We sat down with artist Allegra Jones at her home in Highland Park, LA. Allegra is a multidisciplinary artist working with drawing, painting, animation, graphic design, and music. We spoke about her path to finding an artistic voice that weaves through all of these mediums, and how the BLM movement completely altered her creative output and purpose. We also explored the themes surrounding her last painting show at Five Car Garage.

You are very multidisciplinary with your work. What medium did you start out with, and how do you know what direction to take your initial ideas in?

“I’ve been practicing a variety of art forms ever since I was little. I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember and I started playing piano when I was five. Now I play accordion, clarinet, saxophone, and sing. I chose to study ‘experimental animation’ at CalArts because I wanted to combine my passions for drawing, painting, and music. I was never too much of a cartoon fanatic growing up, but I definitely took an early interest in animation as an art form, and it’s ability to form a marriage between music and drawing.

Ideas almost always emerge while I’m actively practicing one of these various disciplines. However, the discipline that the idea surfaces in does not necessarily determine the medium the idea will end up in. For example, when I first started animating, my ideas would almost always be inspired by music. That’s why I’ve created so many music videos. Sound has been the birthplace of many of my animation ideas. It’s determined or inspired the look and feel of videos I create.

Animation, drawing, painting, songwriting, music, performance, are all a part of the same organism to me. They are becoming more linked within my practice everyday. One of my biggest goals as an artist is to break some sort of ground by experimentally fusing these disciplines together into a new cohesive form.

How did you get started with making creative work? Any specific milestones that come to mind?

I’ve been drawing and playing music for so long that it is difficult for me to even remember any major milestones that got me started. However, my grandmother who taught me how to play the piano had a huge impact on my creative life. She taught me the basics of music but more importantly, instilled in me a love for what I was doing. If it were not for her, I don’t know if I’d be a musician today.

What also kept me going artistically at an early age was my unrelenting itch for perfection and obsession with realism. I became pretty good at hyperrealistic drawing early on when I was in middle school mainly due to the fact that ever since I started drawing, I would get wildly frustrated with my sketches if they did not look like what I was attempting to represent. I’d draw the same subject over and over again until I’d make a substantial improvement. I’d do the same thing with music, practicing the same pieces over and over until they reached my idea of perfection.

When I started school for animation, I had to learn to let go of this need for perfection quite a bit. Since animation requires you to draw so many frames per second (usually 12 frames per second), it’s difficult to find as much time for perfectionism in each drawing. Unless you want to be working on a couple seconds of animation for an entire year.

Another major creative milestone for me later in life was in 2017 when I was studying abroad in Prague, Czechia for about 6 months. I discovered my love for singing and performance there. In a way that’s a bit strange, ridiculous, and unsettling. I’d hang out at bars around the city and sometimes an entire month would go by for me without seeing another Black person. Sometimes I’d even be the first Black person many locals ever met. An absurd amount of people assumed I was a touring musician. Many people would assume I could sing literally just because I was Black.

As uncomfortable, triggering, and frustrating some of these assumptions were, I ended up playing with the idea of singing outside of the shower for the first time and learned to perform as well when I was in Czechia. In spite of the stereotypes, I ended up having a lot of fun, earning a few bucks, and learning to share my authenticity in a new way. I uncovered a love for my deep singing voice and ended up pursuing performance seriously for the first time when I got back to the states. Currently, performance and singing are a large part of my life. I have a music and performance project called Dovestone with my visual artist friend Anja Salonen in which we both sing. We have an album coming out this year via Grey Market Records.

You have this ability to create near photo realistic representational images (often taken from a photo reference), which become abstracted or brought into a different context similar to collage. Is there a specific way you think about realism vs the non-representational elements?

The realism aspect of my work has always been about sharpening my perception/awareness of the present moment and the peace I found through that practice. As I learned to let go of the perfectionism and obsession with realism I grew up with, something else emerged as well. I would describe this abstracted collage aspect of my work as a form of ultimate freedom. It’s similar to the freedom from reality I found when I lucid dreamt for the first time. The funny thing about that dream was that although so many rules of reality did not apply there, the most unbelievable part of the entire experience was how insanely “realistic” everything around me was. I’m serious, this dream was truly realer than real. The level of detail in every aspect of this new reality I woke up in was absolutely wild. Ultimately, I’d really love to describe my pieces as lucid dreams. On many occasions they are prayerlike dreams of a new world.

I know you have somewhat of a fascination with the color copper. Is it possible to explain that a little?

Yes! I’ve always been attracted to copper, but it started to become a part of my art practice when I uncovered a better understanding of the story behind copper as a metal. In alchemy, copper is one of the seven planetary metals, linked to Venus, the goddess of love. I’ve always felt that we need more of a language around the concept of love, which is a word that’s been co-opted by the likes of greeting cards and mega-corporations like McDonalds. A goal of mine as an artist is to create more opportunities for language around this word “love”. Copper is a way for me to access this word in my art without being too clumsy.

I also find it interesting that in many African cultures, copper is associated with the spirit of water. The connective tissue of all life. Copper, as a metal, is incredibly conductive. It’s kind of what’s secretly connecting all of us. It’s in all our phones and electronics, because of its remarkable ability to conduct energy. This period of quarantine would’ve become an even darker experience without it, because it’s one of the main mechanisms that allows all of us to connect from afar. I see copper as a symbol of connectivity in addition to love. In my last show, I used a bunch of these copper cupcake holders to draw connecting lines between the pieces in the gallery.
In addition, copper is very close to my skin tone as a mixed woman. A while ago, I did a DNA test and found out that I have a lot of Cyprian ancestry. The name Cypress comes from the roots of the word copper. The large island of Cypress was an ancient megahub of copper trade and mining.  Cypress is also located right smack dab in the middle of the origins of all my ancestry, such as Africa and Italy and Greece on my white side. Utilizing copper in my art is becoming a way in which I create personal connectivity between the various aspects of my roots & of myself.

It’s interesting that you speak about this idea of connectivity, and that there is this throughline that appears in all these different aspects of all the different mediums you use.

Connectivity is essential to me. Many people in school and elsewhere advised me to pick one medium, one art practice, one art discipline, and run with it. Hearing this advice would often strike a sour note inside me because of who I am racially. Because of all the times I’ve felt collective pressure from family members & elsewhere to either choose to be white or choose to be black. When I am both. I am mixed. Although I identify as a Black woman, I still have white DNA and I cannot deny this as well as the privilege I receive from my lighter skin. My goal is to embrace who I am and not deny these different aspects of myself. It’s very similar to how I feel about the different disciplines that make up my art practice. Finding new modes of connectivity in my practice became especially important to me throughout my parents’ divorce when I was in college. This was also the time when I found Buddhism and started subscribing to the idea that we are all one. We are all connected beyond our comprehension. Our opposites and differences are also connected beyond our understanding. I like emphasizing these dialectic ideas in my art as well as in the processes behind it.

Can you talk about the message of social justice in your art?

Yes, there is not just one singular message of social justice in my work. The social justice context in my art varies piece to piece. This context is also constantly evolving alongside my ongoing studies of Black liberation, dialectical materialism, and the connection between the two. Artmaking is one way for me to unpack and deepen my grasp on what I am learning in these studies. Other times artmaking is a way for me to process my own emotion around these subjects. For example, with my drawings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I decided to make these pieces purely out of my own need to mourn & honor these deaths that would keep me wide awake all night. These deaths that had such a massively profound impact on the world and on myself. Drawing their portraits somehow helped me process some of my own anguish, confusion, fury, and sorrow that would simply not let up at the time.
There have been times where emotions surrounding Black history would simply surmount me. This year taught me that my art is a very powerful place for me to transform the heated vigour of my anger and to nourish my desire for change. For example, my first semester of CalArts I took a class called ‘Blood in the Water’ about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The first day of class, our professor had us all lay on the floor, under tables, packed in like sardines next to each other. He turned off the lights and asked other students to scream at the top of their lungs for what felt like ten minutes. Our professor, Douglas Kearny, wanted us all to embody a very small taste of what it was like to be the ‘cargo’ aboard these ships. At a certain point this class was so unbelievably emotional for me that I decided to drop it. I didn’t feel as if I had tools to navigate all the trauma and emotion it brought forth for me when I was eighteen. However, I respected our professor’s approach to teaching so very much and always regretted that decision to drop. During an artist residency this summer, I found my syllabus for  ‘Blood in the Water’ and decided to read every single book & text that was on that list. I dove head first.

In my piece called ‘The Hold’ I painted a slave ship. I wished to mourn the lives lost on these ships. To remember those who’ve been forgotten to the tides of history. I also wanted to draw attention to a massive issue affecting another segregated and neglected population in our current moment.

For the left side of the painting, I referenced an actual diagram from the early 19th century of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship that depicts how unbelievably & inhumanely jammed, cramped, & sardined slave ships were designed to be. Of the approximately 13 million Africans transported in the middle passage, about 15 percent died aboard the ship. The designers of these ships predicted these ‘loss margins’ and accounted for them by overcrowding the ships, stacking African peoples on quite literally on top of one another.

On the right side of the painting, I painted depictions of present day incarcerated Black folk, mirroring the style of the ‘Brookes’ slave ship diagram. I think most people know by now that slavery and mass incarceration are linked at the hip. This link is written in plain daylight in the 13th amendment. The amendment that ‘freed’ all slaves. However, I wanted to paint a literal link between the barbaric cramming of slave ships and present day prison overcrowding. I made this painting during the height of COVID-19 last summer where incarcerated peoples all over the country were dropping like flies due to the virus. There is no way to self-isolate & quarantine effectively within a prison. In January 2020, California state prisons held 33% more prisoners than they were designed to hold. The slave ship in my painting is an entity that is currently and continuously moving for the benefit of capital. Even if we cannot directly see it everyday, we are all in the wake of this ship.

In many of my pieces, I merge my take on realism with prayers or dreams of a new world. Around this ship, I painted African symbols within the Adinkra system that symbolize freedom, transformation, and unity in diversity. American history likes to teach you that our history as a people, started here, on this continent, with the English language and assimilation. Painting these symbols was a way for me to connect to the legacy of my ancestors’ history before 1619 and the docking of the first slave ship.

Although I incorporate social justice elements in my artwork, I do not believe that artmaking is the most effective way to perform social justice work. I’ve also found that many BlPOC artists are subject to this unique expectation to make artwork that holds social justice significance, when white artists are not held to this same standard. At times it is also important to allow my art to be free from these expectations.

How do you think that art has helped you or made you think differently about this past year?

This past year proved to me, beyond measure, the transformative and healing power of artmaking. The process of creation helped me through a great deal of sadness, confusion, and unrest. I have a feeling that creating or consuming art has acted as that same lighthouse for many other people especially during this time. It’s given me the tools to emotionally process and critically think about the moment we are collectively living through. Creation helps us claim our power back from the constant barrage of information that can leave us feeling helpless, disenfranchised, or isolated.

You also have a music project with another visual artist (Anja Salonen). How do both of you approach music making as opposed to visual art? What is the process like?

Yes! Many people have told me that, when they listen to Dovestone, they can tell that the music is created by visual artists. I love that. I like to see each song as a painting with many layers. We’re very maximalist in our music choices and it’s always been quite unusual. There are so many layers of texture that the music becomes almost painterly. This is one aspect of Dovestone that makes the project so special to us. Coming from a mainly visual art background, creating music felt like this world of endless possibility, because it was quite untapped by either of us. We both had created identities in our visual work, but music felt like an identity-less space where we could just kind of play and see what happens. The process of creating Dovestone is very much connected to our friendship and our history as roommates. Each song holds a different element of our friendship and the experiences we’ve shared. For me, creating music is a process that holds much more instant gratification than creating animation or visual art.

However, we do not see Dovestone as just a musical project. It’s a performance art as well. We hope to be seen not only in a music context but in a fine arts context as well. In past performances we’ve combined costume change, projection, animation, various props, stage magic, alters, story arcs, and more. It never felt like just music. We are currently working on creating special artifacts with our label Grey Market Records to go hand in hand with our music releases. I’m incredibly excited to witness Dovestone’s future evolutions.

Tell me about your recent residency at Five Car Garage. What was it like having the task of really reflecting on the current moment and having to create something to express all the emotion going on?

I’m so grateful for the residency. The opportunity came at such an ideal time. At the beginning of COVID, I found it difficult to regain my inspiration to create. Right as the George Floyd protests started, I experienced an unprecedented drive to make as much as I could. When the residency was offered to me, I was already in a mode where I couldn’t stop drawing. I ended up entitling the residency and show “Research on the Racial Mirror”. I absorbed so many texts on Black liberation during this time period while creating a new body of work that reflected information from many of these research pursuits. Some of the books I hit up during that time period which really stand out for me include In the Wake: On Blackness & Being by Christina Sharpe, Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, and The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.

In order to understand how we got here, move forward, and affect positive change it’s crucial to look back and patiently investigate the past. This residency gave me a very beautiful opportunity to do so while reflecting on the current moment through artmaking. Although I dove into many different modes of research, much of what I aimed to do as well was to look at myself and perceive my own racial identity as a mixed person on a deeper level.

The first painting I created was this self portrait with the top half of my face darker, and the bottom half of my face lighter. I was thinking about my Blackness in context with being mixed. All the times I’ve been told ‘you don’t speak like a Black person’. Or all the various occasions and ways in which I’ve attempted to mask my own Blackness out of fear whether it was when I was living in Europe or in the various communities I’ve been involved with in Los Angeles. I was thinking about my whiteness/light skin and the privilege packaged with that. How darker skinned Black folk are statistically targeted by racist systems in vastly higher numbers than lighter skinned Black folk.

I was meditating on the storm of awakening I’ve been living through for the last several years as I dove deeper into Black studies without the traditional sugarcoating and rewriting offered in almost all K-12 education. I painted a storm cloud of blackberries in my hair to represent this. My animation student’s father told me that the Spanish word for blackberry is “morro”. Linguistically it originally meant Moroccan, the dynasty which moved across the Mediterranean into Spain, creating a legacy of mixed race inhabitants, but also a lasting history of racial tension. I placed this painting in between two mirrors and wanted this to act as an entryway into this residency and show, hopefully encouraging others to look within their own racial mirror with similar inquiry.``