Martye Allen Exhibition
Earthenware, Paintings, Drawings
“Anything is Possible “
Martye Allen, animal spirit- and dog-catcher
by Kathleen Sloan
"Totem," earthenware clay, 8 1/4" x 7 3/4" X 6"
Martye Allen’s influences are Mimbres pottery, Inuit stone sculpture and cave paintings in France and Spain, and as is true of those tribal cultures, she, too, has a deep connection with animals, the subject of her art.
Allen’s paintings, prints and sculptures of animals are on show at Rio Bravo Fine Art in Truth or Consequences through April 25, although she is among the gallery’s stable of artists and her work can always be seen there.
Her clay sculptures of ravens and bears are “sawdust fired earthenware” that have a mysterious smoky surface. Smoke, in Native American tobacco rituals, carries prayers and thoughts to the spirit world. Infused into the clay’s surface, the smoke swirls over the raven’s beak or up the bear’s back, enlivening their forms, turning them into spirit-world figures, giving them portent.
Allen first pre-fires the sculptures at a high temperature and then places them in a lower-temperature brick kiln. The figures are “completely buried” in sawdust and pine needles. For four or five hours, a slow-burning fire in the upper story of the kiln transmutes the surface of the clay.
The sculptures are particularly receptive to the smoke and pine pitch effects due to the numerous coatings of “terra sigillata.” “Terra sig is basically clay and water,” Allen said. She purchases it now, but used to make it herself. The finest clay particles float to the top of the mixture and are carefully decanted, the “slip” painted over the whole surface in thin coats.
Allen loves the chance effects of the firing process, the pine pitch sometimes producing a molasses-like glaze or the surface retaining the ghostly impression of the tiny square sawdust bits that “mask the smoke, like a resist method.”
Allen also used to find and make her own clay, but now buys it from the same New Mexico source from which she purchases the terra sigilatta. “It is so responsive. By that I mean the barest touch, each indentation is captured. You don’t have to work it and work it.”
Asked if she looks up the spiritual meaning of the animals, Allen said, “of course.”
The book, “Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals,” draws upon ancient wisdom and tradition to teach the healing medicine of animals, according to authors Jamie Sams and David Carson. Of Allen's preferred subjects, the book says:
Throughout time, Raven has carried the medicine of magic. . . . Raven magic is a powerful medicine that can give you the courage to enter the darkness of the void . . . the Great Mystery. . . . Raven is the messenger of the void. . . . Raven’s color is the color of the void—the black hole in space that holds all the energy of the creative source.
Bear is the West, the intuitive side, the right brain. . . . Bear seeks answers while he/she is dreaming or hibernating. . . . In choosing Bear, the power of knowing has invited you to enter the silence and become acquainted with the Dream Lodge, so that your goals may become concrete realities. This is the strength of Bear.”
"Flo" and "Stanley" (right). Allen's objective in painting portraits
of beloved dogs is to make them come alive.
Returning to painting decades after pursuing it in college “is so stressful,” Allen said, but “I know what I’m going for and I work at it until it happens. I want it to look like the photo, but I want it to be alive.”
She builds up the canvas using different media, first drawing on the canvas, then sometimes “doing a quick watercolor,” followed by water-based oil paint, using her fingers as often as a paintbrush to achieve just the right smear to capture a lit eye and salivating dog smirk.
She purposely keeps the background quiet, so the dog’s persona remains the focus, fine-tuning the color until it becomes a springboard for the figure.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Allen claims, while achieving the highest goal in animal or people portraiture—capturing living character on canvas.