OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Noelle Allen

Saturn's Shepherd (Green) (detail)
Resin, clay, plaster, wax, acrylic
30" around

Surface texture and color are major players in NOELLE ALLEN's cast sculptures, comprised of wax, resin, plaster, ceramics and foraged organic material. She expertly achieves a variety of familiar, terrestrial surfaces—various types of rock, moss, coral, wood and dirt—while her soft color palette evokes the otherworldly. Repeated use of the orb as a form in both drawings and sculptures reminds us of the natural connection between the earth and the cosmos. Noelle attended Wesleyan University and Smith College for undergrad and received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. She teaches full-time at Domincan University in River Forest, Illinois and was a 2012-2013 HATCH Projects resident at the  Chicago Artists’ Coalition. With four upcoming solo exhibitions, the end of 2014 will be tremendously busy for Noelle. Thistle, an outdoor installation at Terrain South (Oak Park, Illinois) opens tomorrow (July 4th) and runs until August 1. Trellis at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina and Sender Channel Receiver Feedback at the Marquette Cultural Center on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan both run from August to October 2014. A currently-untitled show at Comfort Station in Chicago opens in November 2014. Noelle lives in Oak Park, Illinois.

OtherPeoplesPixels: What's a stronger influence for you: the earth or the cosmos?

Noelle Allen: In 2012, my family and I moved into a bungalow in Oak Park with an overgrown garden that spills into the parkways. Before relocating, we lived in Chicago for 10 years, and my work drew inspiration from fossils, cellular and skeletal structures I studied in books and at the Field Museum. However, once we had our own place, I had an opportunity to use materials that were close at hand, materials that I live with. I was hoping to better integrate my life with my practice.

Now, my work incorporates all of the natural fauna and organic materials found in my own garden, both directly and indirectly. I like to garden with my sons. We gather roots, branches, leaves, weeds, tomatoes, flowers, abandoned birds nests and materials my boys scrounge up from the dirt or compost.

Although I draw immediate inspiration from the earth and my surroundings, the work also invokes celestial forms and structures. The visual patterns and recurring shapes and symmetries found in organic materials, like fractals and tessellations, also reflect larger structures in the universe. Hopefully, my work can invoke that bridge between the terrestrial and the celestial.

My childhood has also played a prominent role in my work. I grew up surrounded by farmland in the Sacramento Valley. In the fall, you could smell the rice fields burning. In the summer, there were lemons, plums, peaches and strawberries. My mother is also an artist, and she always had a drawing studio in our house. My earliest memory of her work is of very meticulous graphite rendering of a ball of boobs!

Astral Layer (Evanston)
Resin, wax, concrete, and ceramic
9' x 26'

OPP: I'd like to see that piece! Could you talk about the use of organic materials such as mushrooms, twigs, branches, thorns and driftwood, both in the final product and in the process of creating your work?

NA: I use a variety of materials and methods to directly and indirectly translate organic material into my work. An artist friend, John Harmon, has also given me many found objects: dragon’s claw seedpods, an entire half of a bovine skeleton and some roots and plant matter. I photograph and even photogram my materials, but never for a final product. Instead, the photographs become an alternative means of viewing or translating my sources.

For the larger installation and sculpture work, many of my methods have roots in traditional sculpture and ceramic techniques. However, I have developed some of my own mold-making techniques that I use with materials like sand, graphite, seaweed and latex. The positives are pulled in porcelain, concrete, wax, resin and plaster. Recently, I have begun flooding my molds with water, which ends up imprinting the surfaces of my materials with details that are both familiar and unknowable. For example, in the recent installation of Astral Layer at the Evanston Art Center, the sheets of resin, which I covered with water during the cure stage, were cast directly onto the floor of my studio, where they picked up years of clay, paint, dirt and plaster.

Iridophore (Green)
Resin and felt
30" around

OPP: My personal favorite pieces are the Iridophores, a series of colorful, globe-like sculptures made from resin and felt. Can you explain the title of the series, the process of creating these sculptures and why you choose to exhibit them sitting directly on the floor?

NA: The title refers to a type of iridescent cell found in some sea creatures and amphibians that allows the squid, for example, to reflect light and alter the color and contrast of the animal. Scientists call it “electric skin.” The mold is created from a tangle of roots and branches. This organic material, along with the introduction of water into the mother mold, a plaster shell, create the negative spaces in the resin and felt.The Iridophores are made with a marine grade resin and are intended to be both indoor and outdoor pieces. For the Osmia exhibit at Riverside Art Center, I placed four of them in the sculpture garden and over the course of the show, the colors shifted from the sun. 

I am reluctant to use a pedestal, which would add another sculptural element to the installation. I would rather have the work appear organically on the floor.

Sender Channel Receiver Feedback (Yellow and Cerulean)
Resin, felt and concrete

OPP: Thistle opens tomorrow (July 4, 2014) at Terrain, an outdoor exhibition space in a residential neighborhood in Oak Park, Illinois. Will you give us a preview of what you are planning? What's exciting and what's challenging about creating work for this environment?

NA: Sabina Ott, an amazing artist and the curator behind Terrain, asked me to do an installation in the Terrain South site, which is basically an empty, grassy lot between two residential homes that sits directly across from a grade school. It was important to me to carefully develop an outdoor, durable piece that children could run through but not climb on or get hurt by, if anything were to fall over. I also had to consider visual impact from the street. Since I do so much mold-making, I decided to create an installation of crazy multiples.

With the assistance of ceramicist Kate Pszotka, I am turning rebar, an industrial building material found in foundations, into an eggshell structure in porcelain. There will be a field of over 100 six-foot-tall, curved rebar “weeds,” bridging the gap between an overgrown lot and the possibility of construction.

In the process, the rust from the rebar has transferred onto the porcelain, so we have played with the color and glazes in response to both that transition and the summertime sun and grass. The color will catch the sun to create a horizon line at the top, where the porcelain shifts into clear resin.

Resin, wax, concrete, and ceramic
Each 56" x 17" x 17"
Installation view, Design Cloud (Chicago)

OPP: You made a global shift in your color palate around 2013. Before that, your work was almost exclusively on the grayscale. What led to this change?

NA: Yes, this is true. It mostly boils down to fun. I wanted to have more fun with my work. I was craving some levity and lightness in the studio. Perhaps also happiness? I have been a much happier—albeit more stressed—person since my children were born in 2009 and 2011.

OPP: Speaking of stress, you teach full-time at Dominican University, you have two children, and you have four upcoming solo exhibitions, not to mention several group shows. You’ve mentioned that your boys help you gather materials for your work. How else do you balance your roles of artist, teacher and mother? Can you offer some practical advice for first-time mothers who are trying to maintain their art practices?

NA: When my second son Zeke was born pretty quickly after Henry's arrival, I realized I needed more help. In order to manage, I had to build and maintain a solid support structure to handle all the different parts of my life. My husband Tim is incredibly supportive of my studio time and as my children get older, they can be more involved. Henry, who is very opinionated about my work, likes to come to my studio. He helps me unload kilns and operate the slab roller. I have also had wonderful part time studio help—hi, Tess and Andrew!—through a grant program at Dominican University. Do not try to do it all alone!

Also, some quality acupuncture goes a long way.

To see more of Noelle's work, please visit noelleallen.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia is currently looking forward to creating a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists opens on July 11, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA.