Maura Allen's West
Maura Allen creates art that represents time–movement. Using the Warhol method of screen-printing (except with her own photography), she makes paintings that are steeped in the people, the history, and the culture of the Western U.S., a place that both she and I love. For her, the West is about the way that real people live, dream, and create their own forms of family.
I am lucky to have worked with Maura in several capacities. Answering an internet ad for a studio assistant, I started out cleaning her screens and organizing her vast array of acrylic paints. While listening to country music in the background, I was able to observe her steady, thoughtful work. Throughout this time, she listened and discussed my writing aspirations with me. After all, Maura is not just a visual artist, she’s also a writer. She started out as a public relations and communications consultant in Silicon Valley. When she pivoted towards art, she managed to simultaneously maintained this career. I’m lucky to have been able to work with her in this different, but supplementary, type of storytelling as well.
At the end of last summer, I talked with Maura about the West, her artistic “reverberations,” and the intersections of business and art. We engaged in this discussion on a car ride back from dropping her painting off at a gallery in Boulder, Colorado. It’s fitting that this conversation occurred in motion because Maura, like most successful artists I’ve encountered, is always moving—moving and creating.
Sage Marshall: I’m wondering about what originally attracted you to the “myth of the West”? How has your conception of the West changed since you’ve been living and making Western art here?
Maura Allen: Even though I grew up in the West I, like many people, had a romanticized version of it that was shaped, mainly, by T.V. shows in the 60s and 70s like “Life on a Ranch,” “Bonanza,” and “Life on the Prairie.” All through time, the West has been romanticized—it’s this idea of something different, something better, of hope, and of promise. When I started working on art that told the stories of the West, I realized that the everyday-West is hard work. It’s raising cattle, putting food on the table, and taking care of the land. In my work, I try to combine those two elements—an idea of the old and romanticized with the idea of the everyday West that we live today.
SM: I know that one of the writers that influenced you a lot is Wallace Stegner. One of the things that interests me a lot about his work is the way that he conceived of the West, not as a place where you have these lone cowboys rampaging around everywhere, but as a place of possibility for families and community. How do you incorporate this conception of the West into your paintings?
MA: Stegner coined the term “Geography of Hope” which incorporated the ideas of promise and new beginnings that could happen both in the land and in life in the West. A lot of his fiction work talks about it. He’s not an old West cowboy writer, but he writes about life in the West, of open space, of families being rooted in the West. This perspective shows that there’s more to the West than just rodeos, laureates, and other symbols of the West. It goes much deeper than that. There really is a fabric of community with the land being the platform on which we all live.
SM: And he was a big conservationist as well.
MA: Yes. He wrote about John Wesley Powell and the damning of the rivers. A lot of the non-fiction work that he did was about the environment, about the way that we’re all responsible for preserving it. He was green and environmentally-conscious well before it became a passion of the everyday person.
SM: Building on that, one of the things that we care a lot about at Reverberations is the way that art interacts with people. Who are some of your artistic influences?
MA: I was a classics major, and I like that idea of the "reverberation" because, when you’re studying classics, you’re studying how art, politics, literature, music, and religion all intersect and then become part of the fabric of a society. So in the West, it has its own culture—its own music, literature, and movies. I’ll incorporate these elements in my work. Sometimes I’ll take a line from a Western Novelist, like Stegner or Willa Cather, and use that person’s work for a title or point of inspiration of a piece. This adds another layer to the story—to the painting.
SM: Right. Didn’t you make a painting that was based off of a country song?
MA: Yes, Chris LeDoux was a cowboy and a musician from Wyoming. I use his song titles a lot. “Love in the Air at the County Fair” is one. “The Only Road I know,” is another one—a lot of times when people grow up on a ranch, ranching and cowboying and rodeoing are what they know. So, a country song can be a springboard for me being able to tell these stories.
SM: Before you were an artist, you had an entire consulting career in marketing and public relations. I’m wondering how you got the courage to transition from that into the art world?
MA: I was able to do more of a hybrid because I had my own business with a steady income, which allowed me the freedom to start exploring art as a career. I didn’t pivot into it 100 percent and abandon my other life. It benefited me that my marketing work was also very creative because it was also about storytelling. In the end, that’s what art is—storytelling. Given, its different than the writing I do as a consultant. Within a 40x40-inch painting, I tell a story using icons, colors, symbols, shapes, and scale. Both careers use the creative part of my brain, and they inform each other. It’s like they are strands of my DNA, and I’m able to follow both of the paths in parallel rather than following only one strand.
SM: We’ve talked before about the way that a lot of people don’t consider art as a viable career path. What advice would you have for a young person that wants to be an artist?
MA: A year ago, I had a young high school student come to my studio and draw a pie chart on how they thought I spent my time. They put down 95 percent as making art and 5 percent as “other.” I told them that actually it’s 30 percent making art, 30 percent managing the art (finding galleries, packing art, etc.), and the other 30 percent is thinking about ideas and capturing photos for the paintings. A lot of the time, people are afraid of combining a business mindset with art.
If you want to jump into art, I think that one of the things to do is to look for a path that leads you to focusing on it 100 percent, rather than using an all-or-nothing mindset. So, find a “day job” that will fuel your art, give you connections, and expose you to creative businesses. Then, in the evenings and on the weekends you can start to build a portfolio as well as increase your confidence. Then, go out and start sharing your work.
One of the big challenges for new artists is pricing their work. You have to read the marketplace while also saying to yourself: “This is what I value my work at.” It’s the same as in the consulting business, saying: “This is how I value my time.” Then, you have to start to build a track record and reputation that supports that level of cost and potential income for yourself.
SM: Do you have any questions for me, or anything else that you want to talk about?
MA: In the art scene in urban markets, like Denver, or on campuses, what are people thinking in terms of art? Are they trying to merge technology and traditional genres? What are you seeing?
SM: I think a lot of people have been really considering ways to use art to send messages and tell stories that they think matter. Nowadays, that becomes inherently political. Would you agree with that?
MA: Yea, I think that art is really like a soap box. It’s a creative way to get people into conversations with each other. It can be a conversation starter or it can reflect the environment of the day to day, rather than just being something that’s nice to look at. The more you can bring people into these types of conversations, the better.
Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.