Pamela Council Talks About Fountain in Times Square, a Playland, and Everything

"I remember someone asked me at three years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my answer was Grace Jones."

“A Fountain for Survivors” by Pamela Council Michael Hull

Pamela Council beams as they surveil their Times Square specific piece A Fountain for Survivors, keeping an eye for maintenance. The work is stunning, nurturing, and demanding in the best ways. Before Council arrived, I sat sipping coffee as the world of Times Square met the world of Pamela Council. Old and young alike found themselves drawn towards the Fountain, as I myself had been.

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Pamela Council studied art at Williams College and Columbia University yet it was their ongoing fountain-making practice that brought them to Times Square, working within the Afro-camp aesthetic Blaxidermy, which they describe as “a combination of taxidermy and Blaxploitation.” A recipient of the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors grant and a previous MacDowell Colony Artist-in-Residence, Council’s work has shown everywhere from the New Museum for Contemporary Art to the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Amidst the artist’s busy schedule, they found time to sit down with Observer to talk about their current and future visions.

Observer: I wanted to talk about A Fountain for Survivors, you told me a bit earlier but I would love to hear about the process of making it, how long you were sitting with the idea of the fountain until it came into fruition, and how long it took to actually construct the piece.

Pamela Council: Well, Jean Cooney invited me. She invited me about six months ago to design a fountain for Times Square and I said yes, then we started going. I realized six weeks ago, when looking back at some old studio photos, that this form? Where this form came from? I’ve actually been thinking about this for a long time as an architectural shape, gesture, and as a space for performance. There were a couple of drawings that I had, one from 2005 and one from 2018, when I was at Bemis Center residency where I definitely recognize this carapace form that I chose for a Fountain for Survivors.

When I was asked to make a fountain I realized I didn’t want it to be a fountain that was entirely exposed to the elements, right in the middle of Times Square. I did want something that was sheltered and that was housed and that had protective cetaphil around it. That’s where the general form came from. 

I had noticed that this piece specifically was the only fountain that was covered, so I wanted to know more about the decision of that protective element and it is not a loss to me that it is meant to be a space for survivors. Can you tell me more about that element? Compared to your past fountains you’ve worked on. 

I’ve only made one other fountain outside before.

Red Drink.

Yeah, a Blaxidermy Juneteenth Offering, and that fountain, which I think a lot of people don’t realize, only existed for a performance. That was a one day Fountain for Juneteenth, that fountain never had to live day on and day out and be maintained, have visitors when I wasn’t there. Since I was there the whole time and performing in it and with it, I felt it was protected enough.

In gallery spaces, I had been designing fountains with shelters earlier in the year before I was approached by Times Square, for inside fountains which I still intend to make. I was sort of already working with that idea because I work with protective styles, I see acrylic nails as one of them and I have worked with the protective style of hair beads in a fountain, or other elements that are self-soothing that someone who identifies as a survivor may find comfort in. So this kind o grew out of that pretty organically.

“A Fountain for Survivors” Michael Hull

With the piece today, so many deep pinks and purples, and the inside has an almost hedonistic element, I love the beautiful velvet at the top and the gold. It’s gorgeous, so what was going on in your mind thinking about the color coordination with this piece compared to your others, which have the same colors yet use them in such different ways?

Well I started with the French tips because I knew I wanted to get that classic french tip in there at the top. 

Mhmmm that look.

Right. And then I sort of worked from there and offset the colors, the rest just came together. The inside bowls references wampum, shells which I also have on the outside mixed in with the rhinestones. I wanted something that clearly worked together, I don’t know I have a deep sense of how color should work. I also wanted something that would stand out in Times Square, you know it’s a site specific piece. So I looked at the colors of the place and thought about what could seem like it was for Times Square yet also be set apart from all the reds and blues and grays, there’s a lot of grey. I wanted this thing to be its own little jewel in the middle of Times Square and I think  I succeeded.

Walking up to it, you see it from so far away….I walked up with a friend, right? I had been telling him “I’m so excited, you’re gonna see it, we’re gonna see it” and we saw the top from a distance, we’re both like “oh, I think that’s it.” and we keep walking to it. It really has this presence, you know? You obviously must have been thinking so deeply about the public experience while creating it. What were you considering the most?

I really wanted the public to have this wishing moment of interacting with the piece, tossing in the wishing wafer which I designed for the piece because I like to have a scent element, I like to have a fragrance for my work to be somewhere interactive. I know people always want to touch my work, and I thought well since I’m creating public art I could create something people could finally touch and have this tactile experience. I’ve worked in the carapace material of acrylic nails since 2008 and what people always say about that work and about my relief series and my velvet series is that they want to touch it. I wanted to give people a chance for those gentle touches and I wanted to give them a sense of relief when they’re walking through Times Square. 

There are a lot of people who go in and out of Times Square who don’t necessarily count among the Times Square audience, you know? Like every day New Yorkers, people coming to and from work, and I wanted those people to feel they had a gift and an offering, could step inside and have a completely otherworldly experience, and maybe one of their only art experiences for a certain period of time. I think a lot of monuments and public art is built, and the general public can’t really interact with it because it looks like a solid piece of metal or it looks like a statue of someone, there’s a sort of one-dimensional experience of that image of public art. So I wanted this to be something people could really get into and spend as much time in as they wanted to, hear Black music coming out of a fountain, or if it does, it doesn’t quite match the setting.

The music is fantastic, I didn’t expect it when I walked in. Why fountains? You love fountains, and I love that you love fountains but I want to know why. Did you have a fascination as a child, was there something soothing?

There’s definitely something soothing but no here’s what happened. I’ve always made work related to the body, dealing with the challenges of the body and always made these offerings. I make work with a particular person in mind, a gift or offering to someone and about six years ago, I started telling my friends that I was going to make fountains. They were like “Cool, Pam.” What I realized I could do with fountains and how they operate in public is I could still talk about the body because it’s so fluid, they’re really living architecture. Performing architecture, but I could also make an offering on a civic scale because that’s typically how fountains have worked, you know? They’ve worked as meeting places, where people can have an offering of water, of life, of resource. I realized with fountains I could do that.

Do you feel like with each fountain you deal with different themes, there are continuities among them yet they also deal with incredibly different things. How would you say the themes differed in making this one versus, well obviously Red Juice you did for a day but for example wtf is juice/gw smile, that one as a person with a morbid fascination with teeth and death, it’s hard to look away from that. It’s gorgeous but grim. I wanted to know more about the process of making that fountain compared to this fountain because they seem to deal with such different elements and so many different ideas.

That was my first fountain!

Wow, that was the first!

The fountain element itself was just a punch fountain that you have at a halloween party.

With grape drink and listerine, right?

Yes, grape drink and listerine.

I like that you can’t actually drink it because the listerine, that element really got to me when I thought of it. 

That whole gallery smelled of listerine, so strong that it draws you to it but it’s also kind of repulsive but it smells sickly sweet, which is so much about the teeth.

The teeth, I see something in the teeth and the nails. I see something in the choice of liquids, they’re very similar but different conversations culturally. I have this phrase Blaxidermy, a combination of taxidermy and Blaxploitation, and those George Washington dentures hit the nail on the head with that theme. Because of what they’re made of and where they live in our cultural history, and because of how they’re treated as cultural objects that get preserved.

Like relics instead of peoples’ dead bones.

Yeah but like they’re relics that we treat as precious and preserve but George Washington couldn’t even do that with his own teeth, so like what’s really going on here. Where is the value? Is a question I keep asking when it relates to all these bodily things, and I think I’m still asking that within A Fountain for Survivors. 

Pamela Council on site at “A Fountain for Survivors” Michael Hull

Obviously this is just the beginning of your career, this is the exciting moment of Pamela Council in Times Square with your beautiful fountain. So the next question is what is next for Pamela Council? 

Next for me is two-fold, touring this fountain for survivors hopefully to museums and sites around the world. And then I’m looking for some sort of land donation so  I can build a Blaxidermy play land, when you look at this fountain it obviously exists for Times Square but you can’t go inside it without feeling like this is it’s own kind of thing, like Disney but Black.

It’s like walking into its own kind of universe.

And so I want to build my own space that is my universe, which will include another much larger fountain I’ve been designing for a couple of years. I just keep going with what I’ve been working on, the greatest lesson I’ve learned as an artist is just to keep working. I design fountains every day, I’m grateful to be able to show at this scale right now.

Final question, what were your earliest influences when you started to understand yourself as an artist and how have they changed.

I remember someone asked me at three years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, and my answer was Grace Jones. There was that! I think I was on track, I might have gotten derailed but am back on track now. Grateful for that. I’m pulling up my earliest signed work to show you, at age five and the scallop pattern is right there. Something I made at age five, collecting shells on the beach. My lived experience has always been my biggest influence, it’s a fountain that never ends. I can always tap into that. And the first artist studio I ever visited was Roy Lichtenstein. I’ve been really privileged to always have a sense that my art could reach the masses, I wasn’t introduced as a starving artist or an outsider, I was in the fifth grade when I visited Roy’s studio and I was like “I’m an artist too, Roy, you gotta check out my work.” 

He’s like I believe you!

I was really lucky to have that part of me nourished. 

Thank God because now we have a beautiful fountain in Times Square.

I think it’s changed because for a while I was looking outside of myself for source but my experience of listening to survivors, to myself more, to trust and honor my own vision.

Pamela Council Talks About Fountain in Times Square, a Playland, and Everything