July 15th, 2021
With splashy, energetic colors and exciting new subject matter, Maura Allen’s latest collection of art brings a fresh, summer vibrancy to her body of work. Her latest series embodies summer outdoor living through new mixed media paintings of jazz musicians, songbirds, and wildflowers, just in time for this summer’s group exhibition “The Wildflower Show.”
We caught up with the artist to learn more about the inspiration behind this latest series, including the sensory experiences imbedded in her work, how her process is informed by other media, the ways in which her work evolves with the seasons, and why we should all broaden our definition of Western Art.
Gallery MAR: It’s hard to believe it’s been about a year since our last chat! We’re thrilled to catch up with you, especially considering the fresh new work you’ve been creating for our group exhibition, “The Wildflower Show.” In addition to the new floral subject matter for that show, we notice you’ve introduced other exciting new subject matter to your work, namely birds and jazz musicians. What was the inspiration behind this new subject matter?
Maura Allen: I’ve just been thinking a lot about life outside, beyond the confines of someone’s own home. I’m exploring the idea of summer outside and what summer means. For me, summer means plants and animals and music, whether you’re in a city or you’re on your porch.
Gallery MAR: With birds and jazz musicians as a subject matter, there’s definitely an implied sense of song and audio to this work that’s very intriguing. How do you create these sensory experiences in your work?
Maura Allen: To me, the idea of music and the lyrical nature of music is married with summer. So in photography, I think a lot about how to create a lyrical image: an image that, in its entirety, is complete and beautiful and that triggers the senses. When I think about painting, I want to apply that. For me, music is another way to trigger the senses, through auditory, through rhythm, and through vibration. Being able to bring that other sense into visual art is important to me.
“I think a lot about how to create a lyrical image: an image that, in its entirety, is complete and beautiful and that triggers the senses.” – Maura Allen
Gallery MAR: That reminds me of our last conversation about how to create a sense of atmosphere with glass work. I know last time we chatted, you talked about how you didn’t see media as distinct, unrelated silos, but rather interrelated. So in what ways has your mastery and experience with glass and photography influenced your new approach to mixed media?
Maura Allen: That’s exactly right because for me, each media and discipline — whether it’s glass or 2D wood panels or photography — informs the other. In glass, distance can be created by a single sheet of glass (3mm) or by building up layers to create a greater sense of atmosphere and distance.
I think about that sense of distance all the time in photography, about how you can blur a background and create depth of field. I often use what’s called a rangefinder camera. Normally in a camera, you turn the lens to focus and the image comes in sharp. However, with the rangefinder, you have two images that are on two sides of your frame and, as you focus, they overlap and become one. So with a rangefinder, you can see outside of your camera frame’s field of vision while still looking through the lens. You’re able to see what’s coming into frame before it does, almost like offstage actors in a play that are about to take the stage.
So I think about the translation to painting and how I can extend beyond the boundaries of the canvas to create energy and the element of surprise. For instance, in my painting “Wildflower Run,” I use depict an image of a cowboy running through a field of flowers. In the painting, the horse is not perfectly centered but moving through the canvas, as if you captured them in a moment of time.
When I saw the flowers in that field, they were this hot pink. As beautiful as they were, it’s not what I wanted the painting to be about, so part of my work is knowing how I change reality to tell a different story. What was more important to me was the feeling of the wind. There’s motion in the horse and the horse’s mane. So I ask myself how I can create a similar sense of motion in the flowers? To achieve that, I used different mixed media, different papers, and different ways of sanding. Sanding the work helps to create a kind of blur that implies motion.
Gallery MAR: Well speaking of finding your subjects, can you talk a little bit about how you discovered your new subject matter? I know that you find most of your Western subject matter with your camera on location at ranches, rodeo, cattle drives and more. Where and how did you find your subjects for this new series?
Maura Allen: The song birds were inspired by my new home in Arizona. Here I tend to take more hikes, so I’ve been interested in the lives of the birds I find here. I’m fascinated by birds, and I’m trying to seek them out where I can. The jazz musicians are from a town square a little while ago. For me, silhouette is important, so when I’m photographing these figures, I think, how can you have the least amount of information tell the biggest story? With the profile of a musician, you can feel the music even though there’s no detail other than a silhouette.
“When I’m photographing, I think, how can the least amount of information tell the biggest story?” – Maura Allen
Gallery MAR: Ooh I love that! I notice that not only is your subject matter different this series, but your color palette seems to have changed along with it. Your colors in this latest series are a touch more vibrant than the more neutral, dusty color palette that you use for your cowboy work. What inspired this fresh new color palette?
Maura Allen: So I remembered my experience going to Monet’s house in France. His garden was planted in a way that, as the seasons changed, the colors of the garden changed with it. Of course, different plants and flowers blossom and bloom during different seasons, but his garden was designed to intentionally emphasize that arc of color tying in with the seasons. So I decided to similarly match my color palette with the seasons.
In the painting “She’s a Beauty” I had in my mind the idea of spring colors. In the painting, there are lighter colors with some metallic blues and very faint peachy oranges, representing the season’s first blush of color. There’s also a large horse painting called “Everybody’s Baby” that, to me, has a winter color palette. I painted the piece in the winter with charcoal black and white. When I was painting the jazz musicians, I was thinking of the more intense heat and color of summer.
Gallery MAR: Do you feel that these jazz, songbird, and floral works are still depictions of the West, and therefore still considered “Western art” or do you categorize them in a different way?
Maura Allen: I think my sensibility is always Western. The geography of the West leans towards outside living, so to me, it’s still about the West. Maybe it’s not a traditional portrayal of the West, but it’s still about the landscape, the longitude, the latitude, the geography, and the outdoor living of the West.
Gallery MAR: I think that idea of outdoor living is really going to resonate with people feeling like they’re coming out of hibernation in a way. Do you see this latest series as more of an exciting exploration and experimentation or as a new direction for your work in future?
Maura Allen: I would say that I like creating collections. When I create a collection of work, I’ll come up with a palette that I want to work with for a bit of time, and then I may take a few of those colors and see how I can marry them and shift them in another way. I’m always trying to find a way to disrupt myself, whether that’s muting certain colors, working in all cool tones, working in all warm tones, using glow-in-the-dark paint, or incorporating very vibrant colors to play with.
Much like in museum shows like “Cowgirl Up!,” for example, you can have two different Western aesthetics living side by side. The more traditional Western art is hung alongside the more contemporary Western art. Borrowing from that, sometimes my color palette is much more vibrant than at other times, but all of the works can live harmoniously side by side. It’s interesting to see how they shift and enhance each other when displayed in that way. So when I’m looking at a new collection of mine, I’m thinking about how it will add to a current body of work or a current collection that someone might have. I think about how this new work might create a different conversation.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Maura Allen for the interview. Check out more of her latest body of work online or in the gallery, along with our latest group exhibition, “The Wildflower Show,” with artists Bridgette Meinhold, Nina Tichava, Sarah Winkler, Jylian Gustlin, and Maura Allen.
Written by Veronica Vale