“I AM FROM LAGUNA PUEBLO, so I paint Laguna Pueblo,” says Marla Allison, though her influences span from Hopi and Laguna pottery designs to the modernism of Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. Art lovers in Santa Fe this month can view several of Allison’s stunning contemporary paintings around town, all within a two-mile radius. In addition to Santa Fe Indian Market, on August 20–21, the artist is featured in the New Mexico History Museum’s Honoring Tradition and Innovation: 100 Years of Santa Fe’s Indian Market, 1922–2022, beginning August 7. Down the street, King Galleries features Allison’s work in Legacy, opening August 19. On Museum Hill, her large-scale painting Water Girls is installed in the new iteration of the permanent exhibition Here, Now & Always at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. Allison won the Innovation Award at her very first Indian Market, in 2008. She judged two-dimensional art for market applicants in 2010 and 2022. “It’s a big place to be,” she says of the century-old event.
Studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I was able to find comfort in creating a lot of things that I’d only dreamed of.
I don’t find inspiration in just one place.
I’m highly influenced by older culture. I’ve been grateful to see museums all around the world, as I’ve been gifted artist residencies in various places. I’ve been able to see Pablo Picasso’s work, Gustav Klimt’s work, Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City.
In her house, they have her sketchbooks. They had a few pages open. I thought, Wow, our sketches are very similar. It was very moving. Doodles with eyeballs and hands and disproportioned things that were just kind of random thoughts I kept scribbling. They’re a backbone for my paintings.
My great-grandmother was Helen Toya, the matriarch of our family. She was married to my great-grandfather Tony Toya, who was a painter himself. He worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, and he painted the words on the sides of the train. Painting was also his hobby. His son, my mother’s father, Wilfred Toya, also did some painting.
Out of 32 grandkids from my mother and all her siblings, this little oddball popped out to be a painter and followed their trail.
I based my Water Girls painting on a photograph by Edward S. Curtis. It’s taken in the springs there at Acoma, and their dresses are very similar to Laguna girls’ [dresses]. The main designs that flow over the entire canvas are partially my designs. Some are from paintings I’ve researched, through the School for Advanced Research archives, of Laguna and Hopi design work, and some I’ve seen in my family home from my childhood to adulthood.
I’m Water Clan, so I tried to use just those symbols, which are clouds and rain and mountains, in the work.
As a judge for Indian Market, it’s incredible to see the entry pieces that other artists don’t get to see.
It is competition, in a way, but it’s also who your peers are—who you’re aspiring to, and who is getting inspiration from you.
When you win an award at Indian Market, they call you early.
You could be in line for Best of Show. They only call in the winners of these big awards. You get to walk around with your head up in the clouds, thinking, Oh, my God, I won something. It’s amazing where your imagination can go.
It’s that recognition of, hey, you’re doing something, and you’re doing it right. Your whole heart, your whole soul, everything is in it. It’s not awarded to everybody, but when it’s you, it’s magical.
See for yourself
Marla Allison’s art is at Santa Fe Indian Market, on August 20–21; New Mexico History Museum, beginning August 7; Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, and King Galleries.