A! Magazine for the Arts

Pam Stewart works on a watercolor painting of her home in Abingdon. (Photo by David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier)

Pam Stewart works on a watercolor painting of her home in Abingdon. (Photo by David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier)

Art Gurls Give Former Police Officer Artistic Outlet

February 5, 2009

*** This story was published Feb. 2, 2009 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***

For 20 years, Pam Stewart saw the darker side of humanity working as a police officer in Virginia Beach, a career she loved, but one that left little time for her other passion - art.

"My escapism from that was to sit down with a pad of paper and draw fantasy art," Stewart said, recalling late-night shifts, daily court appointments and little free time. "I actually almost had to give it up because the career was all-encompassing."

When she and her husband both retired from law enforcement, they decided to move inland to a small town known for its artistic flare, Abingdon, after reading about it in John Villani's "The 100 Best Art Towns in America."

"My husband said, 'You remember Abingdon? You like that little town,' " Stewart said. "I didn't want to live in just any little town. It had to be something special."

Once there, Stewart found an outlet for her artwork through an association of artists and art lovers called Art Gurls, which she heard about during a visit to a local art store.

"We just pick something crazy and fun to do that doesn't cost a lot of money," Stewart said about the organization, which meets about every two months and works on various projects such as "Beauty and the Breast," an exhibit that moved around the community for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or an upcoming gallery-hopping trip to Asheville, NC.

"The meeting at Christmas was at my house," Stewart said, who is currently renovating her 1800s home. "It was potluck. They made the best dishes of food and all of it was pretty. That's an artist for you."

Like most creative individuals, Stewart sees art in a unique way.

"Art is expression," Stewart said. "Everyone's expression is different. To me, it's color. I'm not a real black-and-white artist."

Part of Stewart's unique approach to color is displayed above her door, a stained-glass window that was given to her by fellow artist and friend Susan Powers, in exchange for Stewart's pen-and-ink drawings of owls.

"I was looking at the art colors," Powers said about the palette choice Stewart chose for the glass, "and at first it wasn't my favorite piece, but I think its fantastic where it's at and she knew it would be. ... It's that extra flair."

Stewart initially used that flair as a 17-year-old artist living in Chicago, selling paintings to a local gallery. She moved on to work for the Swiss Miss advertising campaign when the company first started in the 1970s, but Stewart's idea of art wasn't drawing someone else's ideas.

"There are a lot of times that she'll get this pent-up energy," Powers said of her friend. "She's so spontaneous and you can tell that in her work. It's not contrived."

That's when Stewart decided to move on to her other passion, law enforcement.

"I have a lot of family and friends who were upset because I wasn't a professional artist," Stewart said. "They said, 'You're wasting your talent.' "

While pursuing law enforcement, art was put on the back burner.

"When you are doing police work, you can't let your mind wander," Stewart said. "It's so ugly that you've got to have an outlet to go somewhere for a while. You get as far away from that as you can. My fantasy work was always wonderful, neat, colorful and beautiful."

Stewart's fantasy art included depictions of space scenes, wizards and angels. But with little time outside of her police job for this outlet, Stewart would have to take time off just to work on art.

"You have your everyday work and life, and trying to fit that in is always difficult," said fellow artist and Art Gurls member Jan Hurt. "For an artist, particularly a female artist, the demands of life often cause you to have to put your art second, or third or fourth."

Stewart said her passion for police work has led to the next step in her life - retirement.

"You know how your life is in phases," Stewart said, "This is just part two."

In addition to Art Gurls, part two includes renovating her house, writing, painting, carving and sculpting.

Now, she said, she has the time to pursue art, without the badge.