By Joshua Mooney
Joseph Alleman’s watercolors explore deeper dramas than what’s immediately visible
Joseph Alleman is only 31, but his watercolor paintings capture a powerful sense of mood and mystery that is ageless. Drawing inspiration from his Utah surroundings, Alleman approaches his canvases with a contemporary eye and traditional technique enhanced by an innate maturity and evocative sense of time and place that have drawn comparisons to Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. Like them, he’s a signature member of the venerable American Watercolor Society. And in the tradition of these masters, Alleman has an ability to bring a deeper narrative quality to his paintings that draws the viewer in and provokes more questions than answers.
Alleman moves easily between figurative works, landscapes, and what he calls his architectural pieces—distinctive views of houses, barns, and other buildings that convey a persistent but indirect link to the people (typically unseen) who built and inhabit them. His perspective and his consistent use of subtle earth tones elicit feelings of solitude, stillness, quiet—or, as he puts it succinctly, “nostalgia stripped of sentimentality.”
“Artists have always portrayed emotion,” Alleman says. “For me it’s not so much loneliness or sadness. It’s a kind of inner reflection. That’s a powerful emotion to me and lends itself to scenarios where the viewer becomes part of the story line. Yet there’s a certain intrigue at work: You’ll never quite get to the bottom of this moment.”
It’s no surprise that Alleman lists Wyeth, Hopper, and legendary southwestern landscape painter Maynard Dixon among his favorite artists. Theirs were the images that mesmerized him a child, once he was tall enough to reach the family’s art books on the shelves. “I’d just pull them down and thumb through them all the time,” he recalls.
Alleman was born in San Francisco but has only vague memories of California life. When he was 5, his family moved to Salt Lake City for the most prosaic of reasons: His father was in dental school. By then, Alleman had already discovered a love of drawing. “For as far back as I can remember, I was always spending my free time playing around with pencils and paper,” he says.
The artist credits his mother’s passion for art with helping him to focus. “She was particularly encouraging in helping me discover and then develop that side of me,” he says. “When you’re young, you’re not worried about developing your talents. You want to play.”
By 15, he was ready to “sit down and approach a piece of paper or a canvas as a work of art. I began setting goals and thinking of ways to take my work beyond the sketchbook stage and actually create something.” Around this time, he met and began to study with noted Utah watercolorist Harold Petersen, who helped expose Alleman to a more professional level of art. “He had a strong legacy of people who worked under him and had gone on to art careers. That was impressive,” Alleman recalls. It was Petersen’s inspiration, along with his own experimentation in other media, that helped Alleman realize his real love was watercolor.
Alleman studied fine art at Utah State University in Logan. There he took classes in “the usual broad spectrum—I kinda did it all.” There wasn’t a huge opportunity to work on his watercolors, but another mentor, Glen Edwards, who taught illustration, encouraged him. “Glen helped me pursue watercolors,” Alleman says. “I remember coming home from school, trying to get my assignments done first, because I always had something going on on a piece of paper back at my apartment. Things I wasn’t going to get graded on—things I didn’t know if anyone else would ever see. But they were my true passion.”
He graduated as a printmaker but wanted to focus on watercolors, a road he knew was less traveled. “Watercolors gave me a sense of identity,” he realizes now. “There were plenty of talented artists around me, and I guess being the kid that worked in watercolors made me a little unique. There were so many incredible oil painters out there, but I saw an opportunity as a watercolorist to take a leading role. Because I saw I had an ability there that some artists didn’t.”
After graduation, the newly married Alleman and his wife stayed in and around Logan as he pondered his future. Like millions of other grads before him, he contemplated graduate school as “a way to give myself time to figure things out.” His one grad school application—and subsequent rejection—turned out to be the catalyst he needed to get his art career going. “Suddenly I had a couple years wide open,” he recalls. “And my wife and I figured, ‘We have nothing to lose at this point.’”
So Alleman took a job at a framing gallery and managed to bring in money while still working five or six hours a day on his painting. “And I got a few commissions,” he laughs, “along the lines of, ‘Hey, you’re an artist—can you do this for me?’” On a whim, mixed with a sense of frustration, he contacted Taminah Gallery in Park City, which he knew and admired. “I didn’t really have anything to take down there and didn’t think they were going to call back,” he admits. They did, though, so Alleman framed up some of his student projects, and the gallery was impressed. “Quick framing on a budget—that’s one of the benefits of working in a frame store,” he says.
Alleman remembers his first sale vividly. “Some guy from Tennessee and his girlfriend were skiing in Park City and saw my stuff at Taminah,” he recalls. “He called me at home and said, ‘There’s a piece I’m drawn to, but it’s out of my budget right now. Could I come up and take a look in your studio?’ Our ‘studio’ was in our one-bedroom apartment—it was the living room. So, they ended up taking home a painting, and we ended up taking all the cash this guy had in his wallet, plus his skis and his girlfriend’s skis!”
It was the first time, but not the last, that his work would prove compelling to a viewer. So many of his paintings work on multiple levels, stirring up memories, emotions, and a sense of intrigue in the viewer. A work like in the shadows, for example, consists simply of the back of a house of indeterminate age, a somber strip of lawn, and the branches and shadows of a couple of bare trees. Yet the point of view intrigues—the back of the house is not the part built for show—and the organic forms and shadows of nature reach toward and around the structure with an almost eerie quality. The muted tones of olives, greens, browns, and grays suggest a moment of transition—not still winter, not yet spring. The darkened interior of the house through window and door, meanwhile, feels more like a warning than an invitation.
“With every painting I do—landscape, figurative, architectural—I don’t really see a subject fully until I’ve walked all the way around it,” Alleman says. “I’m looking for the design elements that jump out and say, ‘This is a great painting.’ And it’s often not the most obvious vantage point. Likewise, when it comes to capturing a mood or a time. I don’t look at a bare tree and see something barren or dead. I don’t see a gray or dismal scene. To me, there’s always a sense of what’s to come. I prefer to capture a tree without its leaves at the stage where spring is just around the corner—the moment before the moment. Rather than, ‘Blossoms! Yay, spring!’”
Alleman and his wife have lived in both rural and urban areas of Utah and have now returned to the countryside of northern Utah’s Cache Valley, where they built a house for themselves and their young son (they’re expecting another baby in September).
Meanwhile, Alleman’s studio, which he shares with another artist, is in the city of Logan. He describes it as “a good amount of space—more than anything, a place where we can make a big mess and turn up the music as we work.”
Although not technically a Utah native, Alleman has never lived anywhere else since his family first came to Salt Lake City. And the people, places, and towns of the state have been a steady source of inspiration for his work. “One of the things I’ve really learned to love through the works of Wyeth, Hopper, Dixon, and others is the way these artists would portray their surroundings,” he says. “So it’s important to me to somehow convey who and where I am through my work. In recent years, there’s been a strong rural content to my paintings—definitely an influx of barns and fields. I see these things all the time, and the more I see them, the more the design elements spring out. But it’s not even what I see, but that this is my surrounding. This is who I am and where I am at this time. And it seems almost sad not to portray the imagery all around me.”
Alleman is represented by Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Taminah Gallery, Park City, UT; and Astoria Fine Art, Jackson, WY.
Featured in August 2006