Columbia woman makes musical instruments and art to release creativity

Monday, August 4, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Pam Fleenor paints pictures and makes music. One feeds her soul; the other satiates her thirst for fellowship.

The 39-year-old, who once considered a career in medicine, can't imagine a better life

"The financial security is something I think about from time to time," Fleenor said. "But I don't think" a career in medicine "would have been right for me."

Today, Fleenor juggles a number of creative endeavors.

She and her partner, John Benton, operate Wildwood Instruments, a small company that makes handcrafted musical instruments and specializes in custom pieces such as hand drums and other percussion instruments. Fleenor also shares space at Orr Street Studios, where several nights a week and most Saturday afternoons, she explores canvas with acrylics. Fleenor also plays percussion and gives drumming lessons.

From as far back as she can remember, Fleenor was making art.

The daughter of a homemaker and a painting contractor, Fleenor grew up in Columbia, where in the mid-1970s, her mother taught belly dancing. Although Fleenor never took to the dancing, she latched onto the Middle Eastern drum music. By 14, she was making musical instruments.

"Whatever came into my hands, I worked with it," Fleenor said. "I was trying to draw by the time I could hold a pencil. Art is a part of who I am."

While a senior at Rock Bridge High School, Fleenor took a basic art course and quickly showed her prowess. Impressed with her skills, instructors allowed her to skip a prerequisite and enroll in an advanced painting class.

After high school, Fleenor continued painting and took an office job at University Hospital. Occasionally, the hospital would host employee art shows in which Fleenor would display her paintings. Before long, she was fielding requests from co-workers to paint portraits and landscapes.

Although she works mostly with acrylics -- they are less toxic in small work spaces -- Fleenor would like to do more work with oils. Over the years, her style has changed from representational, such as a portrait of Jimi Hendrix, to more abstract.

She has learned to enjoy letting the medium and the moment take the painting where they will.

"I like the exploration of it all," Fleenor said. "I like the idea of developing a personal relationship with an abstraction."

For Fleenor, inspiration comes mostly from the natural world or "anything that says something about being human."

While her painting is a fluid process given to unexpected turns, Fleenor said drum-making is more predictable. Ultimately, the sense of accomplishment is the same.

"The process is so different," Fleenor said. "The drum-making is a process, a recipe; the painting can morph in my hands even without me knowing it."

Fleenor's percussion instruments are made on commission and range in price from about $100 to more than $1,000. Among the many varieties are the ashiko, a popular and versatile drum that originated in Nigeria, West Africa, and the dounouns, an African-style bass drum with two heads. She also repairs percussion instruments.

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