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Local Artists Live: Nathaniel Allen
September 26, 2020; 10:00 AM–10:30 AM CDT
Meet Nathaniel Allen, a multimedia artist whose expertise ranges from traditional media to contemporary artforms and the featured artist this Saturday, September 26, on Local Artists Live. Al (a nickname donned by his parents and carried naturally into adulthood) was originally from the Mississippi Delta but then moved to Michigan. Al grew up immersed in creativity in a childhood he describes as “magical.” He saw firsthand how to balance “regular work” with art-making; both of his parents held jobs as teachers but were also active musicians. Al has lived in Montgomery for a little over 10 years; currently the Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Alabama State University, his work represents an accomplished and enviable balance between academia and art-making.
When growing up, creative individuals are often encouraged by their families to make art as a hobby but not pursue it as a career; Al, on the other hand, was raised in a talented musical family, and the impact that upbringing had on his own pursuits was freeing. His parents both sang and recorded in the ’70s, and relatives Denise LaSalle and James ‘Son’ Thomas were successful Blues artists—the latter was also a self-taught visual artist. “As a kid, seeing and hearing about the interesting creative lives that my relatives lived really affected me. In a lot of ways, that gave me the ‘ok’ to enjoy making ‘art things’ and to see it as something a person could continue doing as a grown-up. As I got older, I got to see first-hand how my parents balanced their passion for singing and their professional lives as educators. I saw early on that there were benefits and challenges to ‘regular’ work and creative work. It was just a matter of making a choice of one or balancing both and then dealing with the consequences / enjoying the benefits.”
In addition to familial influences, Al also fondly recalls the impact of television shows he enjoyed and books he treasured growing up. “I was mostly a quiet, shy kid, who was into drawing, comic books, and monster movies.” Favorites on the tube were Dark Shadows, Batman with Adam West, and the Frosty the Snowman special that airs annually around the holidays. Before he was able to read by himself, he was read to often by his parents. Certain books became favorites, and because he heard them with such frequency he was able to memorize the words and would correct adults if they attempted to abbreviate his beloved stories.
Although academically he focused on visual arts, earning a BFA in painting from Michigan State University and an MFA in painting from the University of Mississippi, Al’s musical roots did not go entirely forgotten. He and a friend formed a band called the LG’s while living in Nashville. Their debut album “Want Too Much”—recorded with several talented friends in a makeshift studio garage—is still available for download online. After they sold out of CDs, however, Al was “pretty much done conquering the music industry,” and he moved on to his first job teaching art full-time at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia.
Though teaching has provided Al with the stability of a career, the balance in his truly creative life comes from continuing to make his own art while connecting with other artists. Tune in at 10 AM Saturday morning to learn more about Al’s art, his role at ASU, and his active participation with Montgomery’s art community.
Left: Nathaniel Allen, Scary Horror Tales, pencil, ink & digital color
This program is part of the series:
Meet the Artist
What is your favorite thing about living in the South?
Winter is usually my favorite thing about the South. I have had quite enough shoveling snow from my Michigan years, thank you very much.
What excites you most about the growth of Montgomery’s art scene?
I love seeing people asserting the validity and importance of creativity in a wide variety of formats and kind of dragging the rest of the city into the 21st century. It is usually not a smooth process—sometimes things work, sometimes they need to be re-evaluated—but mostly now, the local art community seems empowered to try to figure out how to make things work. 10 years ago, young local artists had just about given up on Montgomery.
What is your favorite work of art from the MMFA’s collection, and what specifically about the artwork speaks strongly to you?
That big John Singer Sargent portrait knocks me out every time. Sargent had the combination of mastery with his mark-making [brushstrokes] and an incredibly developed sense of design and composition. It is fun to play the game where you stand back and see the large detailed image and then walk up close and watch the details turn into colored strokes of paint. There is a sophisticated pattern of light and dark triangles in rectangles in the painting. I also get lost in analyzing his compositional choices.
What piece of art that you have created is your favorite, and why?
With my work, each thing I’m working on is usually my favorite when I am between 60% and 75% done, then it drops off drastically depending on how long it takes to finish. Then it is on to the next thing.
Do you have an all-time favorite work of art, and have you seen it in person? If you have, how did you feel in the moment?
No. I have too many favorite works of art. At some point, I will make it to the Frazetta Art Museum in Stroudsburg, PA. Then I will let you know… unless a Bernie Wrightson Museum opens before then. Looking at the artwork that I really love is overwhelming for me. It can be strangely exhausting too.
Tell us about your most preferred place to be on earth. What role, if any, has the energy of that place helped shape you as an artist?
My family went to Venice, Italy, a few years back for an incredible week’s worth of vacation. That was really incredible. It was like being in a dream really. The flooding going on there now is heartbreaking. We visited Paris, France, as well. That was like being in a movie. It is amazing how everything looks and feels more beatific there somehow. I really don’t think I have found my absolute favorite place on earth yet. When I do, that’s where I’ll be.
What drives your creativity?
I’m not really sure what drives my creativity. I have learned how to keep myself surrounded by people and things that inspire me. I have burned out a few times, stopped making art, and had to just let myself recharge and find inspiration again. It seems to keep coming back. Creativity is just a habit for me. Being able to make ideas real is enjoyable work. I do try to take care of my creative self – balancing work-work and art-work is a serious challenge these days.
What is your preferred medium?
Drawing. I always wish I was doing more drawing.
Do you listen to any particular music when you create?
I listen to a lot of music; blues, soul, rap to rock, and roll to 70’s top 40 to Tom Waits. When I’m making art, I usually play what I consider to be ‘non-interruptive music’, which is just stuff I have heard so many times I don’t have to think about it. I grew up listening to different radio stations, so my musical taste is pretty eclectic. I do love some guitar though.
What advice would you give to beginning artists?
I give a lot of specific advice to beginning artists in my position as Art Department Chair/advisor/professor at ASU. Normally, it is based on looking at their work and hearing what their aspirations are—a lot of times their assumptions about art don’t match the reality of learning or doing it professionally. Here’s a common piece of advice: mistakes are just part of the process. Beginners often get hung up or overly-concerned about mistakes or doing things wrong, being ashamed, etc. You have to make them and identify them in order to learn how to fix them. As you get better, you see and correct mistakes faster, and you put your energy into making the corrections instead of making yourself feel bad. A lot of beginners overly condemn themselves for imperfections or take the opposite approach of rationalizing/ignoring problems with the old “I meant to do it like that” routine.