Featured Artist Allen Forrest
Interviewed by Wendy Gist
Interview Date: June 30, 2015
Photo: Allen Forrest
Graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the United States. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. Forrest is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. His expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.
What made you decide to become an artist?
Some years ago, I was undergoing a *Reichian Therapy program and became so drawn to fine art that I had to do something about it. This need began my journey into the world of art. Since then, I’ve mostly taught myself with the aid of an occasional drawing and painting class.
*Reichian Therapy, also called Orgonomic therapy, was invented by Dr. Wilhelm Reich,who was part of Sigmund Freud’s inner circle in Vienna, Austria. Many people who undergo this program report similar life-changing stories as mine. This type of psychotherapy is actually more physical and emotional than mental; it opens you up and de-programs the mind-body blocks, what Dr. Reich called “character and body armor in the individual.” When the blocks are softened, they lose their repressive grip; this allows a higher energy charge in the body. In a nutshell, this higher charge translates into your life actions. Instead of being afraid to pursue the things you really long to do, you now find the courage and drive to begin a new, more meaningful direction. There is no actual art program involved, but whatever your creative inner desire is, believe me, it will make itself known in no uncertain terms. Some people are afraid to learn what their core needs are and how that may change their lives and/or relationships. I was driven to find out mine. Here we are.
What purpose does art serve in the twenty-first century?
I feel art should take people to another world, a world they rarely visit: their inner being. I believe this inner world is what separates fine art from commercial art. There is a spiritual connection between the artwork and the viewer. Many people have felt this connection: they experience the painting or drawing as reaching out to them and communicating in a deep way. It gives one pause and puts life in a more meaningful perspective.
For me, spirituality is painting. When I paint, so many of my emotions go into the action itself. The struggle to capture something well is hard work and takes a type of detached, yet intense concentration. There is so much energy and feeling going into the paint that it becomes alive, a living creation.
I’ve had several supernatural experiences with my paintings; one of a painting of my mother and another painting of a woman from my youth. These paintings reached out to me during critical moments with an energy that came right out of the paint and commanded my attention. In the painting of my mother, it was a bright light from her eyes. This happened twice before she passed away, and, each time, the event was minutes before a call from the hospital. You do not imagine this is happening; IT IS happening and your life stops for that moment; you realize the infinite light of spirit has touched you.
What subject matters are you inspired by?
I am just drawn to something; it changes day-to-day, week-to-week. It could be an era, a person, a type of work, or object—you name it. It could be just about anything. I like to work in series, say 6-12 pieces of a subject, or a stylistic interpretation of a vintage photograph. I love the classic poses of the frontier people who weren’t trying to look like anything other than who they were. And again, it is all about feeling. How does the subject make me feel? That is my guide to whether I will paint or draw it.
I love emotion and feeling in art, so I’ve always used that as a guide. I call myself an expressionist. I have a creative direction I want to go and my style will slowly evolve as it is influenced by other artists’ works I study and admire. Their works excite and push me to stretch a little, bend a little, change a little, and yet, I always come back to doing it my way through experiencing theirs.
I’d rather paint some older, less picturesque parts of town than the beautiful ones, which I have done my share of. For instance, I’d rather paint or draw rough and dirty industrial areas to show the hidden beauty in them. I’ve traveled, lived, and worked in different parts of the U.S. and Canada. I have special memories and feelings about these places and painting them helps me stay connected.
What artists influenced you most? Please expound:
Too many to name off the top of my head, but I’ll give it a try: Ben Shahn, Terry St. John, William Steig, Albrecht Durer, Pablo Picasso, El Greco, The Society of Six, particularly: Seldon Gile, August Gay, Bernard von Eichman, The Group of Seven, Thom Thompson, Romare Bearden, Robert Crumb, Judy Molyneux, Richard Diebenkorn, Vincent van Gogh, David Park, Ursula O’Farrell, Francis Bacon, Claude Monet, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Rembrandt, August Macke, Franz Kline, Alexej Jawlensky, Oskar Kokoschka, Mark Rothko, Lyonel Feininger…and many, many more.
Sometimes I draw or paint in homage to another artist’s work, say Picasso or Rembrandt, in which I’ll create “my” interpretation of “their” work, not a copy of it. Then, when I return to a pure theme, I’ll bring some of those legendary artists into my style, which is constantly evolving.
Are you self-taught or did you train with a teacher? If trained, where?
I am mostly self-taught, though I’ve taken classes such as anatomy, painting, color theory in a continuing education program at Bellevue College (located in Bellevue, WA). These non-credit classes are perfect: they are lean, no padding, to the point, and designed for adults who also hold down a day job. Before that my work background was in multimedia: film/video editor, graphic designer, web designer, theater director, and actor.
What media do you work with the most? Why?
For drawing: ink and oil pastel because you can work fast and create dynamic images with a minimum amount of set-up and clean-up. For painting, I love oil the most, its rich luster and impasto (thick texture) as though it is A L I V E. Watercolor and gouache are also nice, watercolor is like a feather you are gently teasing with your brush in the air and gouache is more direct and forgiving, yet allows you to get a similar look of oil paint in a faster lighter mode.
I’m primarily fond of your ink on paper works. In particular, the emotion and detail of your “City Life Men on Bench.” Would you like to explain the process and story behind the work? Was it drawn from an actual live setting or from your imagination?
It was drawn off of a photograph by Vivian Maier. I find her work interesting. I changed a few things and stylized it of course, but the photograph grabbed my attention and I decided to play with the people, like models, and see what might happen. Painter Francis Bacon also liked to work from photographs instead of having a model stand there for hours. He had a little wooden box full of photographs he found interesting and used them in different motifs. Bacon also would have a photographer friend shoot someone he wanted to paint and then work from those photos.
In this case, “City Life, Men on Bench” is a study of men, waiting, thinking, wondering; the day is hot, the time is mid-day, perhaps lunch, and located in a city park, say Central Park in New York, and these men are there as players on the stage of life, minor roles perhaps, but they may be dreaming of starring roles, or lamenting because they haven’t achieved them yet. To me, this drawing is about unfulfilled ambitions and the effects of being outside of where they want to be—–hey, that’s just my take. Someone else may come along and see something completely different, which is great. In art the artist can create an image suggesting many things and each person will see their own story being told. People see art through personal feelings and life experiences. Many tell me surprising things about what they see or feel in my work, things I did not try to create. But their vision sees this and I respect that. I am grateful they have connected to the work in their own unique and meaningful way.