When sculptor Jen Harmon Allen married in 2002, her domestic instincts kicked in as she embraced the idealistic fantasy (and expectation) of being a homemaker. It’s common for women artists to explore this lifestyle shift: an identity change manifests itself in their work as they delve into household and maternal subjects. But Harmon Allen’s work didn’t experience any development of this kind. In fact, her art experienced a hiatus.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Harmon Allen began to produce again. She credits her husband for her drive to return to the studio. “He saw a need I had and recognized something in me that I didn’t” she says. “The maternal thing is a big part of me, but he knew I was happier when I was doing my artwork.” She did have a need to revisit that creative and academic part of herself, but the initial reason for her return to art was a practical one.
Almost four years ago, Harmon Allen’s husband suffered a stroke, and ever since he’s struggled to regain his health. Their family has suffered financially and Allen had to find a way to make money. In the past, her art had brought in more money than any other work she had done so Harmon Allen found herself in a place where she needed to create opportunities for her art.
Fortunately, taking the reigns is something Harmon Allen is well-trained for. She grew up in Connecticut with an academic father who wanted all nine of his children to experience a “euphoric” education, as Allen put it. From 1991 – 1995 she studied sculpture at Wellesley College, where she became accustomed to being a Mormon in an ultra-feminist school. There she enjoyed excellent teachers, demanding course work, and, because it was a wealthy college, few limits to what she could pursue. When she eventually made her way to BYU for an MFA, she had to adjust to a different mentality and atmosphere.
“I was so used to being proactive at Wellesley,” she explains. “Before, if I wanted opportunities I had to be on top of everything.” At Wellesley Harmon Allen was the model session coordinator; she participated in figure drawing sessions every week, she studied art in Italy, and later applied for money to travel to Indonesia to teach English to high school girls. She learned later that her classmates at BYU thought her to be intimidating because she was so used to a competitive environment and having everything mapped out. She remembers many visits to Bruce Smith’s office at BYU, where she asked a lot of questions about the course work. “I realized I was pounding on the door, and they weren’t used to students being so aggressive.”
There was one surprising thing about BYU that Wellesley didn’t provide — a broad spectrum of artistic styles. At Wellesley Harmon Allen was mostly entrenched in classical art, but at BYU the door started to open, with Henry Moore and other artists who abstracted the figure. “I was very excited that teachers such as Brian Christensen were interested in contemporary art, and that’s why I stayed. That is where the light went on and that’s when I began to push the figure into a contemporary backdrop.”
A self-proclaimed, impatient person, Harmon Allen creates work that agrees with her nature. She likes bronze, but doesn’t have the patience for it. “One of my main goals is to try and make a sculpture that’s self supporting as quickly as possible. In school I would weld a piece of steel on a base and make two- feet tall figures out of plaster and they would be fresh and expressive – and look like plaster.” Her education at BYU moved her from focusing on the figure that sits on a pedestal to losing the pedestal entirely and hanging pieces from a ceiling. “I want to evoke the presence of the figure but without being so blatant about it,” she says.
Harmon Allen was very prolific with her graduate work. She’d create ten figures in one semester and then switch gears, throw much of her work in the dumpster and proceed to do something completely different. She admits to having a love/hate relationship with her sculptures – when they’re done, she wants them over with. Because her ideas are always ahead of her current work, she doesn’t like lurking sculptures. “People would see pictures of my old work and say, ‘What’s that?’ and I wouldn’t really remember. Getting it out was more important to me than preserving what I had.” Harmon Allen continues, “As I’ve matured, I’ve learned art isn’t just a by-product and I should take the time to keep it around.” She does have old bronzes stored in her garage, but in a way, she sees them as ghosts and wishes they would leave so she could move on.
What’s ironic is while Harmon Allen threw away completed figures, she held onto fragmented bits. “Everything I created was so voluminous that I needed to pare things down, but at the same time I would save anything that didn’t work out right.” She saved fragments from molds and other unsuccessful pieces and tried to create something out of them. This led to a big hanging installation at BYU’s Harris Fine Art Center where she hung over 70 legs from the ceiling – an idea inspired by Cornelia Parker’s installation where she suspended burnt logs in fragments from a ceiling.
Harmon Allen began to create fetish-type reworkings of broken pieces, such as wax figures with missing heads and other parts. Adding new pieces to the broken ones, she resurrected them into new objects. It started out just for fun, but people really took notice. Maybe it’s because she has a hard time letting things go until she’s learned everything she has to learn, but this idea that nothing is ever really broken or gone is something she’d like to develop and re-examine in the future.
During December, Harmon Allen’s installation “Leap” will be at the Rose Wagner. In continuance with the thought of her previous installation at BYU, she will hang approximately 200 legs in varying stages of a leap. Harmon Allen, who was a dancer growing up, was intrigued by the possibilities the Rose Wagner’s curved walls offered — allowing for more space behind the objects and the chance for interesting shadows.
“It got me to thinking about the movements of a dancer; the action of preparing for the leap with crouching legs,” says Harmon Allen. “I love how one part of the human body can express so much and how it’s an automatic signifier.” The legs will be crouching at the bottom and as your eyes move up they will culminate into a leap. The subtler idea behind the obvious dance movement is the acknowledgement of symbolic leaps that come at surprising times in our lives and the monotony of waiting for things to happen.
The installation at the Rose may not reveal Harmon Allen’s experiences with motherhood or keeping a comfortable home, but it does shed light on the self-journey she has taken with her husband, who continues to deal with the physical pain that accompanies rehabilitating from a stroke. “Even though he is the one dealing with it,” Harmon Allen explains, “I feel like we take these tiny steps together. We can look back and see dramatic changes, but at the same time, every little step is a leap of faith. We just keep going forward not knowing where we’ll end up, but hoping that things will work out.”
Harmon Allen is undeniably tied to the figure and the power and expression of the body being a three-dimensional form in space. While the hanging limbs and the plaster they’re made of do possess a raw quality, there’s a warm spirit of hope behind her work; a poetic gesture of faith and a suggestion that fragmented pieces and unfinished offerings hold a significant purpose.
With her second child due in February, Harmon Allen has a variety of unfinished projects and challenges ahead of her. She’s planning for more exhibits in 2010 and hopes to pursue projects of a more permanent nature. Harmon Allen loves being a wife and caring for her children, but she also feels a desperate need to preserve her academic thoughts and artistic goals amidst all of life’s distractions and struggles. Perhaps focusing her artwork outside of motherhood helps her do that.
Laura Durham works for KUED Channel-7 in the Creative Services Department, curating community engagement projects for both PBS and KUED productions that foster trust and value to the communities in Utah. She also produces Contact with Mary Dickson and Contact in the Community — a digital series featuring arts and culture groups in Utah. Prior to her work at KUED, Laura spent 15 years at the Utah Division of Arts & Museums in the visual arts program and later managing communications, branding, marketing, and public value projects for all arts and museums programming. She has served the Utah community in various capacities with her role as Vice President of the Salt Lake Gallery Association and Program Director for the Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. She lives in Salt Lake City, sings with Utah Chamber Artists, and loves to contribute to 15 Bytes as often as time allows.