Sukhum’s art is fueled by spiritual and human connections forged during her journeys around the globe, from the monasteries of Tibet to the refugee camps of Africa — as well as travels to Thailand, Nepal, South America and Hawaii.
Despite all that, she’s particularly excited about being able to share her work at the Arboretum.
“To me, it’s such a perfect venue,” she says. “So much of my work — the heart of it — is based in nature.”
For Wendy DePaolis, the Arboretum’s Art and Sculpture Curator, Sukhum’s visit is a longtime dream come true.
DePaolis started at the Arboretum in 2015 with a mission to connect visitors more closely to nature through art. Immediately, she heard about Sukhum and her ties to Minnesota.
“The more I learned about her — her history as a research scientist at the University of Minnesota combined with her stunning, highly textured paintings based in nature — I was hooked.” DePaolis says.
It has taken all these years for the stars to align and bring Sukhum and her work into the Reedy Gallery.
DePaolis says: “I couldn’t be more excited to present her and give our visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in her paintings.”
Sarah Jackson is a media specialist at the Arboretum.
A New Day by Pamela Sukhum
Save the date
ArtTalk: A Conversation with Pamela Sukhum
6-8 p.m. Oct. 7
Location: MacMillan Auditorium, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
Event: Meet the world-renowned painter Pamela Suhkum, presenting her first show in Minnesota in seven years. The exhibit includes more than 50 stunning canvases inspired by botanical wonders around the world, including Minnesota. Docents will answer questions in the Reedy Gallery starting at 6 p.m. Arboretum Art and Sculpture Curator Wendy DePaolis will lead a conversation with Sukhum in the auditorium at 6:30 p.m. and will encourage questions from the audience, followed by a walk through the Reedy Gallery with the artist at 7:30 p.m.
Cost: $15 for non-members ages 16 and older; free for members; advance registration is required.
Tickets: Look for a registration link, coming soon, at arb.umn.edu.