Childhood artistry revived in Modesto

Pam Gordo Kellstrom's friends and relatives won't be particularly surprised when they open the Christmas gifts she gives them.

They pretty much can count on getting new and original pieces of framed Japanese bamboo brush art Kellstrom herself has painted sometime since August.

Her artwork is so good that "you couldn't tell an Asian didn't do it," one local aficionado said.

That a 59-year-old Modesto woman is turning out quality Japanese bamboo brush art isn't that remarkable. Most artists find a genre that interests them and that becomes their specialty.

With Kellstrom, the back story is what's so compelling.

Her father, World War II veteran Ray Gordo, would have been part of the invasion of Japan had the atomic bombs not ended the war in 1945. While many Americans held the Japanese in contempt for years, he did not. He counted Japanese-Americans among his customers at his swimming pool business.

In 1962, a family friend offered to take Pam, who was 11 at the time, to San Francisco to study bamboo art with a Japanese master who taught in a studio in Chinatown. Japanese art in Chinatown?

Japanese-Americans were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps during the war, leaving San Francisco's Japantown virtually vacant. The neighborhood was slow to recover after the war, so the teacher found space in a Chinatown studio.

Pam Gordo remembers him as being a tall, stern taskmaster who always wore a dark suit and spoke little English. However, he knew the words needed to get his point across and used them whenever she positioned the brush incorrectly.

"He'd say, 'No! Don't hold it like that!' and he'd slap my hand," Kellstrom said.

For reasons she cannot recall, she received only two or three lessons even though she learned the basics of the art form rather quickly. "I practiced a lot," she said.

Life went on. She finished elementary school in Modesto, went on to Downey High School and then moved to Hawaii when she was 19.

By the time she married Scott Kellstrom in 1978, she'd all but forgotten about her bamboo brush artistry.

Fast-forward to August, when the couple moved from Reno back to Modesto to be closer to her father, now 88.

Going through their belongings during the move, she came upon an old suitcase and opened it. It contained the guest book from their wedding, and more.

"Underneath it, there was some of the rice paper I used to practice on," she said. "The brush wasn't there. That would have been cool."

No problem. She found the Japanese-style brushes at art supply stores in Modesto. She sat down at her desk and tried a few paintings. Japanese bamboo brush art is done monochrome, meaning the artists work in varying shades of the same color. She discovered she still had the talent which, in turn, rekindled her desire to paint again.

"It pretty much happened right away," Pam Kellstrom said. "It came back. He (the teacher) must have been a pretty good slapper."

She's completed roughly 40 paintings since, using the bamboo forest at her father's home east of Modesto to refresh her memory about the intricacies of these plants, which are the favorite food of pandas everywhere.

One night in November, the Kellstroms strolled downtown Modesto and noticed a sign on the door of the Crow Trading Co. on J Street. It read "Artists Wanted." Owner Skip Williams sells various types of antiques and furnishings along with art in the shop, and likes to recruit artists to display their works.

"I like to find fresh artists — garage-style," he said. "I've been really lucky."

He began chatting with the Kellstroms and found her personal story fascinating. He encouraged her to bring some of her paintings to the studio, where he helped her frame them properly.

He'll feature her offerings during the next Downtown Modesto Third Thursday Art Walk, Dec. 17 from 5 to 9 p.m.

Pam Gordo Kellstrom's rewards have come threefold:

She's found her niche in an art form she learned as a child, and might even make some money at it.

Her artwork has brought her closer to her father.

"He really appreciates it," Pam said. "He's never been a very warm-and-fuzzy guy. But he's been very complimentary. He's proud of me. I can tell."

"I think it's really nice," dad Ray said. "I'm impressed."

And for Pam, it eliminates the stress of holiday shopping. Her family and friends — they already know what they'll be getting for Christmas.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.