When inspiration strikes — a leaf blowing in the wind, a puddle of spilled coffee — Fayetteville artist Katie Crawford Allen puts pencil to paper and starts to sketch. Wait too long, and the spark of an idea might burn out. What emerges is a whimsical watercolor painting: An elephant dressed up as a ghost. A sloth wearing a party hat. A panda bear wearing a bow tie. A bumblebee relaxing by a campfire. Occasionally, she even brings characters to life off the page, transforming them into little 3-D sculptures using a technique known as needle felting. “I like to say that I tell human stories with animal characters,” Crawford Allen says. “I feel like it gets us out of our own way and we can then see ourselves in the pieces and see things that have brought us joy as children.”
And while Crawford Allen’s work inspires an immediate sense of delight, a closer look reveals a surprising depth. “I love that everybody who looks at it brings their own story to it; I love that interaction between the piece and the viewer. It just makes this moment where the artist and the people looking at the art kind of connect in the middle and bring both of their life experiences to the piece,” Crawford Allen says. “It’s an amazing moment to see people seeing their own stories through your work.”
Our State sat down with Crawford Allen to learn more about her creative process and the story behind her charming watercolor paintings.
OS: How did you get your start as an artist?
Crawford Allen: I have always been creative. It just comes out of me. Growing up, I loved making things with my hands. I would glue googly eyes on rocks and pom-poms and whatever else I could find. I was not a kid who could draw. I used clay and did mixed-media collage work. Then I started having these ideas — these storylines in my head that I wanted to create — but my ideas had sort of outstripped my medium. So I had to teach myself to draw. I did a lot of practicing and eventually got to where I could get the ideas in my head onto the paper. And I have always loved watercolor.
OS: How would you describe your art to someone who’s never seen it before?
Crawford Allen: I would say, first off, it’s whimsical. It makes you smile. You can pause and go “ha!” Maybe laugh a little bit. You see something that catches your eye. And then, if you stay with the piece long enough, you start to see deeper meanings. You start to see some human elements, even through the animal characters. It’s whimsical, but with depth and meaning behind it. Sometimes you paint a bee camping with a bunch of little buddies, and it brings up these childhood memories of going camping with your parents. There is a nostalgic quality to a lot of my subject matter because I want adults to realize that whimsy is OK for them, too. You can be happy as an adult with your art. It doesn’t have to necessarily be angsty or negative, because I think joy and contentment in life are just as complex as a lot of the negative emotions that other adult artists portray.
OS: How does it make you feel when someone connects to one of your pieces?
Crawford Allen: A really cool moment is when a parent will bring their child into my booth at an art show, and they’ll start showing [the child] different pieces that they like. And their child will love it, but long after their child has gone on to look at something else, the parent is standing there looking at this piece, and then they start to pick out the little details that I’ve put in there that you don’t see at first glance. Moments like that, when someone connects to my work, it feels like that piece was meant for them, that that little piece that I put in there might have been meant so that person can really relive a memory. I feel like I have become a little part of their life, a little part of a moment that they can enjoy. It’s the most fulfilling feeling that somebody has connected with your work and you have brought them joy.
OS: Can you describe your process?
Crawford Allen: Once I have an idea, it just takes hold and I have to start working. Typically, I start with a very rough sketch in my idea journal so that I can get it down. And then from there I go to my watercolor paper and I do a very detailed sketch with pencil. There’s a lot of erasing — it’s never perfect to start with. Then I do the watercolor itself. There is this magical moment when, all of a sudden, the character feels alive.
Sometimes, it’s almost like you’re not there — the piece just comes through you. You just get into this zone where you’re not thinking about your color choices. You’re not thinking about the shapes that you’re making. You just go for it. You take your brush, you put it in the paint, and you just paint, and then eight hours later, you look up and go “oh!” It’s this zone where you’re just there and your creativity is flowing through you.
OS: Can you tell us a little bit about the sculptures you create?
Crawford Allen: In my spare time, I also do needle felting, which is this bizarre process where you poke unspun, fluffy wool with barbed needles, and as you poke it, the fibers actually knit down and they shrink, and it becomes a sculptural method. I’ve started needle felting the characters that I paint, and it’s really interesting to work on a character in both 3-D and 2-D. You start to find little quirks and nuances that transfer back and forth. I really like to use found vintage objects in the needle-felting projects. I’ll go to antiques stores and flea markets and find tiny harmonicas, mother-of-pearl buttons. I just found a little itty-bitty old pipe, which was really cool. Needle felting is another medium to explore the characters that I’d like to develop.
OS: What is your favorite thing about what you do?
Crawford Allen: Being able to touch people’s lives in a meaningful way. One of my favorite sayings is that art isn’t about what you see — it’s about what you make others see. So being able to look around you and find something and then share it with others.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.