It was photographer Lucas Oleniuk who first noticed Pamela Button’s paint-spattered runners. They were like little Jackson Pollocks, mobile symbols of the art that liberated her.
One of her cousins wrote to the Star to say that few were allowed into Pam’s world when she was painting. “I would have loved for you to watch her paint, to see the transformation in her,” Leah Anstee said.
“She just bounced on her toes smiling and singing as she painted.”
Pam, who was one of the earliest in Canada to be diagnosed with autism, spoke through her paintings — they were shifting shapes of dreamy yet intense colour.
The movie Avatar was a source of wonder and helped explain her world of colour to others and her feeling that while she looked like the rest of us, she felt she didn’t really belong.
She didn’t speak until she was 6. As a young woman, much loved by her parents and her cousins, she never talked about what she’d suffered when she was institutionalized.
But as an adult she gained a dazzling ability to communicate. In my 30 years of interviewing — including Terry Fox and the Dalai Lama — no one ever spoke with such shattering directness. Her answers to questions were sharp and revealing.
As journalists we are used to people rambling. Our task is to mine the golden nuggets. But that wasn’t necessary with Pam. She had the gift of language and was burning to communicate. Her voice was creaky. Some found it grating, but it was endearing.
Our first interview was Sept. 21. She was waiting in an office, wearing a white snowflake sweatshirt and looking wistful. A few weeks later she learned she had advanced ovarian cancer. It struck hard, because we were close in age, but also with some bitterness.
People with autism often have high pain thresholds and may not notice symptoms — symptoms of ovarian cancer are often hidden, as well — until they are in crisis. She had overcome the effect of the disorder in many ways; now it had overtaken her.
“I feel each day, I’m getting weaker,” she said in October. “I hope they can treat this thing and I can start painting again.”
Sometimes journalists intrude. But often we hold back, especially when someone is ill. I wish I’d cast off my reticence and visited Pam in hospital and had more time to hear her unusual voice.
She’d been longing to see her story in the paper, but she died the day before her photo was on Page 1.
Her funeral was Nov. 20. Lucas Oleniuk’s portraits, showing the longing in her face, were on display. The casket was covered in a spray of carnations and resting underneath, her paint-stained running shoes.