Marla Allison is trying to do something that hasn’t been seen yet. As an artist living and working in Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, the influences on her work date back to the pre-Columbian era. So, it’s difficult to do something new under the sun.
Nevertheless, Allison brings freshness to ancient Native American artistic practices by putting her own twist on centuries-old patterns in pottery, painting and weaving, and by beautifully blending her traditionally-derived sensibilities with the best of today’s mixed media.
She has learned to thrive as a young artist by adapting. When she studied figure drawing in art school, she became frustrated that she could not draw a nude model realistically.
“Everybody could draw this nude model exactly right, but I could not get it,” she says. “I’m not a realistic painter at all. I could not make sense of it.”
Her teacher advised her to stop drawing in the same lines as the other artists in the room, telling her, Make something that you can. And so she began to draw in simplified lines, breaking up the body into segments that made sense to her: “I shattered the subject; I changed it to where I knew I’d like it.”
When she later learned that this style of painting was called Cubism, she realized that she shared a lens onto the world with the likes of Picasso and Duchamp. Her art began to accommodate her particular sense of reality.
Allison’s entire body of work is deeply infused with the stories and impressions of the Laguna people. Recently completing a research fellowship at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, she studied the symbols left by her ancestors on individually-made pieces of pottery or rugs.
The designs, she says, are handed down from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. She sketched them for herself so that she could understand what the artists were feeling when they were painting them.
“There’s no way to understand exactly what they were feeling, so I’m feeling it out and trying to decipher what those symbols mean to me,” Allison explains. “I adapt them to my own style. The thing that gets me is how each person changed the design in their own way to make it their own. What really excites me is that I get to do the same thing.”
Allison transforms those symbols and patterns, using them to embellish her mesas and Southwestern skies, tattooing them on the bodies that inhabit her canvases. She reshapes them in the hues and patterns of her own reality not the one that was handed down to her, but the one she creates every day.
Four years ago, she experimented with her first multi-media piece by attaching a digital photo frame to a painting she entered in an art show competition. The pictures in the frame were changing against the static backdrop of her painting. While she was thrilled with the movement and depth the photographs gave to the painting, the judges were bewildered.
“They had no idea how to take the photographs,” Allison says. “Nobody really got it—it was too much of a new idea. But people came around later.”
The next year, Allison’s “Entertainment of a Storyteller” depicted a Hopi Pueblo woman sharing stories of her people. Through a hole in the upper right hand corner of the painting, a DVD plays the voice of Allison’s grandmother telling stories as simple, childlike stick figure illustrations appear on the screen.
The piece won first place in the Mixed Media Category at the prestigious Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix, Arizona.
“Now they’re looking at me like, What are you going to do next?” Allison says.
She attributes the enthusiastic reception of the “Storyteller” painting partially to changing attitudes about what constitutes art in the age of technology, but also to her own growth as an artist. She says she put a great deal of thought into the way she would present her next multi-media piece, particularly in the way she would design the connection between the painting and the DVD.
She had no pre-Columbian models to go by this time. She had to do something that hasn’t been seen yet. In the same way that she learned to develop her Laguna Pueblo-Cubist eye, Allison weaves technology onto her canvas to connect Laguna Pueblo storytelling to the visual component of her art.
“I try to please myself in my paintings,” she says. “Art is a business, but I’m trying to stay on that little edge that I can call my own.”