Native American painter Marla Allison brings a flavour of the American southwest to Bristol this summer. Stephanie Boxall met this exciting contemporary artist.
Water is important to Marla Allison, and not just because she grew up in the desert lands of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. As part of her Native American heritage, she also happens to be a member of the water clan, and so being invited to do an artist’s residency in the lush, green South West of England couldn’t have been more fitting. “It’s glorious,” says Marla. “We don’t have rain like this, we don’t have life like this. I wake up and walk out the door, and there’s this misty silence of water that’s been soaking in through the night. There are slugs and snails everywhere – we don’t have those! We have ants and scorpions. Back home, you don’t even want to walk outside without your shoes.”
Marla’s work is currently on show at the Rainmaker Gallery in Bristol until 11 August, and the exhibition is part of Beyond the Spectacle, a multi-disciplinary research project studying and mapping Native North American presence in Britain. While in the UK, Marla has been artist-in-residence with the project and was the keynote speaker at a one-day symposium in June on Indigenous Art in Britain.
Working mostly with acrylics, her style of painting is distinctive, and draws on a variety of influences. Growing up in New Mexico, she was surrounded by Laguna Pueblo pottery and many of the intricate designs have found their way into her work. “I did a three-month fellowship at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe,” she says, “and they have one of the biggest collections of pottery that I know of in the South West.”
“They want artists to touch and feel what the artists of the past have touched, so they opened their doors and gave me a key to the treasure trove. A lot of the designs are representative of the life around us, and what I do in my work is to try and depict the cloud shapes, the lightning strikes, the mountains or how water flows over the land. Being from the water clan, I try to use a lot of water designs in my work. Water connects everything.”
Marla’s talent was evident early on. She tells a story of how in drawing classes, even at primary school, she was helping her fellow classmates with perspective, and earned both their respect and that of her teachers. Following on from that early encouragement, she took every art class she could and found that painting came naturally. She was good at other things too, and thanks to getting straight As in school and gaining several art scholarships, she won a place at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe.
Throughout her classes she was exposed to the work of modern European painters, such as Picasso, Gustav Klimt, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe and Yayoi Kusama, and, like any good artist, absorbed these influences and reflected them in her work. Says Marla: “You learn from the artists of the past and you search for every kind of painting and style that they’ve used. Once you understand it, you say: ‘Ok, how do I make this my own?’
“I think my biggest influence is probably Picasso, because he was doing revolutionary work at a time when that style wasn’t being embraced.” This love of Cubism is very apparent in many of Marla’s paintings, and a pattern of squares overlaid onto a figurative subject has become very much a part of her signature style.
She says: “Connecting with life, that’s what artwork is all about – embracing everything that’s surrounding you and looking deeper into those little cracks that pull you in. That’s why I do the square pattern – in a way it represents a story, and you can see most of that story, but there are also all these hidden things between the cracks. You can’t see the story all at once, but it’s all there.”
It’s possible, too, that the cracks are a reflection of the dry, sun-baked desert that she comes from. Speaking of New Mexico, she says: “The desert has so much life, but you have to search for it sometimes. Here, in England, there is life everywhere – there are things growing and moving all around you. Back home, you have to look a little harder to see it. But it’s a gift, and I try to put that into my paintings.”
Before becoming a painter, Marla, who is one of five, worked in her Father’s construction company. “After I left art school, that’s all I did,” she says, and she spent seven years building houses around the reservation with her three brothers and sometimes her sister. “It taught me so much, especially about building frames and creating work of good quality. When I can, I always try to cut my own wood and stretch my own canvases.”
Now, she lives with her jeweller husband, Pat Pruitt, in a house they built themselves, which doubles as their studio. Her working space is on the upper floor and his on the lower. Her working day starts around noon and, if she is uninterrupted, she will carry on until midnight. “After midnight, my husband and I reflect on the day or watch TV together, and then it starts over again.”
It must be strange, I say, to be in such a different routine over here. “It’s magical,” she says. “It’s such a treat to be an artist-in-residence and immerse yourself in a culture that seems at first to be foreign, but then you realise that there are all these similarities!”
The research project Beyond the Spectacle partnered with Rainmaker Gallery for this the first of four artist residencies. Says gallery owner Joanne Prince: “Rainmaker has been inviting and hosting Native American artists and their families here for almost three decades. It was perfect for Beyond the Spectacle to partner with us on this residency. As I often work alone, it is great to be working in a team and to be part of a project that spans time and place.”
And Marla, whose father is European-American and can trace his bloodline back to the South West of England, was an obvious choice. Joanne first became aware of her work three or four years ago and loved what she saw. Then, in spring 2017, the gallery had a group exhibition called ‘We Are Native Women’ and Marla was invited to be part of it. “When she came to Bristol for the opening, I was really impressed with her positivity and how she embraced every experience,” says Joanne.
“Last year, she was artist-in-residence at the Abu Dhabi Art Hub and she handled that so well. When it came to choosing an artist for our residency, Marla was top of the list. I just knew that she would make the most of the opportunity and that the cultural exchange would be really wonderful. And it is!”
Back in New Mexico, Marla has a number of projects on the go, including finishing a commission for a casino in Arizona – two very large canvases, each 4ft x 7ft, depicting tribal elders, a couple of big art shows, including the Santa Fe Indian Market, and an exhibition of South Western Contemporary Native Artists at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe.
“Aside from these, I don’t have any big plans,” says Marla. “I usually go with the wind. But I’m always thinking of the future. I want my artwork to influence the youth of tomorrow, and I try to work in a way that is almost timeless – reflecting on the past, embracing the present and containing hope for the future.”
For now, however, Marla is just enjoying being in England. “I really like this place,” she says. “The birds are different, the plants are different, the air is different – and my hair is loving it!”
Featured image ‘Leaving A Mark’ 2018, acrylic on canvas, 16″x20″ available from Rainmaker Gallery.