How mysticism, storytelling, and prose shape the art practice of Pamella Allen

By Patricia Andrews-Keenan

Relocating to New York, took Allen, then five, far from her grandparent’s teachings about nature and mysticism. A loss she does grieve, yet that kinship is embedded in her consciousness, and was key to her developing her own language via the visual arts.

Allen lost her mother as a young girl, and she readily acknowledges that ‘death and impermanence’ have been defining factors in her work. Nature, she says speaks both to her and through her practice. “I speak visually in seeking out questions about the mystic and the union and communion of all things,” she says. The Brooklyn-based artist says she can't think of a time when she wasn’t ‘scratching something’ and as the youngest she was wont to separate herself from everyone, preferring to be alone with her creating.

Her family she says made it a point to give her art supplies for her birthdays and Christmas, both to make her happy, and keep her quiet. “There was a point when everything was changing in my life and I didn't understand what everything was, what I was supposed to remember, where I was supposed to be,” the artist says.

She found solace creating while sitting under a particular tree, the quiet was calming for her and allowed her to remember those long-gone family members, and most importantly it gave her a sense of purpose. ‘It gave me a certain level of control and I came to understand that as a tool. You get that endorphin rush when creating, and then you do it again, and you do it again, and I’d go back to that place that felt good, that grounded me.”

Early on she began creating posters and graphics for work functions and events for her family, and she did her first oil portrait in the 80s while in high school. Yet, she also had a fascination for words, that grew equally alongside her art. Words are always incorporated into her works, even when you can’t see them. Many times, she paints over the words which ‘embeds them in the piece’ she says. Her dad was a writer with a love for literature, including Dante’s Inferno, which he would have her read. Of the unexpected tome, she says, "It has depth, and everybody finds their personal relationship to it. I absolutely love the text and the hieroglyphics,” she says. The hummingbird, a mythic bird that connects the material and spiritual world, is the logo for her practice, Pamella Allen Fine Art.

Allen uses artifacts from her life experiences pulled from memory and observation in her multi-faceted practice that includes mixed media paintings, printmaking, sculpture, paper making, installation, photography video essay, and prose. Asked how she works in so many mediums, she says, “I don't know how to work any other way.” After 30 years of working as an artist and being told you have to do one thing, or you do too many things, I said, tough, I’m doing this my way. It’s just who I am.” And even her canvases are not traditional.

Her series of mandalas are round canvases using the circle, not in the literal Buddhist interpretation, but rather as a universal geometric shape that represents the infinite. And yes, she incorporates words into the pieces. In one there is a poem she penned called the “Infinite Electric.” The self-study is another constant in Allen’s practice. In her work Life is Mystery Love, the artist is featured with her back to the viewer, existing, in her words, ‘somewhere between what is known, and the mystery of what is unknown’. She employs a technique known as ‘encaustic’ or hot wax painting, in which she uses heated beeswax to which she adds colored pigments.

The words Life is Mystery love & A peace of the Soul are repeated throughout the black, gold, and white portrait. Allen is also an educator. She has engaged in art residencies for the past 10 years both in the states and in Africa. Of her work in underserved communities she says, students are hungry for the engagement that art offers. “And even when they don’t have the right tools, or don’t have computers, they want to engage, they want to create, whether it’s illustrations, graphic design, or other forms of art.”

Currently, Allen is working in mixed media collage, in a series she calls Seven. Her installation work she says is designed to capture what “sweet liberation” feels like now. “I want to give the viewer a place to just be, for a moment, a place to reflect on the images and words and memory, a place that brings joy. That to me is really beautiful.” Allen’s work is currently on exhibit at Calabar Gallery, 2504 Frederick Douglass Blvd, New York.