February 09. 2015 9:25PM

Stories through portraits

Hollis painter's vibrant works reflect her passion for her art

By MELANIE PLENDA
Special to the Union Leader


Artist Gail Allen at work in her Hollis studio. (COURTESY)

"Bennington Riverbed" by Gail Allen 


"Fire" by Gail Allen 


"Sentinel" by Gail Allen 


Gail Allen has something to show you.

See, there’s a particular way the wind sweeps the snow across the lake in winter that’s worth noticing. And there’s a just so light that makes the Bennington riverbed explode with color, and magical orange fish in a brook and a lady in the lake.

There’s so much that Allen wants to show you, tell you, share with you.

“I think people become artists because they feel they have something to show the world and I wanted to show people what I saw in the world,” Allen, 55, of Hollis, said.

And what she sees is magical. From her vibrantly colored landscapes to others inspired by metaphysics and the elements, Allen is hoping to tell a story — or several — with her paintings.

The seed for this was planted long ago on her grandmother’s farm in western Massachusetts. Hiking its vast expanse of land and woods, it was more than farmland, it was 250 acres of fairy circles and caves to explore. It was imagining the ghosts of the Native Americans who once roamed that land and happening upon exotic creatures she could study.

“My grandmother would milk the cow and then put the milk buckets in the brook to keep them cold,” Allen said. “And these sparkly orange and gold fish would somehow get in the box (that held the buckets) and I just remember thinking how magical they were. Those were my first drawings.”

Allen’s dad was in construction, her mom stayed home with her and her two siblings; both parents were very artistic.

Allen’s mom taught her to sew her own clothes and paint; how to knit and do stained glass. Meanwhile, Allen used to trundle off with her dad to his shop, trusty paper and colors in tow, to watch him do his woodworking. She’d lay on the floor for hours watching him work, and drawing everything she saw.

It became very clear fairly early on that Allen was an artist as she started earning the accolades of school teachers, contest judges and the larger community. Her voice was being heard, she said, and she makes no bones about the fact she loved the recognition she earned for her work; it’s part of what made it worthwhile to pursue.

She ultimately went off to Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn.

“I would draw or paint for eight hours a day,” she said. “We worked in black and white first and painted cylinders, boxes and cones. I think a lot of people think you go off to art school and you are right away painting and drawing whatever you like, but that’s not the case, you are drawing these basic forms over and over again. A lot of people drop out, but it’s really the best training.”

After graduation, one of her first jobs was illustrating medical instruction booklets. Eventually, she and her husband moved to New Hampshire, where she took up graphic design. After running her own successful design business for eight years, the couple started a family and Allen decided to stay home to be with her boys.

She continued to paint when she could, but life was happening and she needed to be in it. She raised her boys and took care of her ailing parents.

“Looking back, I wish I hadn’t stopped, although I did do some painting,” she said. “But I couldn’t put the effort I needed to into my family and the effort I wanted to for my work. …That’s the thing with art and motherhood, you’re always dealing with that balance. And it’s a struggle.”

And when the time finally came to get back to her work, she still struggled. She was exhausted all the time and chronically ill. After years without a diagnosis, she learned she had Lyme disease, which later led to debilitating rheumatoid arthritis.

“I had a lot of things going against me, but I wasn’t going to give up. I wasn’t going to let (my art) go away,” she said. “When I couldn’t hold my brushes, because some days my hands just wouldn’t work, I use blue painters tape to tape the brushes to my fingers. That how badly I wanted it. I wasn’t going to give up.”

She still has days where detail work is hard and the frustration of dropping brushes gets the better of her. But she also has her boys and her husband, who, she said, have been her champions and hands when she needed them.

“There’s no way I could have done this without them, no way,” she said. “They are so good to me.”

She said she hopes that people with Lyme can realize that there is support out there and life to be lived after the disease, you just have to want it.

“Art is a part of me. It’s just like anything else about me, it’s like my child. The diagnosis just made me want it more and made me realize how precious it is,” she said. “You just have to pick yourself up and work. The disease is devastating, but art, whatever kind of art you do is healing.”