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Cathy Allen

Tell us about where you are from and how you ended up here in Wonder Valley?


I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. The story from there to here is a long one, so I’ll shorten it bit.  I moved to Los Angeles, CA in 1980, and then to Joshua Tree in 1993, after finishing my undergraduate studies at Otis Art Institute and graduate studies at The Claremont Graduate University. Because of the type of work I was producing, my college instructor and artist John Outterbridge suggested that I meet Noah Purifoy. Noah was then in the early stages of creating his Outdoor Art Museum with found and recycled materials. Of course, I was impressed with what he was doing and had the great experience of working as an apprentice for him. In 1994 I began teaching art classes at Copper Mountain College. Though not keen on teaching at first, I discovered that getting paid to talk about a subject of passion wasn’t such a bad deal. Because of the low cost of desert living, teaching part time gave me a dependable income and also the time to engage in my own studio practices as an artist. The desert experience grew on me. After I met and married my husband Luther Broome, who is also an artist, we built our home and studio space in Wonder Valley. We both appreciate and are inspired by wide open spaces and the raw desert terrain. I guess I never really planned to end up here, but a great set of circumstances led me to Wonder Valley.


How was the transition to the desert? 


During the first few years of living in the Morongo Valley area, I really didn’t think I would stay here for very long. My artwork was challenging to the local community, where conservative thinking mostly dictated art production and display spaces. Thank goodness Noah and a few other experimental artists were around for a bit of support. I quickly began to love the natural desert environment and found it inspiring as an artist. Driving into LA for art receptions and networking became less important as time went by. I became conscious of my sophisticated education merging with a lowbrow raw aesthetic and enjoyed the processes of experimentation with varied mediums. There were times when I felt isolated, but I ran with the sense of freedom that accompanied that. The transition hasn’t always been easy, but my work has developed in a way that I’m very happy about.


The landscape seems to really play a huge role in your work, can you tell us about that? 


First of all the landscape can be seen! Nothing is blocking our view where we live. I can see the expanse of land and space every morning when I wake up, and it is continually viewable throughout the day from every window. Some interpret the desert landscape as “nothing there”. Less visual constraints, less mental constraints, I say. Physically I engage with the landscape by walking about two to three miles every day in search of materials to work with. Contrary to the “nothing there”, there’s a plethora of stuff hidden. I am very interested in human interaction with the landscape, both my own and that of others. I think it’s weird that people discard stuff in the desert when they don’t want it anymore, but their refuse is the catalyst for my creative processes. I love the thrill of discovery.

I find the history of Wonder Valley homesteading fascinating and really appreciate the research and documentation of Kim Stringfellow. My recent series The Non-Urban Renewal Project (NURP) is an exploration of abandoned and deteriorating structures in the process of returning to the natural landscape. The project pays tribute to the historical monuments of place and domesticity in the non-urban setting of Wonder Valley. In the series that includes fifty-nine temporary dwellings, I use only materials found at the site for the rebuilding of a structure. This last summer, I lived in one for a day, with temperatures at 110 degrees. The structure required constant additions and readjustments in order to provide protection as the blazing sun changed position in the sky. 


Much of what you make consists of found objects, can you talk about how you select your objects and what your process is like? 


I tend to select objects that humans have interacted with in some way. I am attracted to rust, peeling surfaces, deterioration and the like; anything that has a visual record of the passage of time. I particularly like multiples of a particular object. For example, there is a pile of collected wire hangers in my studio. One sculptural work has been made, For Ms. Crawford with the hangers and another sculpture is in process. I find them everywhere and apparently these simple devices are important to humans. We hang our clothes so that we look good when wearing them. This relates to the aesthetic mores of our culture and I find that relationship interesting.

I am inspired by the materials, and the history of utility they contain. When I begin to create a sculpture, there is never an image of the finished piece in my head, but the process of assemblage and the inherent characteristics of the materials dictate the final results. The process is intuitive with a balance of rationale. I must think technically, but am respectful of accidents and chance. I like to think that I collaborate with the mediums, rather than control them.


Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework, and the context in which your work fits in to a larger sculptural dialogue today? 


While in art school, Dada and Fluxus were an influence, along with feminist performance and installation works of the 1970s. The works of Eva Hesse, Jackie Winsor, Noah Purifoy and Coleen Sterritt will always inspire me.

I’m interested in various concepts surrounding the art object itself, such as visual and tactile seduction, commodity and anti-aesthetics. I consider the physicality of human interaction with the object and perhaps the object becomes a metaphor for human in various ways.

Found objects and recycling for sculptural art has been a global trend that correlates with environmental concerns. My work fits into that dialogue. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but my work does address issues of humanness within the context of a global crises.


What’s next for you, anything you are working on in the future you want to share about? 


Upcoming this November, is the wonderful opportunity to create a site-specific installation within a gallery space. The 29 Palms Art Gallery is the oldest gallery in the Morongo Basin area, begun in 1952 by the actor James Cagney and artist John Hilton. Its reputation is conservative with its show history restricted mostly to traditional desert landscape painting, so it’s really exciting that they have selected my proposal of an experimental installation for the gallery. I suppose my work will still be addressing the desert landscape but in a much different way. My only concrete concepts at this point are to consider the space, the history of the gallery, and to find materials for the installation around the site, which is in the town of Twentynine Palms. That will be a new challenge for me.

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