Alison Kendall

Each painting is an opportunity to learn something new... a way to satisfy my own curiosities, and in turn, hopefully, those of the viewers.

Alison’s studio is in the Art Explosion Studios building in the Mission District. After entering the building, we walked up some stairs to the top floor, which is a huge warehouse-like space broken up into small studios. In her modest and tidy sectioned off space, surrounded by other artists’ workspaces, Alison spends hours and hours each week, busily working on her paintings and collages. Her studio is set up almost like a well-curated curiosity shop, and even though everything is arranged just so there is a naturalness to it that made me immediately feel at home. Nothing looks fussy or too precious, instead her perfectly placed objects appear beloved, well-worn, and storied. There are a great deal of vintage measuring instruments about, particularly rulers (both metal and wooden), and rusting but still colorful tin boxes in a corner. There are lots of drawers and cubbies full of collage cut-outs, and glass bell jars that house solitary objects that somehow appeared more rare and spectacular beneath their domes. Groupings of stacked books are here and there, showcasing Alison’s interests with titles such as Daughters of the Earth, Art Forms from the Ocean and The Pioneer Spirit. Alison’s space told me so much about her— it makes plain her love of the natural world and her ability to examine it both scientifically and artistically, it reveals her knack for finding and then presenting commonplace things in unexpected and evocative ways, and it expresses the deep thoughtfulness and care that she seems to bring to her work, artistically and otherwise.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I say I’m an artist, marine ecologist, illustrator and graphic designer (among other things).

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I have 2 long-term contract jobs. The first is with a college-level biology textbook company out of NY. I do illustration and development work for them 2 days a week and spend the rest of the week in my studio. Occasionally I get called to work with PISCO (Partnership for the Interdisciplinary Study of Coastal Oceans), a large-scale coastal monitoring project that I worked with full-time from 2000 to 2005. I love helping out with that project on a contract basis because it allows me to stay connected with my marine ecology roots and gets me out into beautiful, remote locations where I’m able to spend multiple days on end in nature. I get to come home to my studio afterward and incorporate that energy into my creative work.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work primarily with acrylic on wood panel and collage. My subject matter is definitely grounded in biology/natural history but there is always a surreal/dreamy element to each piece. These days, I’m mainly painting birds with an occasional manmade element, though I’ve painted a lot of Bison and people over the past few years. I’m wary of the “put a bird on it” cliché, but I like the symbolism that birds carry with them, from Greek mythology and Native American belief systems, to present day cultural associations (birds as indicators of ecosystem health, etc). I’ve always had a deep affinity toward nature and tend to get disturbed by what we have done and are currently doing to the natural world. Making art helps me cope with these emotions by presenting the natural subjects in a way that both honors them and illuminates thought.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Reading: I always look to Cabinet magazine for inspiration and read the New Yorker and New York Review of Books to keep my brain current. Recent books: Just Kids, Patti Smith (totally inspiring in multiple dimensions); Kingdom Under Glass, Jay Kirk (story of Carl Akeley, pioneer in modern taxidermy), King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild (history of the Belgian Congo).

Looking at: I watch a lot of documentaries and have a few that I go back to for inspiration: Proteus (amazing film about the life of Ernst Haeckel); The Books, Play All; William Kentridge shorts, Planet Earth episodes on mute with my ownmusic instead (my fiancé & I have been searching for perfect records to pair with individual episodes. So far, best matches: Clara Rockmore’s “Art of the Theremin” set to Deep Sea and Gas “Pop” with Great Plains.
Listening: While working, I typically spend half the time listening to NPR or radio podcasts (Radiolab, history lessons, etc) and the rest with music. I listen to a lot of music and am always searching for new/old stuff. I tend to like chaotic music that lets my mind roam around, and I often get stuck on certain albums for extended periods of time. Some examples: Mississippi Records compilations (especially old blues and North African compilations), The Books (all albums), Panda Bear (Person Pitch), Animal Collective (Merriwether Post Pavillion & Fall Be Kind EP), The Knife (everything – including their bizarre score for the opera about Darwin’s life.)

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
Having to compartmentalize my time and the lack of natural light in my studio. I navigate the art world by making art and seeing what happens. I’m considering pursuing an MFA, more for the opportunity to build a community than to get the degree. Though I’m not sure about school yet, I’ve been trying to be more involved in what’s happening locally. This year I participated in the Southern Exposure’s Monster Drawing Rally, which is a live drawing event and fundraiser that allows spectators to observe artists in the act of creation and then purchase the artwork. I plan on doing it again next year. Last week I was asked to pitch a project for an art competition put on by Emerging Arts Professionals (an organization based in SF). In spite of my fear of public speaking, I agreed and ended up having a great time. I’m trying to take part in as many art related opportunities as possible after telling myself that I would start doing all the things that scare me.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It means I’ve made a commitment to myself towards making art a major part of my life. Committing to making art has been a gradual process that kind of began when some friends asked me to do an art show at their café in Healdsburg, Ca in 2007. From there I started making art more regularly, and things have evolved. It’s been only four years since I made my first “real” painting.

Having a separate, physical space allows me to go into an alternate mental universe where I can focus without the distractions of home/office/outside world. Since there is hardly any natural light and not much room in my studio, I try to get creative with how I light and arrange the space.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I struggled for a long time with my identity after moving away from the sciences, through the science illustration and publishing world into the art world. Over the past several years since I started focusing more on art, the different identities seemed to work against each other, but I’ve finally reached a place where I’m able to embrace who I am and they seem to be working together more harmoniously. In that sense, there has been a shift, and there is definitely an autobiographical element when I look back through my work – though it’s probably not apparent to anyone but me.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
A couple of months ago I started cutting up Audubon’s Birds and Mammals of North America,and ended up spending weeks cutting out every single bird, leaf, flower, rabbit, etc, until I finished the whole book. Disarticulating his book was both sacrilegious and therapeutic for me, especially considering the high position Audubon occupies in the field of natural history illustrators. Once I had all the de-contextualized material I started making collages with the birds, which led me to a series of paintings that I’m currently working on – chaotic swarms of birds that seem to be pulled by a centripetal force into the middle of the panel. I think it must relate to a story I read in the Akeley book about his early days preparing birds for ladies’ hats. He would arrive at his office to a pile of dead songbirds, egrets, hawks, that he would have to pluck, de-gut and make ready for the hat maker. That was a time when every lady with any sense of style had to have a feather hat, or a hat with an entire bird on it.

What are you most proud of?
Right now I’d say I’m proud of myself for working towards my creative passions and finding a way to balance the different sides of myself.

What do you want your work to do?
To make myself and other people happy, inspired and interested. Each painting is an opportunity to learn something new, whether it’s the feeding and migration habits of a certain bird, the history of an 18th century microscope or scientist, the current science being applied towards cleanup of the Gulf oil spill… each project is a way to satisfy my own curiosities, and in turn, hopefully, those of the viewers. I tend to like art with subtle or hidden messages, that leave room for you to think, giving you a general feeling but allowing you to expand upon/explore the ideas yourself. In general, I don’t like being beaten over the head with other peoples’ intentions, so I like art that avoids that as well.

What advice has influenced you?
Ira Glass did a great video piece about his career and his advice (in a nutshell) was to keep generating as much work as possible without looking back or worrying too much about how things turn out.

How will you know when you have arrived?
I don’t ever want to arrive. Instead, I’d prefer to evolve and grow in as many directions as possible until I die.

To see more of Alison’s work: