By Erin Pesut
In the 1970s, as a graduate writing student at Columbia University in New York City, Pamolu Oldham felt dwarfed by the city. “I felt so diminished by just the tallness of the buildings and the activity that never stopped.” This same feeling pervaded her work—so much so that her writing compacted. “I wrote small haiku-esque poems.” But a trip back home to the South, to a place which felt familiar (“the southern way of talking, of walking”), helped crack what needed to be cracked. Easily, she tapped into the real connections around her—people, landscape, specific objects—and her writing grew expansive.
Space and the relationship with her space influences the way in which Pamolu works and creates. When Pamolu originally bought 105 Hay Street—the building across the street—she decided to swap with John Tyson, who owned 114 Hay, where she resides today. The vital elements of 114 Hay Street (light and space) were important to Pamolu. In terms of architecture, she loved the walls and the heart pine floors.
Pamolu likes the real. The guts. The story. Each and every item in her loft—from the metal chairs from India around her table to the geode cracked in half that glitters purple on her coffee table—comes with a tale. The art adorning her walls, Pamolu knows the history and context. In many cases, she knows the artist personally.
Take, for instance, the huge four-feet by eight-feet Picasso-esque flounder which hangs above a Chinese cabinet from Pinehurst. It is the same flounder-fish she looked out upon every time she left Steele Street Methodist Church as a young girl. For years—after she sang in the choir, delivered a sermon as an eleventh grader or passed the collection plate—she saw the graying and blue flounder hanging above the Steele Street fish market. After college, on another trip home, she stopped by the fish market to see what had become of it. The man had taken the sign down the week before. It was torn. Pamolu had to have it. He sold it to her for $5.
Pamolu’s loft has three levels with an entrance at the back of the building. On the first level there is Pamolu’s workspace for creating sculpture (“When it gets warmer I’ll be down there working.”) and a “wall of honors,” full of photographs, portraits, snapshots and memories of friends, relatives and loved ones who are as dear to her as family. Up the stairs and on the mezzanine is a space for art (“Yahoo for Jesus,” crucifixes, sculptures, animal masks, a china plate with the face of Jimmy Carter and a price tag) and a long, wide white table, with its edges adorned with bottle caps which serves as a work space for writing. Upstairs, where the 100 feet of loft space is in all its glory, there is freedom. Freedom of expression. Freedom from constraints. Freedom to be what you are, who you are and how you are. All with the freedom of the real, the true. While talking about what was most crucial to Pamolu’s aesthetic, she determined, “Every material is real. From the pillows to the walls to the floor to the paintings to the ceramics, all of it is made from real materials. There’s a feeling—a calm feeling—that comes from something being exactly what it is rather than trying to appear what it is.”
The art on her walls and around her loft hails from Mexico to Chinatown to India. From the rural South to the 2nd Avenue shops in New York City. Pieces have been painted by children, sketched by friends or given to her as gifts. One man in a rocking chair has a two-liter Mountain Dew bottle as a chest. A four-paneled pastoral image by Sean McDaniel which was used for a theater performance at Fayetteville Technical Community College is behind her mother’s dining table. “People put mirrors in their house to create space, but here is a field with atmospheric perspective.” There is folk art by Mose T (Mose Tolliver). Dogs and alligators by North Carolina-native Clyde Jones. Pamolu’s own pieces, which have been featured in the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) twice. Pillows from Patzcuaro, Mexico, by the ladies of the Rug Hook Project. A quilt by the refrigerator by her sister-in-law. Paintings by Eva Raines. Paintings by Lisa Morphew. Even the hooked rugs on the floor are done and designed by her own mother, Madge Oldham. Madge cut the strips herself, dyed the strips with pokeberry and walnuts and coreopsis and stitched the burlap backing by hand.
There is pottery by Douglass Rankin, a ceramic Mexican salamander, a charcoal drawing by North Carolina-artist Tom Spleth, Jugtown pottery and a pot by A.R. Cole. Giraffes and rhinos made out of blocks of wood were painted by children. A fish with lightbulbs for eyes looks out above a door.
For someone who has always admired Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Gottlieb, Pamolu loves the loft’s walls. “The walls to me are like abstract expressionist paintings.” There are edges and scratches. Sections where brick comes through. Demarcations where a wall used to be. “This is a theme through my life and through my aesthetic. They have lived. They have their own integrity. It’s like living in my own museum of modern art. I can wake up in the morning and look up at any section of the wall. It has its own story. The space has its own story.”
But, unlike New York, none of Pamolu’s art or belongings encroach on her ability to work. Her Murphy bed can be pulled down or put up. Her three doors (bathroom, laundry, closet) are separated, yet out of the way. Within the loft she has found her balance, her rhythm. When she is not teaching English at Campbell University at Fort Bragg, Pamolu is busy, working. “I do a lot of reading and taking notes and working on my own stuff, and if I decide to go to sleep at nine o’clock and wake up at 2 o’clock and work until 6 o’clock, it’s fine; nobody is bothered by that.” Nor is she disturbed when she is deep in the practice of piecing her work together. “I think that is so critical. I’m never stimulated to come out of the place I’m in when I’m trying to create something.”
And the noises of the outside world—a train whistle or jazz music from the wine cafe— are wonderful. “My activities that are my passion can be very solitary, so it’s wonderful to have someone backfiring or a siren or children jumping around. It’s all so very much life-y. The noise, it keeps me anchored.”
Within her loft, there is a sense of reverence. “A lot of prayer has come through because I really wanted this space. I’m thankful to be in it.” Getting an historic building up to code comes with certain requirements and regulations. She’s remediated asbestos, dealt with broken appliances and washed the walls with four layers of clear lead-abatement product. The heart pine floors, she kept. “They looked like brown yuck when I first came in,” but she scratched away the dirt. Her father was in the lumber business. He had taught her well. Dear friends like Lisa Morphew, Jess Morphew, Cordell Evans, Bishop Hairston and the inspiration of Carolyn P. Dedeaux have helped immensely along the way.
“I’m so happy to have a space of my own. And to pull together the things of my life that mean so much to me. I wish it for everybody. If someone said, ‘Here’s this Picasso you can have,’ I’d say, ‘Well, maybe, or maybe not.’”
At night, the lit-winged elm sprayed white reflects through the triptych window that looks out onto Hay Street and the trees outside, a light to the night—the muse is at work.