Contributing to the Epic

Master classes with guest artists are common at Interlochen Arts Academy, regardless of area of study. Less often are students invited to collaborate with and add to an artist’s work—but that’s just the invitation that visual arts students received from guest artist Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum.

Sunstrum, an internationally recognized artist based out of Johannesburg, South Africa, arrived at Interlochen while the last summer students were still on campus. Using the walls of the Dow Center for Visual Arts gallery as her canvas, Sunstrum spent the next 10 days creating a large-scale installation titled “Omphalos” out of pencil, tempera paint and chalk. Each of the gallery’s four walls features a seemingly separate idea unified by a consistent color palette and the idea of a mythical journey.

“Omphalos” is a term used often in Greek mythology to describe the “earth center”—often depicted as an erupting volcano. “A volcano is crazy and powerful; it’s a portal into the inner workings of the earth,” Sunstrum said. The volcano is one of Sunstrum’s favorite symbols to incorporate into her art. Another one of Sunstrum’s favorite subjects—and clearly evident in “Omphalos”—is the intersection of the modern and the prehistoric. “Science and mythology are after the same thing. They’re asking the same questions: Why are we here? What is the world made of?”

Mythology in particular is one of Sunstrum’s favorite muses, and it ties in perfectly with this year’s Academy theme, ‘pilgrimage,’ as she was quick to point out to students. “Mythical heroes are always going on quests or journeys, with the end result of learning about the world and about themselves,” she said.

On the very last day of her installation of “Omphalos,” Sunstrum had a revelation. She had been in and out of the storeroom off the gallery for nine days, but it was on the 10th day that she really noticed some particular items. “I noticed all the pedestals—really, a Mount Everest of pedestals—in the storeroom, and I wished that I had incorporated them into the piece,” Sunstrum told the visual arts students on the first day of a weeklong series of master classes. “Of course, by that time, it was too late.”

After finishing the installation, Sunstrum spent several weeks in Canada visiting family before returning to campus to work with students and for the official opening of “Omphalos.” As she was planning her lessons with students, Sunstrum realized that the perfect project for the students was to complete her installation by drawing and painting on the pedestals.

Each student was tasked to individually create two to four pedestals, depending on the speed of their work and the size of their chosen pedestals. “I want you to create an extension of what I made,” Sunstrum told the students as she introduced the project. “You don’t have to copy me.”

Before the students began preliminary sketches, Sunstrum explained the difficulty of their task. “You have to remember that your pedestal may be viewed from multiple angles, or may be viewed beside someone else’s work,” she said, encouraging the students to work collaboratively even while they express their own styles.

Sunstrum’s emphasis on drawing is exactly why Director of Visual Arts Mindy Zacher-Ronayne invited her to work with the students at Interlochen. “Pamela uses drawing as a medium to create,” she said. “Often, visual artists see drawing as a prerequisite to other art forms rather than an art form in itself. Pamela, however, uses drawing and painting as a stand-alone installation.”

As the students set to work creating their pedestals, Sunstrum reminded them that their small contributions were an important part of a bigger picture—in mythology, in art and in life.

“What we do in our day-to-day life is a part of the grand, epic story that is happening all around us,” she said.