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Mississippi Rembrandt: Jere Allen

By Larry Wells

Hotty Toddy News Contributor

Artist Jere Allen’s annual open house will be held at his studio at 130 Alderson Road, on
Saturday, Dec. 9, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This article was originally published in Art & Antiques in November 1999.

Artist Jere Allen painting during one of his art classes. Photo provided

“Build up from your base,” Jere Allen lectures to his class of about a dozen students at the University of Mississippi. “Let the image evolve from underneath.”

Today, the “image” is me, posing on a stool at the front of the room. Globbing paint on the canvas with a side brush, Allen begins with yellow and reddens it to clay, noting the way light strikes my face.

Occasionally speaking to the class without taking his eyes from my face, he highlights the “hot” side with red and yellow, and the “cool” side with blue and purple. The students sit in rapt attention; they hope someday to emulate his figurative technique, but it won’t be easy.

Former Art Department Chairperson Margaret Gorove agrees that Allen paints in the tradition of the 19th-century portrait artist, but with an expressionistic flair.

“His paintings have an inner light,” she says. “The faces absolutely have a glow about them. Even the black background vibrates with color blues and reds. It has depth, like the night.”

Allen’s classes are known for their informality. He talks quietly as he paints. He is a big man with steel-gray hair, dressed for work — as are his students in shorts, pullover shirts and tennis shoes.

However, this casual attire disguises a modern-day master. Allen’s paintings have been exhibited in 55 states, Canada and Germany. Next year, his work will be part of a traveling Asian exhibit sponsored by the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C.

The Carol Robinson Gallery in New Orleans features Allen as its top artist, and his shows typically sell out in a few weeks. “There’s a lot of feeling in Jere’s work,” Robinson observes.

“He puts his emotions into his canvas and lets the painting speak for itself. The viewer brings
a lot of his own interpretation to Allen’s work.”

Allen’s palette is old and caked with paint. He casually squeezes paint from tubes, mixing it with a thinning agent or a mixture of stand oil, damar varnish and turpentine continually wiping his brush on a dirty rag. His hands are stained, fingernails outlined in blue-like etchings.

One of his signatures is dramatic, electric colors, which he creates as he works.

“Make your own color,” he advises students.

Allen calls his ideas “notions ” images arising from the subconscious. He sometimes spends months trying to capture these images on canvas.

“His work is always fresh,” Gorove says. “He generally works in a series. When he gets one of his notions, he will explore it with a dozen paintings until he exhausts every possibility.”

Allen’s wife, Joe Ann, a gifted sculptor, is his best supporter and most constructive critic. She succinctly describes his celebration of the female figure: “He loves women so much, he’s adorning them with headdresses and totems. When you look at the paintings, you’ll understand.”

Although Allen is adept at capturing all people, his main subject is indeed the female form. In his studio, giant canvases line the wall, a spectral gallery of women’s haunting faces.

A portrait of author Larry Wells by Jere Allen. Photo provided

“When Allen paints a nude figure his focus is not so much the body as the model’s face and hands, her grace,” Gorove says.

In a work in progress, a plain sketch of a girl is set beside a canvas, her hand under her chin, her face framed by abundant hair. As Allen paints, the image emerges, the girl’s hair disappears, leaving her face floating. She comes alive, alone in space, lonely and not lonely, vulnerable yet formidable. The painter has captured her essence, her fears and her resolve.

“Don’t know where that image came from,” Allen says with typical understatement, “but I like it.”

Some of Allen’s paintings are permanently displayed at museums in the US, but most are in private collections, such as the figure study, entitled, “Stripes and Dots, Elaine,” owned by author, John Grisham and his wife, Renee.

Born in Selma, Alabama, in 1944 and educated in public schools, Allen sketched during regular classes, often getting into trouble. Once, he sketched the teacher in the nude and got a paddling for his genius.

After graduating from the Ringling Art Institute in Sarasota, Florida, he served in the Marine Corps and then enrolled at the University of Tennessee, where he received his MFA in 1972. He’s been teaching art at Ole Miss ever since, and has turned out hundreds of disciplined, focused painters.

In 1993, the Mississippi Institute of Art and Letters honored Allen with its annual visual arts award.

In the classroom, Allen finishes my portrait and steps back. A student asked how he knows when a piece is finished.

“It just comes to you. Don’t worry, “he assures her, “you’ll know. “

I get up to look at the painting and see myself having emerged from Allen’s brush, born anew. When I ask if he will do me the honor of inscribing his work, he chuckles, a merry rumbling in his chest, and scribbles, “To the subject’s subject, Jere Allen.”

Larry Wells is a frequent contributor to Hottytoddy.com.

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