Evan X. Merz

musician/technologist/human being

Discovering artist Viola M. Allen

I recently purchased Emerging from the Shadows, Vol. I: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960 and while reading it I discovered one particularly interesting artist named Viola M. Allen. Her facility with a palette knife seems almost miraculous, so of course I started searching the web for more of her work. Other than a few items available at auction, I haven't been able to find much information. So I wanted to share a couple quotes from the fabulous book by Maurine St. Gaudens.

Viola M. Allen was born on March 14, 1906, in Queens, New York, the daughter of Safarine D. Allen and Minnie (Eschman) Allen. According to her biographical artist's promotional card, she attended, in New York, the Pratt Institute and the National Academy of Design, where she studied under Charles Curran. Her card also indicates that she studied portrait painting with Moskowitz and Borgdonav and sculpture with Haffner and Monahan. A resident of Manhattan, New York, through the 1930s, by the latter part of the decade she had moved to Los Angeles, California; she remained a California resident until her death.

A painting by Viola M. Allen

A study of Viola's paintings shows that she was a palette knife painter. Her ability to create realistic compositions by applying oil paint to a canvas, or board, by the use of a flexible painter's palette knife rather than a brush is found in most of her work; it is a difficult technique and one not widely practiced. Palette knives vary in length and width, and each one has a different tip, enabling the artist to achieve a different type of stroke, with the oil painting usually being applied very thickly on the canvas or board. During her career Viola had a commercial art studio in Malibu for many years where she did illustration and advertising art. In California, she exhibited with the California Art Club, 1955-1967.

This was all I could find out about her, and I'm happy to share it on the internet, and hopefully bring a little more attention to an artist who clearly had a control over the palette knife that few have ever achieved.

Of course I had to see if I could find one of her works at a reasonable price, and ebay came to my aid once again. I was able to find this beautiful small landscape listed for a song and now it hangs over my desk next to Sam Hyde Harris and Quincy Tahoma.

A small, untitled landscape by Viola M. Allen

I don't think I've ever seen another artist wield a palette knife as fluently as she did, so I'll be on the lookout for more of her work. I hope that the internet can help preserve the legacy of a great artist who clearly deserves a re-evaluation.

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Evan X. Merz

Evan X. Merz holds degrees in computer science and music from The University of Rochester, Northern Illinois University, and University of California at Santa Cruz. He is a programmer, musician, and author of Empress blog software. He makes his online home at evanxmerz.com.