A River of Time: Pamela Nelson Creates Art with Ribbons of Grief

Story and photos by Mary Martin. Video by Darien Clark.

Each holiday season for the past six years, the team at Faith & Grief Ministries has created a public memorial arch and invited any visitor to write the name of a lost loved one on a blue, green, or white ribbon. The ribbons are attached to the archway and have created moments of beauty in a sea of grief, especially over the past two years as the world faces a pandemic. But at the end of each season, the arch was taken down and the ribbons lovingly collected, in hope that they would eventually have a new purpose.

Pamela Nelson weaves ribbons from the Faith & Grief Memorial Arch to create a new art exhibition.

That purpose is now being fulfilled as part of a new art installation at the Crow Museum of Asian Art, crafted by renowned Dallas artist, Pamela Nelson. “The idea was, these are water colors, blues and greens. So it starts with a waterfall, a 21-foot waterfall, in front of a window and the light will shine through blue organza and light the ribbons,” Pamela says. “And then on the stone floor, there will be an ivory satin with the satin ribbons on top to show moving waters like a river—it goes in one direction but it keeps moving. And that’s how grief feels to me. It always keeps changing and always keeps moving, but goes in one direction—toward healing. I hope this helps people, and people who have written their names down might want to come, and may actually see their own ribbon.”

Taking the public, interactive memorial arch and creating a fine art installation is a challenge, but Pamela can see the transformational properties inherent in this type of work. “I have always had galleries, and shown through galleries with private art. And while I’ve done projects for hospitals, most of my work is personal and either people buy it or they don’t,” Pamela says. “But this is a commission, and I was asked to use these materials and present them so they have meaning. I proposed the River of Time, and they agreed.”

As Pamela weaves each ribbon into place, she reads the name, thinking briefly of the family and friends who are experiencing loss. “It’s been a real hard time to think about all of the loss that is global—people losing their jobs and homes, the COVID, the wildfire, the floods. There is just so much loss,” Pamela says. “But the river keeps flowing no matter what happens. The Holy Spirit or force of life, whatever you say in your faith, that is always there. There have always been things to adapt to and accept, and part of the process is accepting that all of these people have trusted the Faith & Grief team to keep their ribbons, and include them with more names people will write during the exhibit.”

Pamela grew up in Dallas, and moved overseas for a time after college, but always came back to her home city. Her art installations have been featured in DART stations, DFW airport, elementary schools, and churches. “I just really want to be part of the city and have the city be part of me. I just feel connected to it,” Pamela says.

Her source of inspiration starts with her grandmother, a woman who created and served others with her hands. “She ran a thrift shop for her church,” Pamela remembers. “She would see certain people come in and help them, pointing out when suits were on sale for a quarter. She took all the buttons off the used clothes when they didn’t sell, so she had jars of buttons—all the pink ones, all the mother of pearl, all the beautiful brown ones, all the beautiful blue ones, and she let me make mosaics on the floor with them. And then put them back and sort them out. She influenced me a lot in service and in the arts.”

(L) Sharon Balch, co-founder, Faith & Grief, (R) Pamela Nelson, artist.

Pamela’s favorite quote is by Virginia Woolf, “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.” The Faith & Grief ribbons certainly are pieces to be arranged, but she also applies the advice to life experiences and looks at her first encounters at The Stewpot as a divine arrangement. “When I got involved with The Stewpot I had never been exposed to homelessness before. But getting to know people personally, seeing them every week, taking them home to their new apartment, getting involved in their lives—that’s a huge thing that came my way,” Pamela says.

In 1994 Pamela spearheaded an art program at The Stewpot, which is now a thriving community of creativity and healing. Local, mostly self-taught, artists who are experiencing homelessness, gather to paint and sell their work. The program gives 90% of the proceeds back to the artist, and 10% stays with the program to purchase more supplies. At the start, Pamela would volunteer just once a week, but now there is a full time program director and annual art show.

As Pamela’s installation for Faith & Grief takes shape, there is a vision not only for the creative elements but for the people who have contributed each piece of ribbon. “Different art forms connect to different people, but I hope with The River of Time, they feel like they are being seen or being heard,” Pamela says. “And I think saying the names of people, honoring the names of their loved ones, is honoring them and I hope they feel like they’re being heard.”

This year the Faith & Grief Memorial Arch will once again be placed in Klyde Warren Park, from November 27 through December 19. Everyone is welcome to visit, add their own ribbon in memory of a loved one. Visit the River of Time exhibit at the Crow Museum just a block away from October 27 through November 28.

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