Rik Allen’s work appears to have been plucked, while in motion, from the seas or skies of a distant planet in a perpendicular dimension.
On the glass sculpture Kuiper Run, metallic tentacles rise to meet with a bulbous top that could be a creature’s head or a seacraft’s control deck, with portals on all sides that resemble both large eyes and fortified windows. The glass-and-silver Zonitoidia Freerider is similarly ambiguous, with a large opening near the front that could be an animal’s mouth or a window to new worlds for awestruck explorers.
“There’s a little bit of Jules Verne mixed in with a bit of Buck Rogers and that kind of stuff, which I really loved when I was younger,” Allen, 55, says of his science fiction roots. Buck Rogers began as a comic strip in 1929, with its 500-years-in-the-future storyline reappearing in two television series, a film, and a video game. Allen says he appreciates the sometimes-humorous nostalgia of past visions of the future, including visions of space travel decades before it became a reality.
In recent years, the sea has joined space as frontiers of inspiration for Allen. Most of the pieces at Blue Rain Gallery, where his exhibition Rockets is ongoing, look like they could be at home in either.
“I think it reflects more of my connection to the environment and my love of being in the water,” the avid kayaker and gardener says.
Allen and his wife, Shelley Muzylowski Allen, live and work in rural Skagit County, Washington. The numerous smaller islands between the U.S. mainland and Canada’s picturesque Vancouver Island offer plenty of views of the sea and a boatload of inspiration. (You can find both Allens’ work at Blue Rain).
“We live not too far away from the San Juan Islands, and it’s beautiful,” he says. “So I just feel more and more [environmentally] connected — and more and more concerned.”
That concern is reflected in Jupiter Juniper, which stands out from the rest of his works in Santa Fe. It consists of two legs propping a glass sphere containing a tree, presumably for preservation purposes, and Allen hopes it’s the first in a series of similar pieces with more serious messages.
He got the idea from the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a nonprofit organization that aims to reforest the planet with the offspring of old-growth trees and archive the genetics of ancient trees.
“It’s in Northern California, and they’re actually going up to the tops of these trees and making cuttings, then rooting them and propagating them and … moving these north so they have a chance of surviving as things get hotter and drier in California,” Allen says.
Jupiter Juniper might remind some of the 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running, which features a spaceship carrying large geodesic domes filled with plant life from a dying Earth. That film was a warning about environmental irresponsibility, with its main character prioritizing the preservation of nature over the lives of fellow crew members.
Allen laughs happily when the connection is pointed out, saying the film points in exactly the direction he wants to take his art.
He grew up near a different sea, in Rhode Island, and graduated from Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Allen moved to Washington state in 1995, accepting a job as a teaching assistant for the Pilchuck Glass School, which was cofounded by glass art virtuoso Dale Chihuly. Allen says the school was in the middle of a 6,000-acre tree farm, and the landscape quickly made an impression.
In 2018, Allen was named the Imagine Museum’s artist of the future — a recognition of the quality and nature of his work, not a prediction of his longevity.
As for his relationship with Blue Rain, he says the gallery was primarily focused on contemporary Native art when he began showing there 15 years ago. He has enjoyed the juxtaposition between those pieces and his own, saying it “really works somehow.”
Allen describes himself as a pack rat who often finds objects to tote home while exploring. Between art and found objects, the Allens’ home can get cluttered quickly. But there’s a hidden benefit.
“Sometimes, later on, you can really look at something in such a different way,” he says. “And it just opens up something completely separate from that original thought process. A whole new thing emerges, and I really love that.”
Allen was born in 1967 and points out it was during the heat of the “space race” between the United States and Soviet Union. He says he has far more ideas than he could ever complete in his lifetime, and he notes that age has brought a healthy dose of practicality to his passion.
“I think as I get older, I don’t have that sort of pounding river of ideas all the time, but I have a really creative brain, still,” he says.
Allen doesn’t expect that to change.
“I like being very physical and doing things, but I know that at some point my body will be limited,” he says about the aging process. “And I can see there still being plenty of options, because I still like drawing. At the bare minimum, that’s something I should be able to do until the last days.”
Allen and his wife both work with glass, and they toil in adjacent studios in the same house. They make sure to keep separate work lives and workspaces — and to avoid working constantly, Allen says.
One could view Jupiter Juniper — the tree preserved in glass — as a potential relic of a dystopian future. Allen doesn’t.
“That piece is hopeful to me. We’re always talking about how we’re gonna go to Mars and create this world for ourselves so we can survive,” he says. “It’s like, what about all this other stuff that we’re destroying? So maybe there’s technology that moves them or adapts in some strange, technical way.”