Mixed media has earned the artist recognition across the country.
When Cheyenne Frontier Days decided for the first time in its 120-year history to feature a cowgirl on its official poster, the honor of creating the image went to Maura Allen. The choice was both fitting and fresh: Her high-contrast, high-silhouette work has earned her the moniker “Warhol of the West.”
“I saw a museum exhibition of [Andy] Warhol in New York that showed his process, and it clicked for me that I could combine photography and painting to tell stories of the West — not old versus new, but how our ideas and vision of the West are shaped through literature, music, film, real life. My pieces show the arc of time — that we’re all part of this continuum called the West.”
Exposed to many cultural influences — growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in a large family; classical studies at Stanford University; time in Rome and Seattle; on the range and the rodeo circuit — Allen now lives and works in Denver, creating out of an industrial studio space a couple of miles from her home. From there, her work finds its way to museums, galleries, corporate and private collections, top art publications — and to this conversation with C&I.
Cowboys & Indians: Photography is a foundation of your art. How did you get into it?
Maura Allen: When I was in fourth grade, I saw that famous [Eadweard] Muybridge photo series of the horse running, and I guess it stayed with me because that’s the way I see — in snaps. I was actually led to the camera by high school art class back in the days of film and also took classes at Stanford.
C&I: How did you zero in on the Western lifestyle as your subject?
Allen: I got hooked on a trip to Jackson Hole 25-plus years ago and started spending more time in traditional Western areas. What really drew me in was the family: the family legacy passed on from one generation to another. The underpinning of that dynamic, seeing how it unfolds, keeps me going back to ranches. I grew up in a family of eight. When I was growing up, it was more literature than movies and TV — stories by Willa Cather, stories about strong women in the West; novels by Wallace Stegner, like Angle of Repose. Not necessarily cowboys and Indians, but the life of the West, the pioneering spirit.
C&I: What’s your process?
Allen: I’m out on the road going to rodeos and ranches and photographing. I get inspiration for the pieces, then come back to the studio and do the painting. It’s all on wood, all original paintings. So it’s half on the road, half in the studio.
For inspiration, I often take the Old West or something historic and marry it with modern-day scenes or find a way to reinterpret it — maybe a line from a book, a song title, an old graphic sign on a storefront in an old Western town, or a masthead from a Western magazine from the 1800s. Those things are in my mind or in my notebook, and then I say, “How do I incorporate this into my artwork?” I have a piece called Stars in Your Eyes, a giant rodeo scene. I had in mind something larger than life — summertime rodeo, the heat of Wyoming. How do I convey that? Through color, perspective. Or I have a series called 8mm — the idea of the cowboy as mythic hero in film — in which I use different color palettes to create different feeling. My art is always about finding a way to tell stories through painting.
C&I: Your perspective seems to be more and more authentically inside the action.
Allen: I’m on location seeing the West unfold in real time with real people. I hear stories and ask myself, How do I show this in my work?
Every year I go to small-town rodeos and really meet people and see all aspects, not just what’s happening in the arena. And at larger events, as an artist, I can go behind the chutes at, say, Cheyenne Frontier Days, for a different perspective and bring that unique vantage point into my work.
I was recently on a cattle drive in Arizona and I rode with my camera. I really saw how the cattle drive worked and how the team worked together. It’s a different perspective when you’re on the back of a horse in the middle of it, or on the ground at a ranch, or behind the chutes. Having different perspectives has changed my work. Now I’m more embedded in the West than just an observer of it.
Maura Allen is exhibiting at Cowgirl Up! at the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, Arizona, and Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She has a show with Carrie Fell June 2 – 30 at Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe.
From the April 2017 issue.