Marla Allison’s painting “Carrying the Flame” won the Native American Art Magazine Editor’s Choice Award for Excellence at the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market. Photo by Arin McKenna/Valley Daily Post
By Arin McKenna
Marla Allison’s contemporary paintings are “carrying the flame” into the future.
Marla Allison gained instant recognition at her first Santa Fe Indian Market in 2010 by winning the inaugural Innovation Award. Allison’s reputation for creative and innovative art has kept her on the radar of collectors and museum professionals ever since. Her work is in permanent collections at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz., the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, N.M., the Red Cloud Indian School Collections in Pine Ridge, S.D. and various private collections. She was the 2010 recipient of the Eric and Barbara Dobkin Native Woman’s Fellowship at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, N.M.
Winning the Native American Art Magazine Editor’s Choice Award for Excellence at the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market holds special significance for Allison, following a year in which a major life change sparked a deeper dive into her own artistic expression.
The award-winning piece, Carrying the Flame, depicts a woman with the head of a Golden Eagle who both holds fire and is fire. Allison describes her as “almost a Phoenix-like female figure that is our Mother, representing the power, the strength, the fire that gives the life to the pottery. Or maybe this is the hidden spirit that’s inside the kiln whenever the pottery’s being fired.”
For Allison, the painting holds several layers of meaning. One is carrying on the traditions and history of her Laguna Pueblo heritage.
“This painting is the deeper connection of the strength and power that the pottery of Laguna Pueblo holds and the tradition of carrying on the designs, embracing the symbols and the life that was given and is represented not only through pottery but through the people and through our traditions,” Allison said. “So this is almost the representation of the fire, the passion of life, and carrying that on through art.”
As with much of Allison’s work, this painting is as much about the future as the past. “It’s this bridge of what we were, what’s important, what’s tradition and connecting to what’s the future, what’s contemporary, what’s still giving homage to the past but also carrying that on.”
As part of a body of work that grew out of Allison’s recent divorce, Carrying the Flame also holds personal significance for the artist.
“Since my divorce in April I’ve struggled to find my own identity and trying to realize who I am and where I am in this world,” Allison said. “In my own symbolic way, that painting is almost the meaning of taking my own power back and showing exactly its strength.”
The life transition led Allison to dig deeper into how and why she creates her artwork and brought “clarity of thought, purification.”
“It’s simplifying and going to the root source of what I think should be the next big step in modern art, in Native American Pueblo reflection, in understanding history and appreciating it but also moving it to a new step where it will inspire so much more,” Allison said.
More than 1,100 juried artists show at Indian Market every year, and most of those enter at least one piece for judging. For Allison, being chosen for this award over so many strong competitors was “a lifetime achievement.”
“It’s proof that what I’ve been aiming for and what I’ve been trying to do my entire life is proven to be worth it. It means a lot more than just an award. It’s that acknowledgement,” Allison said. “It’s very special, to be a woman and get that award for such a strong painting, among how many other people that had their artwork in competition?”
Allison’s work as an artist has opened doors she never imagined.
““The greatest part is that my artwork is what’s taken me around the world,” Allison said. “I’m very grateful. It’s an honor to be able to do that just because of what I do, just being an artist. And it’s allowed me to share what we do here.”
Allison was offered a solo artist residency through the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, UK in 2018. In March she participated in a group residency in Saudi Arabia.
“Going to do those residencies and being this little, exotic person – the only native among 43 artists and 31 countries represented – I felt super special,” Allison said. “And to represent this great place as one of four Americans, to be among all those people and this world in the middle of the desert, one of King Abdul Aziz’ personal guests – what an honor. But also what a heavy world to carry, to show and give understanding to people who thought we (Native people) didn’t exist anymore.”
Allison answered questions such as “What are you? What’s indigenous?” with grace and good humor.
“I’d be like, the Western movies, cowboys and Indians. We’re the Indians. From movies, that’s how they understand who we are,” Allison said. “But, then again, I’m not going to expect everybody to know, because I’m hearing about their countries. One of the artists is from Mauritius, and I had no clue where in the world that would be.”
Allison valued the opportunity to share her art with other artists and help them to experience it through her eyes.
“It feels like after I’ve washed the fog out of my eyes, I’m doing the same for them,” Allison said. “Like, here, this is what contemporary artwork is and should be. It should embrace the history but also embrace what’s here, what’s now and what’s to come. So I hope that it gives the viewer more inspiration, but also gives other artists the understanding that we can make a difference with just a piece of artwork.”
The residencies have expanded Allison’s circle of friends and followers who found her through those friends.
“On Facebook I have how many countries that are watching me and I see the likes, and it’s like, okay, there’s Estonia, there’s Istanbul, there’s Mauritius, there’s UAE, there’s Saudi Arabia. All the people that are liking my stuff…It’s really nice to know how much of the world is seeing this now.”
Although the recent transitions in Allison’s life sparked some new directions in her art, that is nothing new to an artist who is continually exploring new ways to innovate.
“I am always in new directions. I’m figuring it out, but I’m going with the guidance of the stars. Whatever shows in my way I appreciate it and with gratitude I walk through the open door.”
See more of Allison’s work at King Galleries, 130 Lincoln Ave., #D, Santa Fe or at https://marlaallison.com.