by Norma Smith Olson

Self assured and confident-comfortable in her world. That's how cover artist, Pam Gaard, described Paige-one of around 30 portraits she has painted in the past five years. Usually Gaard's models are friends, friends of friends, kids of friends, neighbors, co-workers, or in Paige's case, a Facebook friend.

"We got to be friends on Facebook and she was interested in sitting for a portrait," Gaard said. "I found out her last name, it seemed familiar." Turns out, they are related. "She's my second cousin, but I'd never met her before."

Portraits and nutrition
Gaard came back to painting after a long hiatus. She had a year in art school after graduating from high school in St. Louis Park. "It wasn't a good fit for me at the time, so I switched to science," she said. She worked as a scientist and public health educator for 30 years since receiving a degree in nutrition from the University of Wisconsin. "I work with the whole health of the person," she said of her work with Somali elders at adult daycare centers as a nutrition and exercise coach.

Through her years as a single mom with a son and a daughter Gaard kept her creative side engaged by making textile collages and found object assemblage. Five years ago she came back to painting.

"I think I've been looking at the world with the eyes of a painter, but not painting," Gaard said. "I definitely stepped out of my comfort zone at age 51 when I picked up painting again. I had been using textiles and metals, making assemblages and sculpture. Picking up painting was very different. Since I didn't have the patience in art school to learn the craft of painting, I had a lot to learn-to mix the colors that I wanted, get the right texture, with the right brush, the whole decision about what to paint."

Eyes of a painter
Gaard landed on portraits. She uses acrylics to paint her "larger than life" likenesses, on 29" x 22" papers. She works in collaboration with her husband, Frank Gaard, also a painter. A model will sit for the two artists for a couple of hours. "I aim for a likeness," Gaard said of her style of portraiture. "I don't try to flatter the person-I paint what I see. I am interested in the human form as an object." Coming from a background as a sculptor, she examines light and shadow patterns on the model's face, neck and clothes. "I aim to create the illusion of three dimensions, capture an inner light, and some of the psychology of the sitter," she said.

During sessions with the models, she also takes photographs of them in their poses, capturing the light of the studio. She uses the photos to develop the paintings more after the session. It may take her a week to finish a portrait. "What I get in the two hours while the model is here is a sort of a map of their face. I start by drawing, then I paint, and then it's time to go," Gaard said.

Given her creative background with fiber arts and collage, textiles or other found objects often will find their way into Gaard's portraits.

Blending interests
"I feel like I have two lives," Gaard said. "The left and the right sides of my brain are doing these different occupations. I've always made my living from working in public health and nutrition and fit painting in in-between, on weekends, evenings. [Now] my kids are grown and gone. I do feel like I have more time. I'm able to focus more and give more attention to my art."

Today, Gaard blends her interests in public health and art. She is studying Islamic art and has taken groups of Somali elders on field trips to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She has started to teach art at the adult daycare where she works. "My two worlds collide," Gaard said.