“I don’t think it is helpful to ignore the pain.”
Sitting in a suburban home north of Austin, Texas, her five children under age 9 safely at the park with husband Andrew, sculptor Allison Streett talks about art. She carries to a low coffee table examples of her work: bronze sculptures, about 18 to 31 inches in size and 20 pounds in weight. Mounted on wooden, lazy-susan bases, many portray mothers and children “because that’s where I am,” Streett says.
In Wartime Pieta, a Sudanese mother cradles her dead son—a victim of the genocide. In Be Warmed, Be Filled, a young Afghan girl leans into her mother, who bows her head in shame as she begs. Streett says, “I was thinking about collateral damage from the war. The women and children are the ones who suffer.” Both sculptures are part of the “Who Is My Neighbor?” series.
Streett graduated from Hillsdale College in 2002, and her early work reflects the classical training she received there. Her work is still figurative, but “my idea about what is beautiful has changed a lot.” She isn’t interested in depicting “the ideal human figure” or the “neoplatonic, nostalgic” scenes typical of some Christian art. She’s not a fan of art that is “more of a yearning for a past golden age. We’re not satisfied with the time we’re living in, and all the pain and suffering, so we’re just going to ignore it. I don’t find that satisfying as an artist or as a person.”
Streett works in a small studio off her kitchen. Three windows facing the front yard provide good natural light. A door between studio and kitchen lets her shut out household noise. A tripod holds a work-in-progress—Jacob in the moment after his wrestle with God.
Her process begins with a maquette—a 3-D clay sketch—in which Streett works out composition and pose. Then she creates an armature screwed to a piece of wood. It contains all her calculations for proportion. She builds a clay sculpture on top of that armature, using an oil-based clay that doesn’t harden. A fine art foundry does the actual bronze casting.
Ideas come to Streett from everyday life, the Bible, and even missionary friends. Her “Encounters” series features biblical characters after encounters with God. The “Who Is My Neighbor?” series developed out of Streett’s desire “to call my fellow believers to an acknowledgement of all the people we have responsibility toward. … A lot of people who are suffering who need to see the love of Jesus in us.”
The idea behind one of her most moving pieces, Loss, came from a friend’s miscarriage. The half life-size bronze shows a woman curled in grief. Streett is in the maquette stage of a male version inspired by the question: “What would the difference be in the way men embody that grief?”
Caring for five children and homeschooling the two oldest leaves Streett little time to work. One afternoon a week her seminary-teacher husband relieves her so she can. Other days she gets the kids occupied and sets the timer for 30 minutes. Even that little bit of time keeps her going mentally, making it easier to focus when she has a bigger chunk. Streett says, “I have a lot of ideas and feel an urgency to get them into permanent form. Not setting it aside completely is important for me.”
Streett says her children draw all the time. Sometimes she keeps them busy with a piece of clay while she grabs 30 minutes. Occasionally they pose for her. Her oldest daughter is also a critic: “‘There are happy things in the world, Mommy. You could make a happy sculpture once in a while.’” Streett laughs: “I think she wanted a mermaid.”
Why so many sad sculptures? Streett says, “I’m trying to communicate a ‘broken beauty.’ … A lot of contemporary secular work is ugly, and hopeless, and grotesque. As a believer I want to show the truth about humanity and our condition—our relationships with each other and our relationships with God—to show that there’s real pain and real ugliness but there’s hope also because of the redemption of Jesus.”