• Homer artist learns the “rules” of art in Latvia
By Christina Whiting
At the age of 20, Brianna Allen set off to Latvia to study painting and immerse herself in the culture.
At the National Latvian Academy of Art in Riga, Latvia, she quickly discovered the vast differences between American and Latvian teaching approaches to art, from the language barrier to the class structure.
Used to American drawing classes, where models might pose for 20 minutes before switching to another pose, Allen had to learn to think inside the box. Models in Latvian classes would stay in one pose three times a week for six weeks, requiring Allen to focus for longer periods of time.
“We weren’t just making drawings, we were truly studying the figure using perspective, proportion and value,” she explained.
At the core of the teaching, Allen learned that — for Latvian artists — there are laws of drawing and painting, from breaking down shadow and tone to line direction to correctly organizing colors on a palette.
“We were either painting correctly or we were not,” she said. “Proportions and temperatures were correct or incorrect.”
Allen also learned to simplify and return to the rudiments of art, gaining control and learning intention. She had to be able to follow the fundamentals before she would have permission to break them.
“As Americans, we tend to be obsessed with being the first, the only, or the new, often skipping through fundamentals too quickly,” she said.
In 2007, Allen returned to the United States to study at the University of Southern Maine, where she earned a bachelors in studio art and entrepreneurial studies, aswell as a bachelors in fine arts with a concentration in painting. She developed a style of painting portraiture that was both realistic and visceral, and had a different feel than her fellow American students’ paintings.
After graduation, Allen and a friend drove to Homer for the summer. Soon, she began a series of portraits. Allen said she was inspired to paint cab drivers, pool players and bar patrons. One of her favorite subjects is a fisherman named Carcass.
“Carcass would bust into the bar with an insane amount of energy, not sit still and order his food to go,” she said. “His hands were hands of a fisherman and his knuckles seemed so swollen that I wondered how he could fit them through the ring of his coffee cup.”
Allen also painted “Future,” a bartender who works at Kharacters.
“Future is a beautiful woman with a small frame; she’s pretty, like a flapper from the 1920s,” Allen said. “Kharacters can be a dark and rambunctious place, and yet she has complete authority of the bar at all times.”
Both paintings have sold.
“Homer is a goldmine of inspiration for a portrait painter,” she said. “And this is a community that appreciates and loves art.”
Allen has worked as a baker at Two Sisters Bakery for the past three years, and as the Old Town Neighborhood Coordinator for Bunnell Street Art Center for the last two. She also founded the local burlesque group, Bait and Tassels, initially as a one-time fundraiser for Bunnell. To date, Bait and Tassels has performed 19 shows and raised more than $12,000 for various local nonprofits.
Burlesque is special to Allen because she sees how it helps to grow healthy body confidence, sparks a strong sisterhood in the community and inspires her own artistic creativity — all while raising money.
This summer, eager to simplify her life, Allen left Bunnell and the burlesque group and is immersing herself in nature. She’s painting plein air full time, and experimenting with different textures and contrasts.
“With portraits, I study them so closely, it feels as though the portrait takes on its own breath,” she explained. “But with landscapes, I step out of my head, and go back to being really physical with the painting itself. Painting landscapes is about simplifying information and offering the viewer a new way to perceive what is around us.”
Portrait work calls Allen to think about emotion and mood of an individual, whereas landscapes compel her to think about form, value and composition with the natural world.
This fall, Allen and her partner will move back to Maine to be closer to family. She is planning to paint and is interested in continuing the work she started at Bunnell; working with a city or government entity to facilitate public art and community development through creative placemaking practices.
This September, Allen will show her first exhibit of landscape paintings at Bunnell, with an opening reception on Sept. 5. Her pieces will remain in the gallery through the end of the month.
“What makes me feel like a productive and happy individual is finding the balance between being a practicing artist and advocating for things I’m passionate about,” she said. “This healthy balance can be hard to achieve; I’ve struggled with it, but I’m getting closer.”
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