The art of history Gassman’s portraits of colonial women on display at Handforth Gallery

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(Left to right) “In Repose,” “The Sea Captain’s Wife” and “The Fabric of Freedom” are three of Pam Gassman’s many color pencil drawings that are showing at the Handforth Gallery through July 28. Photos of artwork by Dave R. Davison

In the hierarchy of artistic media, color pencil does not occupy the high place of oil paint or its close sibling, acrylic. There are those who would place it below pastels or even pen and ink. As demonstrated by Tacoma artist Pam Gassman, however, color pencil is a wonderful medium – offering the artist the control and precision of a sharp point while allowing for a rich blending of color. 

Handforth Gallery, which is housed within the hallowed halls of the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library, is hosting a show of Gassman’s color pencil drawings. The exhibit will be on view through July 28. A reception for the artist will take place June 30 beginning at 2 p.m.

The bulk of the Gassman exhibit consists of large, colorful drawings of historic figures (mostly women) from colonial America and genre scenes from that period. Gassman relates that she conceived the undertaking of depicting women from American history when her daughter, then a student, came home from school and lamented that “women don’t contribute much to history.” Knowing this to be inaccurate, Gassman decided to rectify the situation by doing depictions of some of the noteworthy women from American history.

In order to ensure accuracy of her illustrations, Gassman did her due diligence by researching the clothing and accouterments worn and used by people of various classes in colonial America. She then purchased fabrics and began to make colonial-era costumes that could be worn by sitters (including her daughter). The illustrations were made working from photographs of the models wearing the period costumes. 

There are images like “Declaration,” a picture meant to be Mary Goddard, a woman who owned a print shop that printed and distributed early copies of the Declaration of Independence. “In Repose” shows Eliza Lucas Pinckney with a rose bush. Pinckney was an agricultural experimenter who developed indigo as an important cash crop for the South Carolina colony.

Other scenes depict what are supposed to be ordinary people captured in a moment of an average day in the colonial era. “Contemplating Her Stitches” shows a lone woman examining her needle work. “Lighting the Courting Candle” shows a woman looking up with a smile. The candle that he holds marks the amount of time that her suitor is allowed to spend with her. 

One of the most notable pieces in the show is “The Fabric of Freedom,” which depicts four generations of women stitching (either making or repairing) an American flag. It has a Norman Rockwell coziness and sentimentality to it. Gassman is the recipient of a number of awards including a first-place ribbon for a fine arts contest put together by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In many of these images, one can see Gassman’s background as a painter of flowers. Some of her non-colonial work, including some of her botanical illustrations, is shown along one of the side hallways in the gallery.

Gassman provides informative commentary next to her pictures of historical figures, making the show educational as well as visually illuminating. While her style is representational, some of the spare backgrounds give the works a kinship with the folk portraiture that would have been existent in the cultural milieu of the colonies. 

This is a charming exhibit that shows off the versatility of color pencil, highlights the contribution of colonial women to the American Revolution, and is a display of Gassman’s artistic prowess. For more on Gassman, visit PamPaints.com. There is a good summary about the artist at annkullberg.com/blogs/ann-muses/when-art-and-history-collide-something-special-happens. For more information on Handforth Gallery, visit tacomalibrary.org/handforth-gallery.

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