|Pamela Sukhum was probably
born with a brain for science and medicine.
Her father is a cardiologist with CentraCare Clinic. Her
brother co-founded a company offering specialized health-care
Sukhum worked for years as a medical researcher.
But she left it all behind for a career that didn't require
a white coat.
The Sartell High School graduate became an artist.
And in just two years, Sukhum's oil paintings have been
displayed in places such as Florida, Arizona and Mexico.
Her creative burst on canvas was so powerful she was
selected to show her work next month at the famed
International Artexpo New York.
"The first time my paintbrush touched the canvas, I knew,"
said Sukhum, who is based in Minneapolis. "It just felt so
organic. It felt so right, even though I didn't know what I
Sukhum, 32, found the courage to discard what was familiar
to follow her dream, friend Laura Shaw said.
"She's the poster child for creativity and renewal," Shaw
said. "It's very exciting to see someone create a life without
making something wrong or running away. She's really brought
all the pieces of herself together on the canvas."
But Sukhum's success -- and newfound joy -- came after a
years-long journey between the two starkly contrasting worlds
of science and art.
Her parents, Pradub and Rampai, met in Philadelphia as
students at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple had
planned to return to their native Thailand after college, but
decided instead to live in America, Sukhum said.
About a year after her parents got married, shortly before
1970, they moved from Washington to Minnesota. Her dad was
hired at the University of Minnesota, where he worked as a
cardiologist and a professor.
Her mother quit her job at Sears when Sukhum was born in
1971. In 1973, Sukhum's younger brother, Patrick, was born.
The family moved to Sartell in 1985 when Sukhum's father
decided to go into private practice. From the beginning,
Sukhum displayed an interest and talent in art, her father
"We knew she was talented, but not to this point," he said.
A gymnast and softball player, Sukhum attended and
graduated in 1989 from Sartell High School. She then went to
Carleton College, where she majored in biology. The diminutive
Sukhum also played rugby throughout college, graduating to a
coed football team she still belongs to.
She credits her interest in biology to her father and a
biology teacher in high school.
But biology didn't hold her interest for long. The
self-described mediocre student ventured out of her comfort
zone as a junior in college to take a drawing class.
"I loved it. It was the first time I had really lost track
of time," Sukhum said. "I'd never had any exposure to art. I
never thought it was an option, so I never considered it."
Sukhum went on to graduate with a degree in biology, but
that was just the beginning for the member of Carleton's class
"Getting an undergraduate degree was equivalent to getting
a GED in my family," she said.
So, Sukhum applied to graduate school at the University of
"I like general biology, but the more specialized you get,
the smaller the world gets," she said. "I would go to class,
but as soon as it was done, I'd spring off campus. I figured
there was something wrong with this picture."
'Living without regret'
Sukhum decided to give herself two months to figure out her
"I asked myself, 'What would I do if I didn't have all
these fears?'" she said. "I was always amazed by people who
could take color, just dabs of color, and create a picture."
Armed with curiosity, Sukhum visited a small art supply
store in the Twin Cities and bought her first canvas and
paintbrushes. That summer, in 1995, she spent 10 to 15 hours a
day painting. She didn't have an easel, so she propped her
canvas up on the radiator.
"I didn't realize how much hunger and thirst I had for it
until I let myself go in there," Sukhum said.
It was exciting to see Sukhum's passion transferred onto
canvas, friend Pam Guthrie said.
"I remember sitting on my front steps, shortly after she
started this. I said 'I see you in a big, white gallery with
your paintings all over the place, wearing a beautiful red
dress talking to people who love your work,'" she said.
For the next six years, Sukhum painted at night and worked
during the day as a medical writer and researcher in
"When I first decided to start painting, I didn't tell
anybody but two friends I knew would be supportive," she said.
The death of a close friend and a vacation for her 30th
birthday pushed Sukhum to leave her medical career for good.
"I came to the realization that if I only had six months,
would I be happy with how I lived my life?" Sukhum said. "Was
I living without regret?"
Shedding the mask
Sukhum spent the year after her 30th birthday preparing for
"I had so much of my identity wrapped in the medical field
... that even though it didn't fit, I hung on to it," she
Sukhum made a complete transformation, said Shaw, who runs
a healing practice based on a form of Tibetan medicine in
"I think she had a lot of courage to walk away from a
career that she invested so much dedication in and was
successful in," Shaw said.
Sukhum's first commissioned work was a mural in Mazatlan,
Mexico, on property owned by a lawyer she met during her
birthday vacation. That lawyer had encouraged her to pursue
her dream of becoming an artist.
The mural was 7 feet wide and 25 feet high.
Sukhum spent four months painting it. When she returned,
she painted and traveled America. She described her work as
abstract but representational. Those who look at her art can
tell what the shapes represent.
Her subject matter always reflects where Sukhum's life is
at the time, she said. Her first year as a full-time artist,
Sukhum painted masks using a lot of angry colors.
"I had these masks on for so long that I had to start
shedding them," she said.
Sukhum also draws inspiration from her environment,
including Central Minnesota and the Midwest.
"I've created in many places, but this is probably my
favorite place," she said. "I feel very rooted here."
Sukhum's parents have two of her original paintings in
their Sartell home. A few prints also hang on their walls.
One of the originals, featuring fish with large, bulging
eyes, was the first painting on which Sukhum spent a lot of
time and effort, her father said.
"From that one, it was almost like a springboard for her to
feel 'I can do it,'" Pradub Sukhum said.
How does he know? "I can feel it," her father said.
'Leap of faith'
Sukhum's parents said they see a change in their daughter.
She's much happier, they said. Her parents, who initially were
nervous about whether their daughter would succeed in such an
unpredictable career, now proudly show her work every year
when they go home to Thailand. The whole family plans to visit
Thailand this month.
"You can see it in her work," Pradub Sukhum said about his
daughter's success. "With the talent, with the effort she puts
into it, it's two combined to make things work, like anything
The more she painted, the more Sukhum's talent grew.
"From when she was painting and straddling the two worlds
with the sciences and art, it's sort of opened up and
blossomed," Shaw said. "I can really see the progression, her
own evolution in her artwork."
Sukhum managed to find a sense of harmony with her
background and experiences, Shaw said.
"She's redefining art, almost as a form of life for
herself, living it rather than producing it," Shaw said. "She
fully embraced it, and that's what most impresses me about her
Sukhum puts everything into her paintings, Guthrie said.
"She paints truth with a capital T," she said. "She sets up
her work so that I can look at it every day and see something
I've never seen before. It's some of the most engaging work
I've ever seen."
In February, Sukhum will show off her work at the 26th
annual International Artexpo New York, a five-day, juried show
dubbed by organizers as the country's largest and most
comprehensive fine arts show.
More than 500 exhibitors display a range of paintings,
photography, sculpture and decorative art, according to expo
organizers. More than 40,000 art buyers -- including
publishers, art dealers, corporate art buyers, interior
designers and private collectors - are expected to attend.
"It's kind of like the show for owners, directors and
publishers," Sukhum said.
As she prepares for her big debut, Sukhum continues to
paint and run the business end of her career.
"We all share common experiences," she said about her work.
"My hope is that I brought enough of myself to the canvas that
it creates a connection. It's kind of a leap of faith."
Renown: Medical-researcher-turned-artist preparing for her
debut at the International Artexpo New York.
Born: St. Paul. Moved with her family to Sartell in 1985,
graduated from Sartell High School.
Likes Central Minnesota because: "I like the pace and the
ease of life here. There's part of me that loves the natural
component. You can be in a coffee shop or watch a movie, then
10 minutes later be by a lake or in a field. This is as close
as I can be to feeling at home."
Favorite color: The translucent, aqua-blue color of the
ocean in the Caribbean.
Web site: www.infinitevisionart.com,
where examples of her work can be viewed.
Pamela Sukhum is the sixth of nine profiles.
Coming Saturday: ATM crime specialist Barry Schreiber.