Midland-based artist Valerie Allen's paintings may look like pure abstractions. But to her, everything she paints is representational — though she realizes others might not see it at first.
"It's always based in something that is recognizable. It's the recognizable that inspires and I move from there," she says. "Even my truly abstract work right now, someone looks at it and they can't see what's in it, but I can see ceiling beams and I can see windows and I can see columns. To me, it's not a true abstraction. It's based in realism. I guess what it isn't is an exact illusion of reality." Her latest series, on display at the Northwood Gallery in Midland, takes inspiration from the mid-century era and architecture.
Allen notes that her husband, Armin Mersmann, is a realistic painter. "What I like to think is my art isn't reproduced exactly as it is out there in nature or out in the world. It's unique. Not that realism isn't unique, but they're going for the illusion of reality. I'm going for the material, the process, and telling that part of it. (My husband and I) talk about that quite a bit," Allen says.
Allen says working in a series gives her a thread that runs through the pieces. "When the series finally runs out or the energy starts dissipating and I'm dreaming another story up, that's when the body of work is finished," she says.
Allen admits her reference points are very subtle. "An architect from that era or even people who lived in homes from that era might not even see the connection," she says. "Once I talk about colors, earth tones, and rust, they understand where I'm coming from."
Allen is inspired by the era in other ways, too. "A lot of times in mid-century architecture there were big walls of glass, and you could see through to nature. There's a lot of transparent white shapes in my painting. That symbolizes the glass in the architecture," she adds. "It's hard to work that way, because you're always kind of looking and surveying and even reading."
Allen prefers to establish thematic series this way to give her guidance — an artist at a blank canvas has infinite possibilities. "I teach a class called 'The Chaos of Mixed Media,'" she says. "Mixed media collage artists are the hoarders of art materials. We have all this stuff. To control the chaos, as I call it, you have to give yourself what I call the givens, or the story. And then you work in those boundaries. Otherwise you're paralyzed.You try to get too much in, you can't focus. You might even not even paint."
Allen says in her classes, which she teaches at the Midland Center for the Arts and Studio 23 in Bay City, she encourages her students to break that paralyzing curse by just making marks. "I talk a lot about not getting hung up on the end result — just working through all the errors," she says. "In fact, the mistakes often make the most successful paintings. I strongly believe that."
Originally from Cincinnati, Allen has lived in Midland for 15 years. Allen says that since graduating from the University of Cincinnati's design art architecture program she owned a framing studio, and currently works at the Midland Center for the Arts as director of sales and service. She's also a lecturer and teacher for Golden Artists Colors, a paint company based in New York, where she demos their materials.
Allen says she doesn't mind splitting her time between her jobs and the studio."I'm very much a people person," she says. "I'm not the kind of artist who can hide away in a studio. I always find time for my art, but I love being around people. My husband is a little more reclusive. It's kind of a crazy way to live. Especially when I'm trying to get ready for a show and I see his discipline has paid off, and there I am. I'm the (typical) meeting-the-deadline kind of person. I work well under pressure, I guess!" — mt
Mid-Century is currently on display at Northwood Gallery, 219 E. Main Street, Midland. Gallery hours 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. More information available at 989-837-4310 or northwood.edu. Runs until Nov. 22. Allen also has work on display at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids.