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Central Minnesota local news for 2 January, 2004
Times photo by Dave Schwarz, dschwarz@stcloudtimes.com

Artist Pamela Sukhum stands next to one of her paintings on display at St. Cloud State University.

2 January, 2004
Big Apple is calling artist
Michelle Tan
Staff Writer

Pamela Sukhum was probably born with a brain for science and medicine.

Her father is a cardiologist with CentraCare Clinic. Her brother co-founded a company offering specialized health-care programs.

Sukhum worked for years as a medical researcher.

But she left it all behind for a career that didn't require a white coat.

The Sartell High School graduate became an artist.

And in just two years, Sukhum's oil paintings have been displayed in places such as Florida, Arizona and Mexico.

Her creative burst on canvas was so powerful she was selected to show her work next month at the famed International Artexpo New York.

"The first time my paintbrush touched the canvas, I knew," said Sukhum, who is based in Minneapolis. "It just felt so organic. It felt so right, even though I didn't know what I was doing."

Sukhum, 32, found the courage to discard what was familiar to follow her dream, friend Laura Shaw said.

"She's the poster child for creativity and renewal," Shaw said. "It's very exciting to see someone create a life without making something wrong or running away. She's really brought all the pieces of herself together on the canvas."

But Sukhum's success -- and newfound joy -- came after a years-long journey between the two starkly contrasting worlds of science and art.

Something wrong

Her parents, Pradub and Rampai, met in Philadelphia as students at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple had planned to return to their native Thailand after college, but decided instead to live in America, Sukhum said.

About a year after her parents got married, shortly before 1970, they moved from Washington to Minnesota. Her dad was hired at the University of Minnesota, where he worked as a cardiologist and a professor.

Her mother quit her job at Sears when Sukhum was born in 1971. In 1973, Sukhum's younger brother, Patrick, was born.

The family moved to Sartell in 1985 when Sukhum's father decided to go into private practice. From the beginning, Sukhum displayed an interest and talent in art, her father said.

"We knew she was talented, but not to this point," he said.

A gymnast and softball player, Sukhum attended and graduated in 1989 from Sartell High School. She then went to Carleton College, where she majored in biology. The diminutive Sukhum also played rugby throughout college, graduating to a coed football team she still belongs to.

She credits her interest in biology to her father and a biology teacher in high school.

But biology didn't hold her interest for long. The self-described mediocre student ventured out of her comfort zone as a junior in college to take a drawing class.

"I loved it. It was the first time I had really lost track of time," Sukhum said. "I'd never had any exposure to art. I never thought it was an option, so I never considered it."

Sukhum went on to graduate with a degree in biology, but that was just the beginning for the member of Carleton's class of 1993.

"Getting an undergraduate degree was equivalent to getting a GED in my family," she said.

So, Sukhum applied to graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

"I like general biology, but the more specialized you get, the smaller the world gets," she said. "I would go to class, but as soon as it was done, I'd spring off campus. I figured there was something wrong with this picture."

'Living without regret'

Sukhum decided to give herself two months to figure out her next step.

"I asked myself, 'What would I do if I didn't have all these fears?'" she said. "I was always amazed by people who could take color, just dabs of color, and create a picture."

Armed with curiosity, Sukhum visited a small art supply store in the Twin Cities and bought her first canvas and paintbrushes. That summer, in 1995, she spent 10 to 15 hours a day painting. She didn't have an easel, so she propped her canvas up on the radiator.

"I didn't realize how much hunger and thirst I had for it until I let myself go in there," Sukhum said.

It was exciting to see Sukhum's passion transferred onto canvas, friend Pam Guthrie said.

"I remember sitting on my front steps, shortly after she started this. I said 'I see you in a big, white gallery with your paintings all over the place, wearing a beautiful red dress talking to people who love your work,'" she said.

For the next six years, Sukhum painted at night and worked during the day as a medical writer and researcher in cardiovascular care.

"When I first decided to start painting, I didn't tell anybody but two friends I knew would be supportive," she said.

The death of a close friend and a vacation for her 30th birthday pushed Sukhum to leave her medical career for good.

"I came to the realization that if I only had six months, would I be happy with how I lived my life?" Sukhum said. "Was I living without regret?"

Shedding the mask

Sukhum spent the year after her 30th birthday preparing for her transition.

"I had so much of my identity wrapped in the medical field ... that even though it didn't fit, I hung on to it," she said.

Sukhum made a complete transformation, said Shaw, who runs a healing practice based on a form of Tibetan medicine in Minneapolis.

"I think she had a lot of courage to walk away from a career that she invested so much dedication in and was successful in," Shaw said.

Sukhum's first commissioned work was a mural in Mazatlan, Mexico, on property owned by a lawyer she met during her birthday vacation. That lawyer had encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming an artist.

The mural was 7 feet wide and 25 feet high.

Sukhum spent four months painting it. When she returned, she painted and traveled America. She described her work as abstract but representational. Those who look at her art can tell what the shapes represent.

Her subject matter always reflects where Sukhum's life is at the time, she said. Her first year as a full-time artist, Sukhum painted masks using a lot of angry colors.

"I had these masks on for so long that I had to start shedding them," she said.

Sukhum also draws inspiration from her environment, including Central Minnesota and the Midwest.

"I've created in many places, but this is probably my favorite place," she said. "I feel very rooted here."

Sukhum's parents have two of her original paintings in their Sartell home. A few prints also hang on their walls.

One of the originals, featuring fish with large, bulging eyes, was the first painting on which Sukhum spent a lot of time and effort, her father said.

"From that one, it was almost like a springboard for her to feel 'I can do it,'" Pradub Sukhum said.

How does he know? "I can feel it," her father said.

'Leap of faith'

Sukhum's parents said they see a change in their daughter. She's much happier, they said. Her parents, who initially were nervous about whether their daughter would succeed in such an unpredictable career, now proudly show her work every year when they go home to Thailand. The whole family plans to visit Thailand this month.

"You can see it in her work," Pradub Sukhum said about his daughter's success. "With the talent, with the effort she puts into it, it's two combined to make things work, like anything else."

The more she painted, the more Sukhum's talent grew.

"From when she was painting and straddling the two worlds with the sciences and art, it's sort of opened up and blossomed," Shaw said. "I can really see the progression, her own evolution in her artwork."

Sukhum managed to find a sense of harmony with her background and experiences, Shaw said.

"She's redefining art, almost as a form of life for herself, living it rather than producing it," Shaw said. "She fully embraced it, and that's what most impresses me about her work."

Sukhum puts everything into her paintings, Guthrie said.

"She paints truth with a capital T," she said. "She sets up her work so that I can look at it every day and see something I've never seen before. It's some of the most engaging work I've ever seen."

In February, Sukhum will show off her work at the 26th annual International Artexpo New York, a five-day, juried show dubbed by organizers as the country's largest and most comprehensive fine arts show.

More than 500 exhibitors display a range of paintings, photography, sculpture and decorative art, according to expo organizers. More than 40,000 art buyers -- including publishers, art dealers, corporate art buyers, interior designers and private collectors - are expected to attend.

"It's kind of like the show for owners, directors and publishers," Sukhum said.

As she prepares for her big debut, Sukhum continues to paint and run the business end of her career.

"We all share common experiences," she said about her work. "My hope is that I brought enough of myself to the canvas that it creates a connection. It's kind of a leap of faith."

Age: 32.

Renown: Medical-researcher-turned-artist preparing for her debut at the International Artexpo New York.

Born: St. Paul. Moved with her family to Sartell in 1985, graduated from Sartell High School.

Likes Central Minnesota because: "I like the pace and the ease of life here. There's part of me that loves the natural component. You can be in a coffee shop or watch a movie, then 10 minutes later be by a lake or in a field. This is as close as I can be to feeling at home."

Favorite color: The translucent, aqua-blue color of the ocean in the Caribbean.

Web site: www.infinitevisionart.com, where examples of her work can be viewed.


Pamela Sukhum is the sixth of nine profiles.

Coming Saturday: ATM crime specialist Barry Schreiber.

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