The thousand pictures of Pam Marlow

The Marlow family are very close friends of ours. Pam and Phil are the same age as my parents, and they all knew each other before I was born. Their children are a little younger than my sister and me, and our families used to camp in the sandhills together every Easter when I was young. These days, Pam helps me with my fortnightly shopping.

Pam has several creative pursuits, for example she writes haiku and couples it with photographs. She is hopeful of publication, and I hope to have more to say about her haiku in the future.

She has also occasionally built models, particularly of old buildings and towns. In the year 2000, for a university topic then called Advanced Professional English and later re-named Creative Non-Fiction, I interviewed Pam and wrote an article about her model-making adventures.

The article I wrote is reproduced below for your pleasure.

The Thousand Pictures of Pam Marlow

If an old building has gone forever, explains Pam Marlow, then whether it’s represented in words, paper, or even with a photograph, none of these media can truly capture the reality that was. “The best way to represent the busyness, the activity, the processes that were going on,” says Pam, “is to build a model.” When she talks about her craft, it’s clear that her enthusiasm goes far beyond the raw creative process – a recurring theme is her passion for accuracy. “Nothing’s worse than a model that kinda looks okay on the outside,” she says, “but when you look into it you see that it’s just a facade.” The walls of a stone building must be precisely the right thickness “otherwise the building doesn’t look like a building; it doesn’t look as though it should stand up.” To get the colour right, Pam likes to make her own paints by grinding local rocks into a powder. “I really enjoy when people look at my models and almost get a thrill of recognition that this looks real but tiny. They sometimes express the feeling that they could just imagine walking into the building if they were small enough, and that gives me enormous satisfaction.

Pam was raised in the mallee town of Coomandook where she began playing with models at an early age. Her parents encouraged this activity by giving her a small model railway to which she added handcrafted components. Before long, Pam found that the most fascinating models were those that “captured the essence of times past.” Her father was an enthusiast of local history and probably a factor in this development, but in the relationship between model making and history she feels it was really the models that came first. “By being interested in model making, I became more interested in finding out the history of the building and the history of the process that was happening within that building.” Aged fourteen Pam saw an advertisement for a sawmill model in a magazine, and because she couldn’t afford it she built her own from the illustration. This was no trivial task because in order to capture the mechanics as well as the style of the building she had to work out exactly what a sawmill should contain. Pam recalls this as her first attempt to build from very limited information.

Model making fell aside for some years while Pam moved to Adelaide, firstly to study and then to begin a career in teaching. But after she’d married and moved to Burra, the historic mining town re-awakened her passion for history. In the midst of old buildings Pam found “such a lot of hidden stories; there was such an atmosphere of the place. I tried to write a kid’s book about that once, trying to capture the essence of that and trying to lead kids into understanding that these rocks can tell stories.” There she built her first model as an adult, a re-creation of the old Burra mine, which remains a prominent feature in the town’s museum. “It was a classic,” she says, remembering the story of how it came to be built. The story begins with a man whom she had known as a teenager and had met again in Burra. In 1981, whilst reminiscing over her earlier interest, Pam remarked on “what fabulous old stone buildings there were in Burra, and how they would look really excellent as models.” The friend recognised a good idea when he heard it, and as turned out he was on a committee for the Jubilee 150 celebrations in 1986. An invitation from the former Burra District Council soon followed, and Pam produced the model from “balsa wood and plaster, some embossed paper, and a large amount of time.”

Leaving Burra the family moved south again, where Pam set up a business in the Adelaide Hills. She wrote to people who owned heritage premises, asking if they wanted models of how their buildings might once have been. They moved east to Pinnaroo and later to Queensland, finding something of interest wherever they went. “There’s quite a lot of interesting history in Queensland but not a lot to show for it because the termites eat it,” she recalls. “And then, of course, in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s time there was a bit of a free-for-all for knocking down anything that was in the way of some sort of commercial development.” Back in South Australia, her latest model is a commission from the Migration Museum on Kintane Avenue. Part of the Centenary of Federation Exhibition, which opens on October 4, it will remain in the museum for eight weeks before touring the state. In the next eighteen months the model will visit Mount Gambier, Kingston, Murray Bridge, Renmark, Burra, Kadina, Port Pirie, Ceduna, Port Lincoln, Kingscote and Salisbury. Looking to the future Pam says, “if someone asked me to do another one I would seriously consider it, particularly if they pay me money“. However she finds model making very hard on the eyes, and not an option for full time work. “I think every time I’ve completed a model I’ve needed, shortly thereafter, a new pair of glasses.”

Pam’s expertise has grown to incorporate a range of materials, and she uses whatever is most suitable for the task. Her latest model, for example, uses plastic extensively. Yet she remains adamant about the virtues of balsa wood and plaster for modelling stone buildings. “It captures the feel of stone. One of the things people notice when they look at the buildings I make, the old stone buildings, they are usually fairly amazed at the fact that they really look like stone buildings.” Her models try to capture the life and breath of times past. “I’m putting into a model an enormous amount of information,” she explains. “Someone who doesn’t understand how to put that into words still gets the message. It’s a nonverbal message, and as such is more powerful, which is why I said that a model is worth a thousand pictures.

The lecturer commented on my article as follows:

You have chosen quotes very well and blended them into your article. There is a strong sense of the character of your subject evident. More information might have been included to give us a fuller impression of her. Nevertheless, each paragraph takes a different aspect and this accumulates to present a diverting profile.

You are welcome to add your thoughts.

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