Professor Pam Johnson opened my eyes to the world
By Ginjer Norris Clarke ( '94)
Originally published in Fall 2005, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.
Theater professor and nationally recognized costume and stage wear designer Pamela S. Johnson won a Meritorious Achievement Award at the 2004 Region IV Kennedy Center American College Festival.
How many professors can you say truly changed the way you look at the world? Every time I look at a theater set, costume or even a magazine advertisement, I find myself evaluating the use of line, color, symbolism and sometimes subtle (or not so) innuendo. From the first class I ever took with theater professor Pam Johnson, I began to see how seemingly s impl e images in art and in life were really highly orchestrated combinations meant to please the viewers or readers and to get them to feel something specific and emotional. I became aware of the amount of thought that goes into psychologically convincing a prospective buyer that a product will make him or her feel sexier, younger or more fulfilled. But more important than my changed worldview of theater, art and advertising, I began to really see the world around me and to take in the details like never before. Pam Johnson instructed me on the visual aspects of theater , rende r ing technique and makeup design, and served as one of my honors thesis advisers. She taught me how to make myself look old, glamorous and even like professor Tom King for the memorable makeup final. She fostered skills of diagnosis, assessment, risk taking and problem solving. In the grand scheme of life, she taught me about persevering in the face of challenges, believing in myself, exhibiting grace under pressure and expecting the best from yourself and others. She was demanding, but her expectations were clear and achievable. She was highly critical but tremendously supportive.
Since my college years, Pam has continued to be a force in my life as a mentor and friend. We have met for lunches in Harrisonburg when my husband and I visit, and she even came to my home in Richmond for our housewarming party. I think I fretted more about the prospect of Pam visiting than even my mother-in-law, because I know that her designer's eye takes in everything. Her notes to me are chatty and informative, and they brim with enthusiasm and love for her profession. She exhibits pride in her significant accomplishments and in those of her children and students.
I chose to pursue writing and editing rather than theater after college, but even in that realm, Pam was one of my best guides. During the arduous thesis writing process, she insisted that I rethink and rewrite until I had said what I meant, serving as my first editor and giving me a glimpse of what was to come in my writing life. Now that I am a children's book author, she is one of my strongest supporters. She still encourages me to be fearless and to go beyond what I think the limits of my abilities are. Sometimes I think she really overestimates what I am capable of, but what a wonderful quality to have — to believe so fiercely in the talents of your students. I would l ike to think that our professor-student bond is special, and it is, but I can tell from hearing Pam talk about other former and current students that she has developed this connection with many students. She stays involved in their lives by choice and truly cares about and champions their endeavors. Pam is a gifted professor, director, designer and artist; but her greatest gift may be her ability to inspire and to dare us to dream.
About the professor
Theater professor and nationally recognized costume and stage wear designer Pamela S. Johnson won a Meritorious Achievement Award at the 2004 Region IV Kennedy Center American College Festival. She also won a 2004 national faculty fellowship in costume design and the 2004-05 Carl Harter Distinguished Teacher award in the College of Arts and Letters.
About the author
Ginjer Norris Clarke ('94) is a children's book author and freelance writer with elephanteditorial.com. She has published five nonfiction children's readers for the Random House Step Into Reading Series and the Grosset and Dunlap All Aboard Reading Series. Clarke and her husband, Jay ('92), were married on the Quad in 1995 and live in Richmond.