A look inside the home of Sitka artist Pamela Ash is a study in contrasts. And how you take it all depends on how you feel about dolls. Scary dolls, ugly dolls, dolls in jars, baby dolls. They’re all watching, as she shows me around her art studio.
“I like to do things in gourds,” Ash says, gesturing to a large hollowed out calabash hanging from the ceiling. “So that’s got like twinkly paper in there, and I’ll put in twinkle lights. And maybe something sweet, like some gnomes having tea,” she says, then pauses. “Or maybe a murder scene.”
Dolls and doll heads of all different sizes line the shelves, from Victorian porcelain to plastic “made-in-China” toys. There are thousands of them. It may sound a little creepy, but it isn’t. Ash’s house is colorful and warm: Big plants line the windows, soaking up the sunlight reflecting off Sitka Sound. Her cat, Thug, stands at her feet as she reaches for different pieces.
“I make fun of all religions equally. I’m very careful with that,” she says, and she gestures to a small glass containing a depiction of a famous scene from the Old Testament.
“So that’s just Abraham and Isaac going up [the mountain] and the little lamb,” she says, then lends her voice to Isaac who does not yet know his fate. “Oh! I’m not going to be sacrificed!”
Thug mews as she picks up another piece- a placard with a doll’s head mounted on it. Horns peek out from beneath blonde, curled hair, framing its sweet girl face.
“I don’t normally make the same thing,” she says, “but these are trophy wives.” She’s sold a few of these. “They’re half heads is what I call them- they’re, older, from the ’40s and ’50s.”
Ash’s mom moved to Sitka in the 1940s and taught at Sheldon Jackson. She met her dad, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force in Anchorage, and they had six kids. So, Ash grew up all over the country.
“We grew up hearing stories of Sitka being her favorite place,” Ash says. “When my oldest sister Barbara got a job choice for here or Wyoming she chose Sitka. And a year later I came up to visit and I liked it so I stayed.”
She has lived in Sitka off and on for years, and she spent a decade in Elfin Cove, too. Then she lived in Colorado, and that’s where, ten years ago, she started making “assemblage art,” which is exactly what it sounds like: Art “assembled” using all kinds of items from everyday life. She found many everyday items in dumps lining the Colorado prairie.
“You’d drive along and it’s all flat and you’d see this little hump in the distance — so you go over and they’re dumps from the ’40s and ’50s, and you can date them by the cans or the pottery,” she says. “I started getting these rusty sardine cans and making little altars.”
She found her first bit of baby-doll inspiration at a yard sale.
“You push on its stomach and its mouth opens,” she says, describing the doll. “And it was just so grotesque and scary for a little kid. And I’m thinking ‘Who in the world would buy their little kid this scary doll, that’s not supposed to be scary?’ So I bought it.”
And she began assembling. She reaches for a piece she’s working on right now, a porcelain doll with a tall tuft of white hair, wearing a spiked dog collar. She’s still beautiful, but bolder than her first incarnation.
“She had ringlets and birds and flowers,” Ash says. “So I took off all of the lace and put nail gun nails up there, because I’m making her more of a punker.”
To the layman’s eye, Ash’s workspace and home may feel chaotic, but she has a system. Drawers and cubbies are organized by theme and size.
“I actually can remember where just about everything is,” she says. “I won’t remember what I had for dinner last night or where I put the car keys. But I will remember that little tiny part that I’m looking for that robot’s mouth is in that big drawer.”
There’s also an ethical component to her work: She beachcombs and uses bits of trash she finds in her pieces.
“I hate waste,” Ash says. “Throwing something away that’s usable to somebody else, to me, is just a horrid sin.”
She’s also a vegetarian, and she likes for her work to inspire people to think about their treatment of animals. She creates scenes of cows barbecuing human arms, or a doll in a cage being observed by fish or birds.
“Hopefully maybe a little kid will stop and think, ‘Oh! Why do I keep a bird in a cage?’” she says.
If it all sounds a little unsettling, that’s because it is, and Ash is pretty comfortable with the unsettling. She has a dark sense of humor, and her pieces often reflect that, straddling the line between whimsical and sweet, and disturbing. It’s not for everybody. At a recent farmers market, Ash says two patrons told her a doll she had on display with a cactus where its head should be was ‘a desecration.’
“I said ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ I didn’t add ‘And I don’t care,’ but I don’t,” Ash says. But her art is compelling for others — and it is, for her, a means of expression. It’s tongue-in-cheek.
“I love poking fun at myself and just about everything,” Ash says. “So, it’s a therapeutic thing for me, I think. And I think you can tell I was a lieutenant colonel’s daughter and I had to do everything on the up-and-up growing up, so this is my like, Woo hoo!”
And in a world that embraces order and minimalist decor, Ash’s home is the antithesis — or the antidote. She knows her place can be a bit shocking for some visitors.
“I can usually tell from their body language or else they’ll just say “Oh my GOD!” — and it’s not just my art room — it’s my living room or my kitchen. I have a lot of stuff, but I like a lot of stuff. I differentiate myself from being a hoarder because if someone likes something they can just have it.”
So now, Ash lives among her thousands of dolls, her multitude of creations, embracing the chaos. She’s always working on something, and truly nothing is wasted. On her floor is a deflated blow-up doll her friend found at the Starrigavan Rec. Ash has decided that she’s putting it in her garden, where it’s going to be a planter.