I’m off to meet my next street artist interviewee: Allison Bamcat. As always, I do not know what to expect; my first impressions would have never let me guess what she had been through in her life. Allison appears firm in herself, self-confident, I even want to use the worn out and blurry word ‘strong’. A strong and feminist woman that knows exactly what she wants – and goes after it. But it hasn’t always been like that, but I will get to ‘why’ later.
Allison was born in Los Angeles in 1988, but at the young age of 12 her parents decided to leave L.A. and move to Boston. Allison stayed there for 17 years, but during that time never lost sight of Los Angeles. After college, where she studied communication, design, and illustration, she started a career at Converse as a print-pattern artist working ~70 hour weeks. There, she obsessed with work, finding herself more than once in a burn-out. Eventually she found the courage to quit to focus full-time on her art. But it wasn’t a smooth transition: She used every free minute of her day to draw and paint. And in time, she went to marketing and social media classes to learn the business side of art. She prepared portfolios and sent them out to LA galleries. And after some time immersing herself into this work, she managed to build significant relationships with gallery owners and curators and got her ticket back to the City of Angels. By then she was 28 and married to Rikard, a Swedish neurobiologist. Together they moved back to Southwen California.
She had always dreamed of coming back one day. Los Angeles – that was where her first memories were formed… the bright pastel colors, the culture, the street art… it all informed her art. As she told me, “I felt like there was something that was pulling me back here to do my art, because here is what informed my art in the first place, you know the sunset and all the art around graffiti, the old signage and classic Hollywood.”
However, her inspiration wasn’t just her environment, but her media intake too – particularly the 90s cartoons she grew up with. “It was like Sailor Moon, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake. I loved characters that came in matching sets. All the Sailor Scouts had their own color scheme and all the Rainbow Brite characters had their own little color scheme… Like the color denoted their personality and their power.”
As a kid she spent a lot of time alone at home. Her parents divorced early-on and so when she got home from school, she often found herself without supervision. She would spend that time drawing, experimenting with colors and patterns, and which she soon realized was her thing. She loved making art.
For two hours into our conversation that was the dominant narrative. But then Allison opened up to me about the darker parts of her past: We talked about her eating disorder, her constant strive for excellence, which still propels her at least once a year into a burn-out, and her experience with depression and suicide attempts. She’s been through the emotional rollercoaster.
Speaking on those experiences, she said, “what I want the world to know about my art is that it’s not just the pretty colors. The pretty colors are masking a darker issue. And that goes through, all the way, the art I’ve always made. In fact, my college thesis when I went to MassArt was called ‘Put on a Happy Face’. And it was about me masking my feelings around my anorexia, and my depression, and all my paintings were of clowns. Crying clowns.”
“What I want the world to know about my art is that it’s not just the pretty colors. The pretty colors are masking a darker issue. And that goes through, all the way, the art I’ve always made. In fact, my college thesis when I went to MassArt was called ‘Put on a Happy Face’. And it was about me masking my feelings around my anorexia, and my depression, and all my paintings were of clowns. Crying clowns.”
Allison’s art is indeed: Colorful, playful, almost child-like. Little sea creatures, a crab, a seahorse, okapi, shrimp, a dragon… and everything undefined in between. Imaginary and fantastical creatures. A playground for children and especially little girls. Pink! Long lashes on a fish, red lips, a dog meshed with a cactus, an owl with three eyes, nothing is impossible in Allison Land.
It is a land where she resorted to when the real world became too dark. “This is how my brain works because there’s this big desert plain in the back of my head all the time. Then every so often some kind of little creature will come visit it and then I can kind of turn that character around in my brain and edit it or add things to it. Like adding play. I don’t know, it’s like building something in my mind until it’s right and it sits there in that desert plain with its other buddies until I have the opportunity to and then it doesn’t live there anymore. It lives in the real world. I don’t know if anybody else thinks like that, but I have a very active imagination and I dream like crazy.” So crazy, that at times she struggles to separate dream from reality, she confesses.
The darkness she was exposed to was never hers, she learned to reject it and instead expresses her joy for life in her paintings. Yin and Yang. “I call it pop surrealism. I think that’s the niche that I fall into. Yeah, it’s like a super colorful weird tricky shit.”
Artists that influenced her include Kenny Scharf, Lisa Frank, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, and her peer and best friend Daniel Toledo. I asked Allison what her favorite color is: “I don’t have a favorite color, I love all colors. That’s why I usually choose ONE color for each painting that I will NOT use and all other colors will be in the mix.” She added, “I like anything without a straight line on it or like consistency. I like being able to kind of make it organic as it goes.”
“I don’t have a favorite color, I love all colors. That’s why I usually choose ONE color for each painting that I will NOT use and all other colors will be in the mix.”
Allison also doesn’t enjoy painting on canvases. She prefers the gritty surface of wood panels or walls. She enjoys the contrast of sketching her motifs at home, sitting down and hunching over the drawing on her desk, and then going out, climbing a ladder, stretching out and with bold, grand gestures, spray-painting these images on a large wall. Whereas an art gallery has something elitist and bourgeois, mural paintings are free and public, accessible and visible to everyone, she says. “Life can be so short. Spread as much love and light and color as you can!” is her motto.
“Life can be so short. Spread as much love and light and color as you can!” is her motto.
Taken advantage of and abused by men, particularly her father, who in her words is a “racist, misogynist and narcissist”, she alchemized the pain and desperation into something so beautiful, that even if you are not an intellectual or art-inclined person, you will love just looking at the beautiful shapes and colors. The atmosphere her art creates is that of hope, fun and playfulness. It is not exactly edgy, but instead inclusive and dream-like. In fact, I would describe Allison as a rather cheerful woman.
“I have never felt better. I am in the best state of my life.”
For all her struggles, Allison came out the other end, and as she claims herself: “I have never felt better. I am in the best state of my life.” You can’t help but feel genuinely happy for her. She and her husband recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary. Allison perseveres and lives her motto of painting the world in a brighter color.