Painting With Fire 

Words By Ambar Ramirez

 

I imagine that she wakes up in the morning to the sound of hummingbirds outside of her window. She looks out on the deck that overlooks the Highlands in North Carolina and waves to the bears and deer she calls friends. There’s no doubt that there is something ethereal about Penny Pollock;  it’s as if she were a real-life Disney princess. A multi-talented one at that. Pollock and I connected over a Zoom call, which can often feel detached (vs. an in-person interview), but as soon as the camera turned on and I heard Pollock’s voice, I was filled with immense joy. 

 

Pollock was born and raised in the coastal town of Rye, New York, surrounded by beauty and nature. With a high-profile model for a mom and a stepmother working on the retail side of fashion, Pollock becoming a designer and working in fashion was basically written in the stars. After studying a few semesters of art at the University of Denver, Pollock decided she needed to experience more culture, more life. She packed her bags and left her life in America to study at a fashion design school in Europe.

 

“I always loved textiles. My mother was a model; she was on all the billboards for Coca-Cola during the ’50s, and so she loved fashion. And I have a stepmother who owned a lot of designer maternity stores. She was the first one to kind of get that concept,” Pollock shared. “For me, it was just, I think, kind of part of my cell makeup,” 

 

After finishing her studies in Europe, Pollock moved to Manhattan, New York, where she worked as a fashion stylist. Once she got a taste of the glitz and glamorous lifestyle that New York City is notorious for, Pollock saw a real opportunity to make a name for herself while also doing what truly made her happy.

 

“I have always loved kids and loved animals so, first of all, I said I’m just going to do freelance styling for kids because nobody does it,” Pollock said. “And so I worked a lot with Hershey; I worked with McDonald’s. Then I became head of licensing for Barbie and became a fashion director for a Barbie magazine that we started. It was great fun and I loved it.”

 

Pollock stuck with Barbie for a long time before she moved to Dallas where she worked as a fashion director for a design company, which gave her the chance to travel a lot (more on that later). Eventually, she wound up in California where she designed shoes and handbags — and owned an avocado ranch. At this point of the interview, I had to ask Pollock what is something hasn’t she done to which she comically replied “math.” 

 

While her professional accomplishments have been impressive, Pollock was always meant for something more. From a young age, she was drawn to indigenous and Native American art. And so, like anyone who has a thirst for knowledge and culture, Pollock fed her inner child and traveled the world: 132 countries to be more exact. During her travels, Pollock connected with many artisans and craftspeople who would lead her down a new path of art. 

 

“Even as a young child, Native American art, their production, their crafts and just each tribe … I was so interested in it,” Pollock shared. “I just love indigenous cultures, and we can’t have storytelling in culture stop or come to a halt because it would be tragic. And so I try and incorporate in my work, textiles [and] emotions to bring in the sense of different cultures.”

 

Though this bird loved to spread her wings and travel, Pollock eventually settled down in Jacksonville and Highlands, where she began to study ceramics and primitive pottery. Through Zoom, Pollock shared with me some of her pottery pieces scattered around her nest: a gorilla with wired flies floating around its head that she made in honor of her time in Uganda; “The Buzz of Life,” a figure with a beehive for hair as a commentary on how society is often distracted by the business of life; and, my personal favorite, a figure with intentionally placed holes symbolizing some of Pollock’s own personal tragedies and disappointments — but within each hole are jewels representing the beauty within darkness. Each piece tells a story, each one worth listening to. 

 

Making pottery can be tedious and Pollock most definitely has a gift for it, but she found another way to continue telling stories that didn’t take nearly as long to create. Encaustic painting dates back to the 5th century B.C. when the Greeks “painted” beeswax on ship hulls to repair damage and keep them from sinking. The Romans also practiced encaustic painting as part of their mummification process by creating portraits of passed loved ones on the wood that covered the deceased’s face. And now Pollock, along with many artists around the world, uses this ancient technique to tell stories.

 

“Encaustic painting is using beeswax, tree resin and pigments that are all melted. Everything has to be melted,” Pollock said. “Then I add pigments to it that look like little ice cubes, but they’re color, right? And you paint with the pigment and the encaustic medium mixed together when it’s hot, and you have to use a propane torch that adheres it to the wood.”

 

Pollock loves that she can finish a painting in a day as opposed to waiting for pieces to dry to then bisque fire them, then glaze and fire them again. This technique also allows Pollock to incorporate other mediums she loves like textiles and dried botanicals. What I love about these pieces is how unique they are, not only in their completed form but also in Pollock’s artistic process. Unlike many artists who leave the meaning behind their work up to interpretation, Pollock writes down the meaning on her blog before she even starts painting. She shared an excerpt from her journal that she wrote for her recycled paper piece “Spring and the Hummingbirds,” which uses dried botanicals, flowers and “parables.”

 

“The hummingbird symbolizes, for us, to enjoy the lightness of being and to savor the sweetness of life. Lift up negativity whenever and wherever it creeps in and express love more fully in daily endeavors. Spring is always a welcome season, not only for weather changes after a long winter of hibernation, but also life-wise,” Pollock shared. “Spring gives us humans a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. Spring is a new dawn for all of us. Let’s take advantage of it and blossom.”

 

Before ending the Zoom call with Pollock, I had one last question for her: Why are the subjects of her paintings mostly women?

 

“I have such a thirst for connection with women and their traditions, their food, their families, their clothing choices. Because of my background, because of their botanicals and because of, honestly, their kindness and their openness,” Pollock expressed. “When one travels the world and you see the generosity of people who are not suspicious, not threatened by you but want to embrace you, want to take you off the street and invite you in for dinner, want you to be a part of their family [and] are so proud of what they have when they have, in our terminology and our American paradigm, so little. But in reality they have so much power.”

 

Within Pollock, there is so much love and joy for living. It’s expressed in her art and her words. And maybe she gained this contagiously positive energy from traveling and experience, but I think she was born this way. A human hummingbird.

 

You can find Pollock’s works and blog on pennypollockart.com.

About Ambar Ramirez

Flipping through magazines for as long as she can remember, Ambar Ramirez has always known she wanted to be a journalist. Fast forward, Ambar is now a multimedia journalist and creative for Folio Weekly. As a recent graduate from the University of North Florida, she has written stories for the university’s newspaper as well as for personal blogs. Though mainly a writer, Ambar also designs and dabbles in photography. If not working on the latest story or design project, she is usually cozied up in bed with a good book or at a thrift store buying more clothes she doesn’t need.