Painter from the Desert, Living like a Bristolian

The Quest for the Mythical Creature

Marla Allison (Laguna Pueblo)
Artist-in-residence for ‘Beyond the Spectacle’ – Bristol, May-June 2018

I started this residency with three goals to accomplish and was given the opportunity to leave worries behind and paint in a new land. Having only visited Bristol once prior in 2017 for a quick 4-day trip, I had a glimpse of an alluring town and I wanted to know more.

The first goal was to learn about Bristol and to get to know its inhabitants while figuring out what to paint.  I was afforded studio space within the beautiful Bristol Museum in the conservation department.  It was such a treat to learn from my studio mate, and new friend, Helen, how a painting is restored and the processes of treatments that are given to a canvas or painted surface.  In addition, I was offered a guided tour through the museum collection with another friend, Lisa. Seeing mummified cats, paintings, spears, taxidermy, and lots of other treasures was the start to learning what the Bristol Museum had behind the scenes and on exhibition.

It was daunting to start painting, because I knew very little of Bristol, but I had to start some kind of subject on canvas while I was afforded time during museum working hours.

My jetlag shortly passed within a few days.  I was finding myself lost at times on the path to work or home, not knowing where to eat, and struggled to find inspiration.  I needed to start painting but my paint supplies were either at the museum or at my flat.  Everything was everywhere, as with my thoughts and comfort levels of what and how to paint.  It was a higgledy-piggledy mess of balance, place, and mind that I was in.  Within a week or so, I started to find my groove.  I placed the intended paintbrushes where they needed to be, stacked the canvases in a tidy space, found my maps, and I was able to start.

The first painting was inspired by the plant life that seemed to live everywhere.  The rain was so frequent in this abundant land. Within each crack of brick, graffiti covered wall and in the breaks of the sidewalk was some kind of plant growth in search of sunlight.  It was early spring upon my arrival, I thought of the day before, when I left my home in the desert, with the dry soil waiting in desperation of rain and every crop tended to with constant care to stay alive.  In Bristol, the humidity was a dream.  I thought if you dropped a seed anywhere, it would grow.  The roses were just starting to bloom, snails were on every passageway, graffiti of great images on buildings, and the air so full with moisture that in the thick evening fog lingered the sweet rose fragrance awakening my senses in the fresh dew of softly drizzled rain.  For my first painting, I thought I would share what I was so fascinated to see and leave my mark after the title of the exhibition” Painter from the Desert”.

‘Leaving a Mark’, 2018


The time spent with Joanne Prince, owner of Rainmaker Gallery, proved to strengthen my girl crush and amazement of who she is, a beautiful woman inside and out.  I am in awe of her mission in life.  Her dedication to teach anyone entering her gallery doors an education of Native Americans by giving us a real identity while replacing the romanticized, stereotyped perception brought on by movies.  She is giving the people of Bristol a contemporary truth about Native Americans by showing our art and sharing our story.  I am struck in gratitude for everything she is and does.  She is my new hero, so I painted her.  I feel it is one of my best portraits to date.

‘The Woman of Rainmaker’, 2018

Accepting the challenge of ‘living like a Bristolian’ I would try my best to walk everywhere and learn the roads.  I even went as far as trying to eat as much vegan food as I could since it seems that’s what took up 50% of every menu in the Bristol Restaurants.  It was amazing!  I would walk to the Better Food grocery store, Sainsbury’s, or Waitrose to get things to eat.  Along the way, I would see the music and cultural influences in places like the Bear Pit (which is a gathering place of younger generations) or on the streets. One day, I saw two young guys wearing patch-covered black leather jackets, one with a green Mohawk the other black, and both had pierced faces.  I thought, “Hell yeah! Punk Rock lives on!”

As I was walking to my flat one day, I met one of my neighbors, Simon Hitchcock.

He was such a mysterious character with great wit, lovely politeness, interesting conversation, fun questions of Native American life, and piercing blue eyes.  He said he had been to the states, visited in Arizona, and he asked if I have a horse.

Ha ha!  I loved this guy!  (Yes, I have ridden a horse, once, when I was younger)

He told me of the music he listened to while wearing a Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirt, I knew from the spiked hair with Sid Vicious padlock necklace that I had to paint him.  He will always remind me of the music I grew up with as well as the cool punk rock lifestyle I wished for growing up seeing how England did it best!

As this painting was growing to it’s finishing point, I showed it to him, he asked if I could add in “Punk Rock” somewhere.  In the background I added in crows from a previous painting that I had made. I left my own mark of the hand with a paintbrush as the symbol of “fight the power through art”.  Finally, I was running through possible names I had come up with, and I mentioned to Simon “Zeitgeist Punk” and he liked it.  The meaning for me is that the spirit (zeitgeist) of Punk will always live on.

‘Zeitgeist Punk’, 2018

The second goal was to finish the paintings for the solo gallery exhibition at Rainmaker Gallery and to prepare my keynote speech for the Beyond the Spectacle Symposium.  When art and life become one, it’s magic!  For four weeks, I was looking at an alien world and trying to capture what I could make sense of.  I painted what and how I knew best.

My husband, Pat Pruitt, came to Bristol for his first trip to England on June 5th.  He not only joined in the panel discussion of the symposium, but we also planned to vacation around Europe after we were finished with everything.

On June 6th, the final day had come. The Beyond the Spectacle Symposium was starting at 9:00 in the morning and the house was packed.  Discussions all day of Native American presence in Britain was greatly informative, and the panel discussion that consisted of Native American artists was fantastic as well.  Pat was included in the panel discussion along with Dr. Stephanie Pratt, Wanbli Ceya, Sarah Sense, George Alexander, Joanne Prince, and myself.     Finally, the time was at hand to explain my adventure to art enthusiasts, artists, collectors, gallery owners, professors, and people associated with museums.

To end the symposium, I gave my first hour-long keynote speech while sharing images of the paintings that I made during my stay.  I think it went well.  The gallery opening followed that evening with my solo exhibition “Marla Allison: Painter from the Desert”, a crowd brimming so full of people they had to mingle out in the streets.  The second goal was achieved and it felt glorious. I could breath a little easier knowing it was finished.  Mission complete!

‘Painter from the Desert ‘exhibition at Rainmaker Gallery (photographs courtesy of Pat Pruitt)

Lastly, the third goal was to find the mythical creatures of this land. Business is done and now to search out the fantastic creatures that so many children’s books and movies were inspired by.  The search had begun for a dragon and a unicorn.

As far as a “dragon” I thought it could mean a couple things like the real dragon of wings, fire, and scales, OR symbolize the elusive Banksy, since he is possibly real or not.  He could be any person that you met on the street and not even know you had met him.  The hope was to see or meet Banksy in an artistic setting and this is where I fantasized about asking him “What is it like to have no public face, yet be known throughout the world?” among millions of other questions.  It was a fascinating conversation in my head that took many nights of thought while I labored over paintings in the town of his origin.  Perhaps I did meet him and didn’t even know it.  Nah, I would have known.

The search of dragons had to follow logic.  Dragons live around castles so I had to go to the castles apparently.  Thanks to David and Kate of the Beyond the Spectacle team and Kent University for touring me around Wales, I was able to see some fun things.  The gratitude I feel for this day is beyond a childhood dream.

I saw castles AND I saw dragons!

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Up next on the list was to find the unicorn.  Yes, this too, has more meanings than one.  The unicorn could be this beautiful horse with a narwhal looking horn growing out of its head, or the unicorn could symbolize the Queen of England.  It turns out that the Queen is a hard person to get teatime with, or to give an exhibition-opening flier to.  Who knew?  I would have liked to introduce myself to her and hear if she liked the portrait that I had painted of her.  Being from the desert, I know the bluebirds we have do not live in England.  In a symbolic way, I painted the bluebird on her finger as a gift for her entertainment, in hopes she would smile about it. I never did gather the courage to storm her castle and demand my teatime, but I did see her gate at Buckingham Palace and there was the unicorn.  It was a good day!

‘Entertainment for the Queen’, 2018 / Unicorn on Buckingham Palace gate

The search for a fictitious creature, mostly in jest, was slightly gratifying to my inner child, one that might have glorified the idea I have had, from movies and storybooks, since childhood. I might have been fooling myself in thinking that unicorns have a stronger value than a common horse or even the donkey.  When truth and practicality is considered, a donkey is way more useful.  Unlike unicorns, donkeys don’t require virgin princesses to find them.

The search changed to thinking of what is important. Instead of the actual creature, what I found was already within myself.  A desert dweller from the water clan, a rarity in England, and a person that can adjust to different environments, almost like changing skin while growing into a new place.

Perhaps that is magic.

Yeah, why not think of myself as a dragon? I guess I would prefer to call myself a water serpent but I did change.  I adjusted to this new environment and in the end; I found I wasn’t really searching for anything but I found myself happily where I was.  Perhaps, I don’t shoot fire but I did fly there and you can always fix the shooting fire dilemma by buying a flamethrower on EBay.

On final reflection, with the opportunities of being an artist in residency, my hope is that all artists, including myself, will continually learn, find inspiration, adjust to their changing environment, and exchange information with the people they meet wherever they go.  To be the first artist in residence with Beyond the Spectacle residency program, I am a new link in the bridge that can connect the great worlds of Britain to Indigenous America.  Joanne Prince has already built and strengthened that bridge years before I came.  The more connections between our worlds, the better we all can continue in education, friendships, respect, and opportunities for the next artist to take that path and share their inspiration. In time I hope this connection grows stronger.  I look forward to returning to Bristol in the future.

Thank you for the opportunity.

‘Light Touch in Blue’, 2018


NB: unless stated otherwise, all images here are original Marla Allison artworks. Standard copyright restrictions therefore apply.

2 responses to “Painter from the Desert, Living like a Bristolian

  1. Brilliant! Loved the way you expressed yourself. I am so happy you were able to have this experience.

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