Pamela J. Petro is an artist, author and educator. Although she is an American, her love for Wales is central to her work.
Petro was born in New Jersey; her father, Stephen Petro, was a civil engineer and her mother, Patricia, a secretary. She took her undergraduate degree at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. Brown’s New Curriculum encouraged maximum flexibility in each student’s course of study. Petro chose an independent concentration, working on ‘Word and Image Studies.’
One day during her final year, Petro saw a poster, advertising an MA course, “The Word and the Visual Imagination,’ taught at St David’s University College, Lampeter, and instantly decided to apply. In Wales, she lived in a farmhouse outside the small town. One day, a farmer saw her sketching the hills in a rather impressionistic style. He asked her ‘Duw, duw, girl, don’t they teach you drawing in America?’ This gave her an idea for her thesis. Her dissertation was entitled Discourse on display: the narrative of the exhibition, using structural theory to unlock the delights of twentieth-century abstraction for the average viewer. More simply, she aimed to teach people to see in a new way.
Petro loved Wales. She learned to imitate sheep and to drink whisky. More importantly, she became attuned to the Welsh countryside. She had grown up in New Jersey where the suburban landscape was dense enough to obscure the lie of the land and the evidence of any occupation before about 1900. She realized that the farmland of West Wales was the first visible multi-dimensional landscape she had experienced. She saw evidence of the Ice Age, the Stone Age and the Middle Ages. She has written of the clarity of each component of the scenery and the way the rivers, hills, valleys and headlands, fitted together. She comments, ‘I felt I’d found the key to a map I’d never before been able to read, but without which I had no sense of my or my species place on the planet.’ Wales has become her second home; she says she has now visited twenty-eight times over thirty-seven years.
After her MA course, Petro returned to New York to briefly work in publishing, before moving to New England to become a free-lance writer. In 1992 Petro returned to Lampeter to learn to speak Welsh on the intensive Wlpan Course “boot camp”. However, she found speaking Welsh more difficult than she had expected. Whenever she paused or faltered, native speakers would switch to English out of a mixture of politeness and embarrassment. Petro decided to seek Welsh-speaking communities in non-English speaking areas, where people would be forced to speak to her in their one common language. Her first book, Travels in an Old Tongue (HarperCollins, Flamingo, 1997), portrayed her travels, starting in Lampeter, ending in Patagonia and taking in fourteen countries in between. In each country, she found Welsh expatriates or local experts on Welsh culture and discussed with them the nature of Welshness. Ffion Jenkins, writing in The Times, described the volume as an account of Wales and the Welsh language through the eyes of those who have left. In The Spectator, Byron Rogers commented that he could not commend the book too highly.
Petro’s next book was Sitting up with the Dead: a Storied Journey through the American South, (HarperCollins, Flamingo, 2001). She undertook a series of four trips through twelve states of the Old South to collect traditional tales and to meet their tellers. In the places she visited, she focused on stories that ‘provide the connective tissue of a community.’
In The Slow Breath of Stone: a Romanesque Love Story (HarperCollins, Fourth Estate, 2005), Petro followed the trail of an American couple, Kingsley and Lucy Porter, on their travels through south-west France. Kingsley was an architectural historian from Harvard University, Lucy a photographer. The pair documented the Romanesque abbeys of the Lot valley. Equipped with relevant letters, papers and Lucy’s photographs, Petro wandered from village to village, tracing the Porters’ route and the geological origins of Romanesque stone. Writing in The Guardian, Joanna Kavenna commented, ‘The book becomes a patchwork of strands: the Porters, the Romanesque, Petro’s quest for self-knowledge, her musings on love, food and death.’
Much of her recent work features the distinctively Welsh concept of hiraeth. (Hiraeth is usually translated into English as “homesickness or longing,” but Petro thinks of it as a barbed pang of yearning for someone or something – a home, culture, a younger self – that’s been left behind or lost, or that hovers inaccessibly in the future. It’s what you feel when you’re keenly engaged with the world yet yearn for more than the present moment allows. She says that what makes hiraeth different from simple nostalgia is its creative aspect; when you can’t have what you desire you create something new to compensate for your loss. She believes the hiraeth reflex is the touchstone of Welsh creative culture.) Petro’s fourth book, The Long Field – a Memoir, Wales, and the Presence of Absence (to be published by Little Toller Books in 2021), again features Lampeter and UWTSD. As her way into the subject, Petro examined the hiraeth of the foreigner, someone who loves Wales but can never really be Welsh.
Petro is also a talented visual artist, with a special interest in graphic novels/memoirs and word-and-image pairings. In one of her pursuits, she prints photographs directly onto rocks, describing them, in a play on her name and on the Greek word for stone, as ‘petrographs’. She gathers rocks, coats them in photographic emulsion, prints them with human images and then returns the stones to their original homes. As the rocks are eroded by water and weather, Petro records the process with her camera. She comments that the results ‘evoke in days the passage of years, and tether us to natural cycles of decomposition and replenishment.’
In January 2011, Petro spent a month as the Artist in Residence at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Out of this experience came a set of digital photographs and then an artist’s book, AfterShadows. At the Canyon, she photographed the immense shadows cast by the rock formations. After that she printed the images on white pebbles from the beach at the Bay of Fundy, and then arranged the pebbles to represent walks she had taken or alternatively places around the earth in different time zones at the same moment. She photographed the tiny stones against a variety of backdrops and at morning, mid-day and night. She paired the resulting images with an essay entitled ‘Erosion.’ The result was what Petro described as a ‘paperback’ version of an artist’s book; as the Canyon is a public monument, she chose to keep the finished version small and the price comparatively low.
‘The Dusk Series’ was an attempt to deconstruct conventional landscapes. When taking photographs in this series, Petro deliberately moved her camera up and down, so that each image was out of focus. The pictures were all taken at dusk; their locations included Wales, Nova Scotia and the Brazilian Amazon, as well as New England and Oregon. She commented, ‘At dusk, the world is partially hidden from us, we have to both project outward and see harder what’s there, but we also have to look inward more than we would during the day to imagine what’s missing.’
Petro has been involved in teaching Lesley University’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing since 2011. She also lectures in the Department of English at Smith College, and is Co-Director with Dominic Williams of the annual Dylan Thomas Summer School in Creative Writing, founded by her good friend Menna Elfyn and held every year at UWTSD’s Lampeter campus. She became an honorary fellow of UWTSD in 2014. As well as the Grand Canyon National Park, she has received both literary and visual arts residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word, and the Black Rock Arts Foundation. She lives with her partner, Marguerite Harrison, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Petro, P. (2020). Pamela Petro. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://pamelapetro.com/biography-and-contact/
Petro, P. (1994). Independent concentration. Women’s review of books. 11(5),13-14. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4021700
Petro, Pamela J. 1960- . Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. . Retrieved October 17, 2020 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/petro-pamela-j-1960
Brown University. (n.d.) 1969. The New Curriculum introduced. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://www.brown.edu/about/history/timeline/new-curriculum-introduced
Petro, P. (2012, September 18). Dreaming in Welsh. The Paris Review. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/09/18/dreaming-in-welsh/
Jenkins, F. (1997, July 24). Just as Welsh as you feel – Books. [Review of the book Travels in an old tongue by P. Petro]. Times, p. 37. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/apps/news/document-view?p=UKNB&docref=news/0F924C68156DE4AF.
Rogers, B. (1997, August 23). A bizarre enterprise. The Spectator, 279, 31. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/docview/201173370?accountid=130472
McMahon, F. (2004). [Review of the book Sitting up with the dead: a storied journey through the American South, by P. Petro]. The Journal of American Folklore, 117(464), 205-206. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4137830
Kavenna, J. (2005, May 7). The Guardian: Saturday Review: Travel: Romancing the stones: A trail through the Romanesque intrigues Joanna Kavenna: The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story by Pamela Petro 297pp, Fourth Estate, pounds 20. The Guardian. Retrieved October 28 2020 from https://infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.uwtsd.ac.uk/apps/news/document-view?p=UKNB&docref=news/109F2B250A782123.
Olsthoorn, J.C. (2015). Yearning for the irretrievable – Pamela Petro: art & interview. Numéro Cinq, 6(3). Retrieved October 28 2020 from http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2015/03/08/yearning-for-the-irretrievable-pamela-petro-art-interview
Petro, P. (2018). Petrograph Gallery. [Blog post]. Retrieved October 28 2020 from http://petrographs.blogspot.com/
Li, A. (2019, October 3). Exhibit explores art as environmental advocacy. Art at Watson’s new exhibition opens, draws education to ‘ecology of dusk.’ The Brown Daily Herald. Retrieved October 29 2020 from https://www.browndailyherald.com/2019/10/03/exhibit-explores-art-environmental-advocacy/