Q&A: Allison Bamcat on the healing power of art

Los Angeles-based artist Allison Bamcat has been dreaming of participating in a POW! WOW! Long Beach since the inaugural festival in 2015. As a designer for Converse, she’d travel from Boston to Long Beach for trade shows and conventions, but would always find a way to check out the murals going up. Her mural at 3444 E. Anaheim is her 16th work of public art and her best yet. We spoke with Bamcat about how she uses art as therapy, transitioning from a digital artist to using paints and communicating through her work.

What draws you to art-making?

I definitely look at my art as therapy for my soul and getting pictures and feelings and colors out that are stuck in my brain so that I can try to communicate what I’m feeling and what I’m going through. It’s something I feel like I have to do, like you have to exercise, you have to eat, so I feel like I have to draw and paint and get those colors and pictures out so I can look at them.

Growing up, when did you decide you were definitely going to do art and design? 

Well, my mom has pictures of me from when I was five or six and I’m drawing in all of them, so we pretty much predetermined when I was a little girl that doing art was something I was talented at.

You mentioned in your bio that your characters represent a simmering turmoil. Can you elaborate on how art has helped you find your voice through tumultuous experiences?

I’ve gone through some really horrific things; I’m diagnosed with PTSD and so making paintings—I went from working in design full-time to really focusing on my paintings and being able to use characters or creatures as like an avatar, a stand-in for myself and then the turmoil around me. Being able to tell that story in a way that is actually visually pleasing and more of a friendly thing to revisit helps me process a lot of the things that I’ve been through and am still going through. So it’s kind of like how would I want those characters to handle it? Like what would I put them through and what am I putting myself through.

I’m actually an assault victim. I was also a child assault victim, so it’s a lot of things, but I’ve been in therapy for years and that has been so helpful, like life-changing.

Is there any advice you can give to someone going through a similar situation? 

Many of the women and even some of the male artists that I know have been through horrific incidents in their life, but they’re painting and creating art so it doesn’t seem like it’s a part of their daily life because they have a bunch of followers or because they have a lot of opportunities, but when you read through their bios and their interviews and things like that you realize, oh, that’s coming from that place, and they’re using art to heal, too.

Knowing that I’m not the only person using my art as a voice or as an instrument of healing has been awesome. And that’s another testament to the art community in LA and Long Beach, is that openness around what everybody’s art means to them. I think drawing, writing, singing and dancing are crucially important things to honor yourself and celebrate yourself, whatever marks you make on a paper they’re yours and no one can take that from you, so whatever you can do to help yourself deal with it, it’s hard to articulate, but, just sitting and doodling is the best.

Allison Bamcat studies her mural during the Tooth & Nail female painting competition at the Icehouse Arts Complex in Long Beach. Saturday, February 2. Photo by Bill Alkofer.

How do you overcome the more tedious parts of art, when you make a mistake or you don’t like how a certain piece is coming out? Does that happen to you as a professional?

It’s constant. Only two percent of the drawings I make move past a couple of lines where I’m like, “I hate those lines!” The paper’s ruined now and I just flip to the next page. I’ll rarely go over something, I’ll rarely fix an old idea because if I didn’t nail it then, then I won’t nail it now. It’s very stubborn.

I was actually a digital artist all through school because I’d been using Photoshop since 8th grade. I was really intimidated by physical media, and I didn’t find the value yet in what a physical piece of art meant.

There was a turning point when I had just done my first painting, I was doing my college thesis and I was doing it on clowns. I was using clowns to deal with my parents who were separating at the time, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to finish school, I didn’t know if I was going to be taken out my senior year. It was a really tumultuous time and I was painting crying clowns and interviewing clowns and talking to them. That duality of putting on a happy face to do your job and then taking it off and going back to your real life…

That was the first time I’d ever used painting as a way to try to help myself process a difficult situation, I think that was definitely the impetus for me to continue doing that.

So transitioning from a being a digital artist to a physical painter, that was a lot of like, “I feel really bad at this, I suck at this, why am I doing this?” It was a big learning curve, and I’m experiencing the same learning curve now with spray paint. I have to tell myself, buckle up because you’re going to suck at this before you’re ever going to be okay at it.

I feel like I have stuck to fostering my own style, very adamantly, because I knew that what I was making, or painting at the start—weird little crying monsters—I knew that wasn’t commercial, that that wasn’t going to sell, but I knew that it was finally something authentic and that I was enjoying, I liked how it came out for me personally. So I decided if I stick with this maybe it will evolve into something that maybe people will resonate with.

Art by Allison Bamcat “Fixated” at the Hi-lo art gallery in Long Beach Wednesday July 17, 2019. Photo by Thomas Cordova.

You’ve been painting murals out in public for a while now, can you remember any meaningful interactions you’ve had with people stopping by your work in progress? 

I’m sure there have been a lot more meaningful ones, but the first ones I think of are—I’m always so careful where I put my coffee down now, because I was painting in downtown LA and just had a dude pick my coffee up and leave. Okay, that was mine, but whatever. And I was standing on a ladder in downtown painting the same mural and a guy walked behind me, like a middle-aged dude, and he barked at me like a dog. And without missing a beat I turned around to him and said, “That’s really rude.” And I was like four rungs up on the ladder, and he looked kind of ashamed that he got caught, like I wouldn’t do anything.

Where did you grow up? How many years were you in Boston?

I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley until I was a teenager. My parents are originally from Boston, they had moved out to LA in the 80s, so they had kids there, and then moved us back to Massachusetts when my sister and I were teenagers. I lived there for another 15 years so I spent most of my high school and college and after college over in Boston, but my husband got a new job opportunity and it was a good transition point for me to do my art career full time, so it’s like coming home. I’ve always wanted to come back, always.

It’s drastically different. Number one, the art community is different because Boston is really a college-based town and it’s really tech-based. So there’s a lot of graphic design opportunities and like user interface and technological advancements and things like that, but out here it feels like a lot more physical art and street art and gallery focused, and product and apparel. It’s definitely different in that sense, and it’s also different diversity wise. Like moving to Boston was a shock, and then coming back here felt like putting on a warm sweater because I missed being around so many different cultures in my friend group, having that different perspective.

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Asia Morris has been with the Long Beach Post for five years, specializing in coverage of the arts. Her parents gave her the name because they wanted her to be a world traveler and they got their wish. She has obliged by pursuing art, journalism and a second career as a competitive cyclist.