Cristina McAllister

Interview With Artist Cristina McAllister: Beautiful Connections

August, 2015

Cristina McAllister: Beautiful Connections

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There is something mesmerizing about the art of Cristina McAllister. Her amazing blend of symbolism and incredible detail combines with a flair for design and symmetry rarely found these days. It turns out that Cristina is just as interesting as her art! She was kind enough to have a chat with me about her many projects, her inspiration and her aspirations.

Mabh Savage: When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?

Cristina McAllister: I knew I was going to be an artist since I could hold a crayon. I’ve been compelled to create for as long as I can remember, and have always had a natural aptitude for it and a drive to get better at it. I am mainly self-taught, learning by looking at others’ work, analyzing it, experimenting, practicing. I’ve always enjoyed experiencing art, in all its many forms. It’s not just entertainment or distraction – it’s important. The stories we tell to each other and to ourselves are important, and being able to express ideas well is something I’ve always been motivated to do.

MS: What are the challenges of being a self-employed artist and jeweler? How do you keep yourself motivated?

CM: This is maybe a disappointing answer, but I actually don’t make enough money from my art to live on right now. I have had many jobs that I was able to apply my art skills to, I’ve sold my art pieces through various venues over the years, I have done a lot of freelance projects that have brought in money, but to be honest, making a consistent living making art has been very challenging for me, especially living in Los Angeles. It’s expensive to live here.

I’ve realized that for me, trying to make enough money with my art to actually live on is too much pressure. It changes my relationship to my creativity in a negative way. When I NEED to sell art to pay the bills, it becomes about the sale, not the art itself, and if people aren’t actually buying (which is often the case), it’s frustrating and stressful and I can’t appreciate people just appreciating. It becomes: “If you love my art like you say you do, then BUY something, because I have to pay my rent!!!” After struggling with that for a while, I ultimately concluded that that is NOT what I want my art to be about, and it’s not what I want to be about.

So I’ve tended to have some sort of mundane job that pays the bills, live cheaply, and work on my art in my free time. It can be tough, but for me it’s actually liberating. That way, when someone expresses appreciation but doesn’t buy anything, I can still take satisfaction from sharing my creativity and connecting through it without the desperation of needing it to be about the sale.

The art world has changed dramatically over my lifetime, with the advent of the internet. I’ve just kind of evolved with it, exploring possibilities as I go. These days it’s a DIY endeavor, and you have to develop not only your art skills, but figure out how to be a business person, a salesman, a web designer, a social media expert, etc. It would be lovely to have a business partner who is savvy about that stuff who could handle that end of things and let me focus on making art, but so far I haven’t found them. I’ve just had to figure out how to do it myself. But luckily, there are a lot of resources these days that make that possible.

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I’ve also tried a LOT of different ways of making money with my art. I’ve done original paintings, art prints, a comic book, screen printed apparel, jewelry, various crafts, worked on staff as an illustrator for rpg and ccg games, done various freelance work including illustrations, tattoo commissions, pinups, graphic design, conceptual design, image licensing, etc. Every endeavor meets with some success and some failure, but I always learn something from it that I can then apply to my next enterprise.

I’ve managed, at this point in my life, to find financial stability through marriage to a man who has a good paying job, and through running a small home business that manufactures an industrial product my father invented (The Shake & Blast Canister – a sandblasting tool). So I no longer have to go to a job every day, which is awesome. I spend about a week a month assembling canisters and have the rest of my time to create, which is working out wonderfully at this point. It gives me the freedom to focus on exploring things that I want to explore and making things I want to make, and if other people like them and are willing to spend money on them – that’s a bonus!

Interestingly, I’m making more money from my art now than I ever have. Having more time to devote to it has made a big difference, and all the years I’ve spent making art and getting it out there is paying off in small chunks. I’m selling prints on Fine America, some stuff on Zazzle, I’ve got the Etsy shop that I sell my handmade items through, I vend at several events a year, I have partnered with My Wonderful Walls, which makes my work available as wall art decals, I do various freelance projects when they come up, collaborate with other artists. I just keep working. Keep creating and trying to share it with as many people as possible.

Even though I’m not making a ton of money with it, my art is essential to who I am. Making beautiful things, making people happy, putting something out there into the world that creates an uplifting experience for people…that is my notion of success as an artist, and by that standard I think I’m doing pretty well. I get a lot of feedback from people who “get” my art, and it means something to them, and that’s really the best result I can hope for.

MS: Fine America cites your work as inspiring ‘mindfulness, reverence and celebration’. What does mindfulness mean to you?

CM: Well, mindfulness is about thinking, or sometimes it’s about not thinking, and just being. I tend to think a LOT. Ha! Sometimes too much! But for me, exploring the world and trying to understand it is one of the most marvelous things about being a human being. We live in this incredibly complex universe, full of amazing things, and all of it is connected. We have the ability to explore and try to understand that.

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Seeing those connections, placing those puzzle pieces, watching as things unfold and reveal and open up new mysteries…that’s very exciting and blissful and awesome (in the literal sense!) to me. Those moments of clarity when the pieces lock into place and I can see the pattern in the chaos.

I had an actual, straight-up sober “mystical experience” a few years ago, and what it showed me was Connection. Everything linking to everything else. Everyone linking to everyone else. We tend to go through our days narrowed in on our own little spheres and challenges, which is often necessary to function. I think mindfulness is being able to engage in your experience in a conscious way that can be integrated into a greater understating and connection with the Bigger Picture.

MS: Do you start a piece of art with the intention of inspiring a particular emotion/state of mind or do you simply let the inspiration flow?

CM: It depends. Sometimes it’s an image that just comes to me. Sometimes I’m exploring an idea and want to express that. A lot of my art is the result of me processing ideas. I soak up information and filter it through my inner world and then use my art skills to visualize the results.

I’ve come to recognize that I am cyclic in my creativity and productivity. I have periods where I am super inspired and motivated to make stuff…I call it the Muse Bomb. I suspect I have a bit of bi-polar going on, and my manic phases manifest as these bursts of creative activity. I’ll stay up all night making sketch after sketch after sketch, and then I’ll take those rough ideas and refine and work them into finished work. Sometimes they flow easily and almost effortlessly. Sometimes I really have to wrestle with them to get them to work right. Sometimes I give up and move on to something else. Often, I find myself revisiting those ones I struggled with at a later time, and by then I’ve figured out what to do with them.

Then I go through periods of varying degrees of depression and have zero motivation to do anything productive. I get overwhelmed and have to curl up and go into Absorption Mode, which usually involves watching a lot of shows, movies and documentaries, reading, exploring ideas or playing video games. I used to beat myself up about these phases, because they seem to be a lot of time wasting activities, but I’ve come to accept that this is just how I work. I think I need the downtime to process and get re-grounded. I used to get afraid that I would get stuck in that mode and just end up wasting away, but I inevitably get bored with being inactive and bounce back up, and the stuff I soak up during the down phases are what end up fueling the next creative burst.

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My father struggled with manic depression (what they used to call bi-polar), and unfortunately, it really broke him down. I’ve been pretty terrified to notice it manifesting in me as well, but I think my art gives me something to channel it into, so I’m not as “crazy” as I could be! Or perhaps it’s just a more socially acceptable kind of crazy. Lately I’m coming around to the notion that it’s not crazy. It’s just how my mind works. And so far, it’s allowed me to do some pretty cool things. So I’m working on accepting that and learning how to surf it with grace. I try to make sure I’m not hurting anyone, shirking my responsibilities or being a nuisance, and I’m usually successful at that. Having an amazing husband who accepts my quirks and gently nudges me when I need a nudge is a huge help.

Maybe that’s the difference between this kind of thing being positive or negative. Maybe it comes back to mindfulness. I’m old enough now that I’m seeing the patterns and cycles in my own life and starting to understand it from a more meta-perspective. And realizing that it’s okay to be different from the “norm”. I think the “norm” is actually a false construct anyway. We all have things in common, things we hold sacred as a society, but we are all very different as well. I’m a big fan of diversity – it’s the engine of evolution. I think there are different levels of conformity, some healthy, some less so. Sometimes not conforming in order to be true to yourself is the right thing to do. I think the main thing is to contribute something positive to the world, and there are as many ways to do that as there are people.

I’ve also been more open about this stuff recently, and it’s been quite amazing. Everyone I talk to about it can relate on some level. Everyone. A lot of us are ashamed to admit that we aren’t the perfect, rational, steady, strong, happy, successful, together people we think we should be, that we want people to think we are. But we’re human beings. We’re complicated. The world is complicated, often overwhelming if you’re paying attention. Most of the media that we try to compare ourselves to is a distorted picture of reality. Reality is a lot messier than we like to believe. I think a lot of my art, as well as my personal journey, is about finding the beauty in that mess.

I don’t want to give the impression that depression or other mental issues should just be accepted and untreated.  I have found both talk therapy and anti-depressant medication helpful in understanding and managing my mental health, as well as getting exercise, fresh air and sunshine.

MS: Tell us about Calliope. What inspired this project, and what is its purpose?

CM: Calliope is a gypsy-style camper trailer that my husband, Dore, and I built several years ago. He’s an intuitive and skilled Builder/Maker/Fixer. When a friend sold us her old 70’s-era Coleman pop-up camper for super cheap, we began to ponder how to fix it up. I started thinking about decorating the interior and thought it would be cool to do it in this colourful, exotic gypsy-style. I did some research on the internet and found all these amazing photos of Vardos and emailed them to Dore at work as inspiration for the interior. He emailed me back, saying: “Why don’t I just demolish the thing and build a whole gypsy wagon on the trailer from scratch?” And I was like: “Can you DO that???”, and he said: “Yeah, no problem!”, and I was like: “OMG YES!!! We are doing that!!!”

CalliopeThen it was about 9 months of blood, sweat, tears, paint and sawdust and Calliope the old camper was reborn as Calliope the Wonder Wagon. We do a lot of camping events, so we basically built our own custom camper with a bed, sink, stove, pee pee toilet, closet and cabinets. It’s pretty awesome!

Dore did the building and I set about working on designing the exterior and decor. I didn’t want to go full-on traditional. I wanted to do something unique, and beautiful and inspiring. I began working on these decorative motifs and found myself sort of blending a lot of my artistic influences into this new style – art nouveau, Celtic knot work, tribal design, organic shapes, bright colors…it just started coming together in this harmonious way.

And the more we invested in the project, the more I wanted the artwork to be meaningful, not just decorative. That’s when I really started delving into visual symbolism from around the world, which profoundly affected my art. Calliope kind of coalesced and kicked off this major creative period for me.

She’s really something special, more than we ever could have imagined. On a practical level, she’s made travelling and camping easier and more comfortable and more fun. But beyond that, she’s kind of her own Force of Good. People love her. We’ve met so many awesome folks who come over to find out what she’s about. I’ve seen people spend an hour exploring the artwork, and it sparks interesting discussions about the symbols and how people relate to them. She inspires other people to build their own gypsy wagons. She’s just this incredible Joy Generator!

MS: Your work contains symbols and signs from many different cultures. Which culture’s symbolism resonates with you most?

CM: Oh gosh. I’m really loving Indian and Islamic art right now. But I really can’t pick one. I think for me it’s all about the diversity. I’m fascinated by how other people see the world and express themselves. How humans have translated our experiences into art and culture and ideas. How we share those things. I think it’s essential to our evolution to be able to look at all these different ways of thinking and respect them and appreciate them and learn from them. To understand and accept that there is no “One Right Way” to do things, but a billion ways to explore what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. All of these different stories are actually All One Big Story with a LOT of plotlines going on; comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, battles and alliances, horror and beauty, love and death. We are all a part of this incredible, ongoing Story.

MS: Has exploring these symbols influenced your own spirituality in any way?

CM: Absolutely. I’m not religious, but I am fascinated by what people hold sacred and how they relate to the Divine. I see more commonalities than differences, so it helps me to unravel what’s important and what’s limiting. My own spirituality is in constant flux, ever evolving. I’m pretty practical about it. I feel like it’s about finding ideas that improve our lives, ourselves, the world around us. I feel very fortunate to live in a time and place where I can explore spirituality on a global level. I have the freedom to explore many different perspectives and practices. I don’t really want to codify my concept of it into a particular dogma or system. I want it to remain flexible and open and ever-evolving and unfolding. By studying all these different ways that art expresses these things, I am collecting pieces of the Great Mystery, following the trails others have blazed; slowly building up my own way to make sense of it, connect to it and create meaning.

MS: You’ve moved from illustration to symbolic study and decoration to jewelry making; do you find you are constantly driven to expand your skills and knowledge?

CM: Definitely. I tend to get bored after a while and want to do something new. I had been doing the digital illustrations for years, and that was a great medium for exploring the symbolic ideas. Then I watched a documentary about artisans and craftsmen; people making pottery, metalwork, woodwork, textile art, etc. I realized I hadn’t made anything physical with my hands for a while. The notion of making things you could actually hold, as opposed to just an image sounded like something exciting to explore.

I’d also learned through the years that people are more likely to buy adornments than “wall art”. Unfortunately for visual artists, images come cheap these days on the internet; there’s not as much motivation to purchase an image. Adornments are easier to sell. They are physical art that you can actually wear on your body; that become a part of your own self-expression. I really like that idea. Creating things that people can wear, that make them feel beautiful and expressive, that can become a part of who THEY are, as well as an expression of my own imagination.

cristinacopperSo I taught myself to etch my designs into copper and make some basic copper jewelry. I really love how a lot of those pieces turned out. Ultimately, I ended up disappointed with copper as a medium when I failed to be able to prevent tarnishing and oxidation. It was also a pretty time-consuming process, and I began to get restless.

MS: What inspired the idea for Dreamcuffs? Who do these appeal to most?

CM: I was a bit lost for a while in Absorption Mode at that point, wondering what my next Thing would be. At the time, Game of Thrones was really popular, and I was revisiting a lot of fantasy and sci-fi films and comics and stuff that I’d been into as a kid, that initially fired my artistic imagination. I started exploring the whole cosplay phenomenon and began researching cosplay materials and techniques.

It was exciting to see people wearing such unique and interesting clothing. Most “acceptable fashion” is pretty dull. I love the aesthetics and costumes of imaginative fiction and wondered why most people wore such boring stuff most of the time. Why NOT wear something fantastic? Why should only fictional characters get to wear these amazing things? I began to think of applying a production design perspective to making adornments. Combining the kind of character-based costume design you see in movies and shows like GoT with every day fashion.

One night I thought; “If I were a fashion designer in the Faerie Realm, what would I design for my clients?” And I had this vision of a pair of elegant bracers that looked like they were made from fairy wings, with these graceful, ornate, organic shapes and iridescent colors. I’d never seen anything like that in real life and started to wonder how to make them. That kicked off a whole new exploration of various material and techniques and experimentation until I figured out how to make these things a reality and DreamCuffs were born. Since then, I’ve been having a blast playing with these materials and techniques to design fantastical adornments.

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I’ve been focusing on the bracers because I like the idea of creating accessories that people can integrate into whatever they’re wearing. Bracers are unusual as a fashion accessory, but not so strange that you couldn’t get away with wearing them in normal situations. You can put on a tank top or T and jeans and add some DreamCuffs and suddenly you have this cool outfit! They are also appropriate for both men and women, and they work for every body type, not just the fashion runway model types. And there’s something powerful about wearing bracers, which were originally used as armor. When I showed some DreamCuffs prototypes to a friend, she put them on and her eyes got wide and she grinned and said: “These are empowering as f*ck!” Haha! Perhaps not a slogan I can use in my advertising, but I thought that was a pretty enthusiastic endorsement!

There are more and more people who aren’t afraid to wear interesting things. There are a lot of subcultures these days that value interesting fashion; cosplayers, Burners, LARPers, Goths and Lolitas and whatnot. It’s fun to play dress-up! It’s fun to wear things that make us feel otherworldly or bad-ass or heroic. I’d like to see more people integrating those kinds of playful and expressive ideas into what they wear every day, or when they get all dolled up to go out. Maybe if I make these things available, they will.

MS: What do you hope to expand into next, now that your jewelry and dream cuffs are becoming popular?

CM: Who knows? I feel like I’ve got a lot of ideas right now to explore with the DreamCuffs techniques. I’ve got countless sketches of different things I could do beyond just the bracers: headpieces and arm bands and chokers and hatbands. I’m loving playing with the iridescent effects. I think I’ll be busy with this for a while, especially since people are responding to them so well. That feedback helps to sustain my inspiration.

MS: What’s your most popular item with customers?

cristina5CM: Hm. I’ve probably sold more Shakti postcard sets than anything, I suspect because they are some of my cheaper items. People frame them up and they look great, so it’s a nice affordable option for displaying some of my digital works. I always try to keep my prices reasonable, and to try to offer stuff at a variety of price points. I feel strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just the rich folks.

I think my most popular single images are “Heart of Wisdom” , “Numinosity” and “Reach”, according to sales. As for the DreamCuffs, the Butterfly Wing and Fairy Wing designs have been the most popular.

MS: Do you have a favourite medium? Something that you get lost in; can totally absorb yourself in more than any other?

CM: I think it’s whatever I’m exploring at the time. I think the learning and experimentation process is as interesting as creating things once I’ve mastered a medium. There’s a wonderful balance point during this process where it’s both challenging and satisfying at the same time, and that’s probably the most Zen place I can be.

MS: You mention on your blog your insecurity about modelling your products yourself. Has your creativity and the beautiful products that have come out of it helped boost your self-confidence?

CM: Yes. I can always fall back on my work to remind me that I am doing something worthy, so on that level I feel I’m doing okay. I’ve always struggled on some level with my body image. I’ve always been in my head and my hands, and not particularly athletic, and I love to eat and drink and enjoy those kinds of hedonistic experiences, so I’m not in the best of shape. The older I get, the more I realize this doesn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did. The more I learn to love others in ways that are not about physical appearance, the easier it gets to accept my own body.

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I’m also working on how to be true to this notion in presenting my work. On one hand, having hot models wearing your stuff is an effective marketing method. But I also kind of feel like it’s dishonest in a way. I want these things to be for everyone, not just the stereotyped “Pretty People” that we see so often in the media. My definition of beauty is a lot broader than that. That’s why I love it when the regular folks who buy my pieces send me pictures of themselves wearing them. Those people are beautiful to me, and are the perfect models as far as I’m concerned. But I still need decent photos to sell stuff online, so I’ve been working with friends and on occasion when I get too impatient, I’ll model stuff myself, if possible. I’m slowly getting more comfortable with sharing myself instead of remaining anonymous and hiding behind my work.

MS: Tell us a little about your involvement with the Burning Man community.

CM: Burning Man has been a HUGE influence on my life. I went to my first Burn at a time when I was kind of lost as far as what I wanted to do with my art skills. What I experienced at Burning Man cracked open my whole notion of what art could be, how people could be, how I could be. There’s a way of thinking and interacting that happens out there that changed everything for me. It reacquainted me with the feelings of awe and wonder and playfulness and resilience and connection. I have been able to integrate a lot of that into my everyday life. Most of the people in my social circle these days are connected to the Burning Man community, and they are truly amazing people who continue to inspire me and support my endeavours and expand my world.

MS: What advice would you give to aspiring artists, hoping to one day live off the fruits of their talent?

CM: Do what you have to do to allow yourself to grow. It’s a lot of work and you have to be driven and you have to keep trying. Keep working. Learn new things. Get better at whatever you’re doing. Learn to see failure as a valuable learning experience instead of something to fear. Seek out inspiration. Learn about the business end of art so you can sell it once you learn how to make it well. That’s been the hardest thing for me, the selling part. Find joy in the making and the sharing. Keep evolving!

Oh, and put a watermark including your name, a copyright symbol and year of creation, and your website URL on every image of your work that you put online.

MS: How do you relax and take a break from it all? Do you ever need to just get out of the studio, or is it a safe haven?

CM: My studio is my home, and it is a safe haven. I do cocoon sometimes. But then I need to get out and get into nature and hang out with my friends, dance under the stars and get silly. We’re working on being able to travel more, which is always inspiring and recharging.

MS: And finally, where do you see yourself this time next year?

CM: Hopefully continuing to do what I’m doing now. Exploring new ideas and making beautiful things and hopefully selling more of them so my husband can someday retire from the corporate world and be able to use his own creative talents to make art, too. We’d like to get out of L.A. and find a less urban place that’s cooler and greener and cheaper and less hectic. That’s the dream we’re working on, and we’re plugging away at it, while appreciating what we have.

I’d like to do some more elaborate pieces, maybe do some more custom work. I had the idea the other day of doing some bridal DreamCuffs, maybe some bracer and headpiece sets for weddings. That could be really fun!

As long as I can keep making stuff that makes people happy, I’m happy.

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Cristina McAllister’s main website is: www.GypsyMystery.com. From there you can access her various online shops and blog. To keep up with her new work, join the  of Cristina McAllister Facebook Page , subscribe to her blog or follow her on Pinterest. And feel free to Comment, Share Posts or Re-Pin Pins!