Roberta Allen: Art and Language as One


“Drawing saved me from the insanity of my family.”

Allen’s art has been exhibited globally, and her more than 200 stories have been anthologized and published in collections as well as literary journals.  She is a conceptual artist: the connection between writing and art is vivid in her work—text and image are one as you can see in this recent piece shown below.

When I asked her how she sees the relationship between the two forms of expression, and the centrality of each to her life, she replied:

“I started writing stories in 1979 whereas I was drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil my mother told me. Drawing saved me from the insanity of my family. My father was a gambler who was often running from the Mafia. After his death, Mafia goons threatened my life. My father was the sane one compared to my mother. Drawing allowed me to enter my own world so I was far away from them. At first I was a painter. I didn’t start using text in my work till the early ‘70s though I began exhibiting in Europe in the ‘60s. Language is the bridge between my conceptual art and my writing but my voice and occasional humor are present in both. In my art, I explore how text informs or changes our perception of images. I play with possibility. Sometimes I write and make art on the same day.”

Allen had her first solo exhibition of paintings at Galerie 845 in Amsterdam in 1967. Since then her work has been exhibited continually in galleries and museums worldwide, and it is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, and the Cooper-Hewitt, among other notable institutions.

She is the author of nine books, including two collections of short fiction, The Traveling Woman (Vehicle Editions, 1986) and Certain People (Coffee House Press, 2007); a novella in short short stories, The Daughter (Autonomedia, 1992); a memoir, Amazon Dream (City Lights, 1992); the novel, The Dreaming Girl (Painted Leaf Press, 2000, and Ellipsis Press, 2011); the story collection, The Princess of Herself (Pelikenesis Press, 2017), and several writing guides. Allen was on the faculty of The New School for many years and has also taught at Columbia University. She was a Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction in 1998.

Born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Allen left home at nineteen to live and work in Europe and has been travelling alone to far-away places ever since. Her travels have inspired several of her books, notably Amazon Dream. A fellowship in 1989 from the State Museum in Perth took her to Australia for several months. A 1995 trip to Mali was commissioned by The New York Times. Her writing guides, The Playful Way To Serious Writing, and The Playful Way To Knowing Yourself, (Houghton Mifflin,2002, and Mariner, 2003) are illustrated with her photographs and drawings.

Please check out The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers for more than 400 plates of artwork by great writers and the stories behind them.

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