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Local Artist's Travels Find Expression with "Place Shapes" at the Dixon

Elizabeth Alley’s "Place Shapes" exhibition runs through October 6th.

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As a child, Elizabeth Alley assumed every household had ebony pencils and kneaded erasers laying around. They were everyday objects at home where her father, Rick Alley, was an artist who worked for The Commercial Appeal for more than 30 years. He made sure there was a stack of newsprint around for his kids to draw on, a fitting medium since Rick's father, Cal Alley, and his grandfather, J. P. Alley, were editorial cartoonists for The Commercial Appeal, J. P. having won a Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1923.

So for Elizabeth to find her passion as a fourth-generation artist is hardly a surprise, but she has assuredly followed her own path, one that has led her to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens where she has an exhibition opening this month.

Her exhibition of recent oil paintings, "Place Shapes," runs from July 14th to October 6th in the Mallory/Wurtzburger Galleries.

Pinhao Road, oil on paper
  • Pinhao Road, oil on paper

Alley graduated from the University of Memphis in 1998 and soon after began exhibiting. And she found that she had to assign herself projects, such as a series of paintings. "After I got out of school," she says, "I missed the regularity of it, and I kind of needed that structure. I really am best when I work in a series."

In school, she did what art students do, which is to carry a sketchbook with her everywhere. After graduation, she still kept it with her, but, she admits, "I was lazy about sketching at the time, meaning I didn't have a direction or a purpose for it."

That would change.

Around 2009, Alley discovered the group Urban Sketchers, which is devoted to art done by direct observation on location, not from photos or memory. "It was a group of people doing the same things that I was doing, only doing it a little bit better," she says.

She was motivated to start a Memphis regional chapter of the organization and has been involved in the local and the parent group since. About the time Alley got interested in Urban Sketchers, she started teaching at Flicker Street Studio where she continues to instruct in sketchbook drawing and beginning oil painting.

It is this devotion to sketching that has shaped Alley's direction and work. She's traveled quite a bit and has carefully recorded her experiences in far-flung places. "My connection to these places is that I've been there and seen them, but also that I've sketched them," she says. "When you sketch anything — a place, a person — you develop this connection with it. So all of these places live in my heart now."

How, then, did her sketchbook work in her travels turn into oil paintings in the Dixon exhibition? The works in this show all emerged from trips she made to Iceland, Newfoundland, and Portugal, where she particularly noted how the built environment blends with nature. You'll see walls and roads but also desire paths, which, Alley says, "are where people walk in a natural environment so much that it creates a path." She doesn't see the world as "us versus nature," but rather how societies can coexist with nature.

She decided to get back into oil painting, which she'd set aside for two or three years in favor of ink and watercolors, and she realized she wanted to turn the time she spent traveling into oil paintings. "In the past year," Alley says, "I have been working on these in oils just to see what else I could do with it other than what I had already done."

Alley has been working with the Dixon for some time now. She's had other works on display there, and she was bringing her Urban Sketchers to the gallery, so she got to know the staff and has been doing some teaching there. The "Place Shapes" exhibition is the happy result of the ongoing association between artist and gallery.

An opening reception for "Place Shapes" will be held on July 18th from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Dixon.

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