Natalie Alleyne is a colorful woman: Her work, her spirit and her smile seem to radiate the shades of the rainbow.
Before pursuing fine art as a full-time profession, she shared her love of the creative arts as a schoolteacher of inner-city kids. Now, in addition to her gallery work, she operates a small business with original handpainted accessories that she makes available at festivals throughout the country. We caught up with her at Outfest, where she practically sold out her inventory to an appreciative crowd.
PGN: Tell me a little about you. NA: I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Queens. I come from a family of six kids: I have four older brothers and an older sister.
PGN: So you’re the baby? NA: That’s what my mother would say, but I always insisted, “I’m not the baby, I’m the youngest!”
PGN: I had one older brother and it was hard. What was it like having four? NA: Four times as hard! Let’s just say they got into a lot of trouble. My sister and I were the youngest, so it wasn’t like she was between any of the boys to ease them into the idea of having sisters. [Laughs.] We both got it at the same time.
PGN: Friend who lives the farthest away? NA: My mom ... She’s in heaven.
PGN: What’s the worst prank one of your siblings played on you? NA: My sister and I are three years apart. One time we were playing in the park and I had to go to the bathroom. I had on a shorts set that zippered in the back. When I came out of the restroom, I couldn’t get the zipper up and I asked my sister to help me. She actually pulled the zipper down instead of up, so when I walked back into the park, my pants fell down around my ankles. Looking back, it was funny, but back then I was mortified.
PGN: What did you like to do as a kid? NA: I liked to paint. I think I wanted to be a painter from the time I was in the womb. I still have work that my mother used to put on the refrigerator. My mother once told me that I had so much she eventually had to throw some out. She said, “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but we were running out of room in the house.” I enjoyed running too. I went to an arts school, but if I’d gone to a school that had an adequate sports program, I would have taken up track.
PGN: What school did you attend? NA: I went to the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan; for undergrad I went to the School of Visual Arts, where I majored in advertising and graphics; and I went to graduate school at City College of New York.
PGN: Is anyone else in the family artistic? NA: Not really ... though my mother took up painting when she was about 60. We have very different styles, but I actually have some pieces of hers that she never finished that I’d like to incorporate into my own work some day.
PGN: You taught in the public-school system. What was that like? NA: Oh, gosh, it was crazy. I taught for 14 years.
PGN: Best and worst memories? NA: Hmm, for a small portion of the time, I did work with special-education kids. I worked primarily with kids with emotional disabilities. A lot of the cases were pretty severe and there were a number of bad incidents, which is partly why I left. It was pretty rough — a lot of fights, dangerous stuff. I was lucky because I had pretty good classroom management skills and, for the most part, kids love art. I found it amazing to see what you could bring out of a child with disabilities by letting them express themselves creatively. At one point, I was working in high school and had a student who was really interested in learning to air brush. I didn’t know it at the time, but mine was the only class that he came to. He’d been in and out of trouble with the law, but he showed up every day for my class. Years later, he came back and told me that I’d helped change his life; that not only had my class been a place of refuge and expression for him, it also taught him a skill he could use to start a business. It was amazing. He said that there were a lot of kids I’d affected without me even being aware of it and he wanted to make sure that I knew it. I held on to that to help me get through some of the rough times teaching.
PGN: Why do you think we have such trouble with our schools? NA: There are a lot of conditions that are causing the school systems to crumble, starting with the foundation of the kids themselves. There are kids having kids and they don’t have the parenting skills needed. They don’t have any kind of spiritual or moral foundation, and if you don’t have any morals, it’s easy to cross boundaries that in the past would not have been acceptable. Every time you push one of those boundaries, it’s harder to come back. And if you don’t have a parent or adult figure to tell you your behavior is not acceptable, you take it even further the next time. They don’t have any respect and yet think they should get it without ever having to earn it. It’s a cycle that has nowhere to go but down. It’s very disheartening. When a child has a physical disability, you know what to do. If I had a kid with Down syndrome or autism, for instance, I’d know I had to do X, Y, Z. But with an emotional disability, it was a whole different ballgame. You’d have a kid who looked “normal” and would be sitting quietly, and suddenly a chair would come flying at your desk. It was like, “Alrighty ... What was the trigger for that?” You had to find an entirely different way to approach each situation. Then sometimes I’d meet the parents and it would be apparent where the anger was coming from. One thing that helped me was that I’d approach each kid with a clean slate. Students have an IEP [Individualized Education Program] folder, which has the history of each child. It might tell you that this child has tried to burn down his house or has physically struck out at adults. If you read that ahead of time, you are going to have a preconceived opinion of the child and treat them accordingly. I think that’s problematic because the child is not getting a fair start with you. After all, the reports didn’t say why a child might have struck out; maybe they were raped at 2 and were just beginning to experience the fallout. So I refused to read them and I think it improved my relationships with my students.
PGN: You sell your art on the festival circuit so you must travel a lot. What differences do you find in the LGBT community from place to place? NA: [Laughs.] Oh, it’s different all right. I find in the more Southern states and smaller cities, I have to be more circumspect with the work I put out. They are usually more family-oriented, so I don’t really sell my nude paintings there.
PGN: We seem to be a dual society: On one side, we’re all about sex, and then you have people trying to cover up public art because a sculpture of Venus de Milo has a nipple showing!
NA: Yes, in some ways we’re getting very prudish. One thing I’ve found that’s interesting is that if I do a show at an all-women’s festival, like Michigan, some women will give me a hard time if I show a painting with a nude male. They’ll get really affronted by it. But I’m like, you can’t censure my work just because you have a problem with a depiction of a male. Art is art and the human form is the human form. There’s so much division within our own division. It’s just crazy. I don’t want anyone dictating what I can and can’t paint. People want to force me into a box [laughs], but there’s no box to hold me! It’s funny. Cross-culturally there are differences as well. Sometimes, women of color will say, “Oh no, I couldn’t put that on my wall. My momma would have a fit,” when talking about displaying my nude paintings or anything with a gay theme like two women together or a rainbow background. Interestingly, I have more men purchasing the nudes than women. They seem more receptive to appreciating the fine-art aspects and don’t get hung up about the nudity.
PGN: Changing gears, what was your most creative Halloween costume? NA: While I was living in St. Maarten, I went to a party as a pregnant teen. I went around the party asking all of the guys, “Are you de fadda o’ dis here babay?” I won first prize!
PGN: Any nickname? NA: I’ve been called Mousy, Snuffles — all because of my ears. Snuffles was the mouse on Tom and Jerry that talked a lot.
PGN: What’s the best thing about your partner? NA: Her name is Gerina and, it’s going to sound selfish, but I like the fact that she lets me be me. Some people come into a relationship looking for certain things and they want to bend you to fit that. But if I am silly one morning and serious an hour later and want to be alone, it’s fine with her. I think it’s the first time I found someone who allows me that fluidity and I appreciate that.
PGN: What would be a silly morning for you? NA: Well, I’m an ex-schoolteacher and I have a 2-year-old son, so it could be anything.
PGN: You have a painting, “A Mother’s Love.” Is that your son? NA: No. I did that painting many years before I became a mother. I like to think of that painting as the universal mother and child, and what that signifies — nurturing, a feeling of safety, love.
PGN: Where can people find your work? NA: I will have pieces available soon at Amazulu in the Reading Terminal. I’m going to have some handpainted bags and shirts available. People can also check out my fine art on my Web site, www.alleynestudios.com.
PGN: Where does your inspiration come from? NA: It’s something that’s spirit-based. I feel like the work comes from another source; I am just the conduit. Most of the time, I don’t have a predisposed notion of what I’m going to do when I step to the canvas. The work just comes through me ... I’m grateful to be chosen to do the work.