Bea von Allmen designs and sews eye-popping, classic-looking women’s clothing, makes elegant jewelry and sells produce grown on her Canyon farm. But it is her raku-fired bird heads, mounted on steel rods and adorned with gorgeous fabrics, that capture the imagination of her many admirers.
“I don’t like making people’s faces,” is her simple explanation of why she has become so enamoured with creating upright, human-like characters with long-beaked faces.
She and her husband, Ernst, moved to the Creston Valley 10 years ago from their home country of Switzerland. They longed for the space offered by the Canadian countryside and the chance to own property that would allow them to produce their own food and pursue their own creative passions. The Creston Valley, with its temperate climate, rich soil and close proximity to Kootenay Lake, was an easy choice once they saw fruit trees growing when they arrived from the east.
In Switzerland, von Allmen did clay work for 25 years, mainly for jewelry. She also worked with Ernst, who had an oriental rug business.
“But we always wanted to own a farm,” she said. “We wanted to grow our own food and have a better lifestyle. This valley had all the things that were on our wish list.”
The von Allmen farm is a warm and welcoming site. Located at 4341 Muzzy Road, it is a model of tidiness. Rows of firewood are stacked in an open shed, sorted according to species and log size. The completely renovated house boasts a clay workshop that becomes von Allmen’s studio and another basement studio where she sews. A spotless chicken coop is home to surprisingly content birds. Out back is a huge shop in which Ernst keeps busy with his many hobbies and projects. Last week, a long line of braced steel fence corner posts was in production. All were made with recycled steel, awaiting several coats of paint before Ernst undertakes a 1,300-foot fencing project that will allow the couple to pursue their next dream, landscaping the area around the house and protecting their gardens from the area’s abundant wildlife.
Creston has a four-season climate and the von Allmens revel in it, adjusting their activities to the weather. What serves as her gallery during the summer will revert to her clay studio in the winter, when she is more drawn to the physical activity of making and firing clay. When she isn’t working in the garden during the spring and summer months, she repairs to her above ground basement sewing studio, which is replete with framed old pages from a sewing magazine, open shelves of impeccably arranged bolts of cloth and a pair of comfy upholstered chairs brought from Switzerland.
“I don’t like to work in a messy space,” von Allmen said, pointing out the obvious. “Wherever I’m working I want to make it feel like a living space. So I always have chairs and art and maybe even an espresso machine in that space.”
In the winter, she said, “My clay shop is my sanctuary. To be creative I have to dig into my inner self, either in a workshop or out in nature.”
Visitors to the Creston Valley Farmers Market will be familiar with von Allmen’s elegant clothing displays and neatly arranged produce. But her clay bird and cat characters are reserved for display in galleries, including her own and Eileen Hirota’s (the pieces were a popular attraction in the now-closed Painted Turtle Gallery on Canyon Street).
“I dream of a fantasy or theme and then I work towards it,” she said in an effort to explain her latest series that features characters from an imaginary oriental marketplace. This year she has created several dozen pieces, including an alchemist, a silk trader, a jewel salesman, an oil sheikh, a prince, a bride-to-be and… well, you get the idea.
“I have had a lifelong passion for markets,” von Allmen explained. “In the old days, everyone looked forward to market day. Back then, markets were a necessity. They were the only place that people could sell, buy and trade. Vendors from near and far would meet a colourful mix of farmers, traders, salesmen, musicians, entertainers and buyers. Even the odd thief would sneak in!”
The oriental marketplace experience was inspired in part by a trip to Turkey when Ernst was still in the rug trade. And her fascination by markets extends into her participation in the local farmers market. She speaks of markets with passion and doesn’t measure her success in them in terms of sales.
“With markets you have to be patient as an artist and don’t expect to make sales,” she said. “Advertising fees is what I call the space rental. You have to give customers time to identify with your work and they want to get to know you, so continuity is the key. I started my artistic career by going to markets 30 years ago and I have had offers to exhibit in shows and galleries ever since.”
Von Allmen refers to her business as Cloth and Clay Art and describes her bird and cat figures as whimsical. One member of a recent group that toured her gallery described her work as “perfect”, a word she disagrees with. Sort of.
“I like things perfect but when it comes to the last little detail of perfection I can’t do it, so maybe my things are 95 per cent perfect,” she laughed. “Perfection kills creativity.”
While her interest in birds is explained in part by a dislike of making faces from clay, there are other factors at play, too.
“The first bird I made was in a raku workshop in a secluded community in the Swiss mountains,” she said. “It had a population of about 50 and you could only get to it by cable car or a two-hour hike. I felt kind of trapped when I was there, so I created a bird with big wings. If you are standing on a cliff and you have wings, you are free. Birds have freedom.”
And, while von Allmen’s raku-fired characters have distinctive bird-like beaks, they also have human characteristics.
“Their eyes are like a human being’s and they stand upright,” she pointed out. “And I like tall, slim figures, so I make the cats like that, too.”
The materials she selects for the clay characters’ clothing comes from the same vast collection of fabric that she uses for her women’s clothing line.
“I have been collecting fabric for most of my life,” she said, pulling a bolt of antique black brocade from a floor-to-ceiling shelf on which fabrics are arranged by colour. “And I’m not a fan of modern… whatever it is. I don’t like pinks and purples — you won’t find any girlie colours in my house! I prefer more muted, natural tones. Then I add a bit of glitter like gold or copper to catch the eye.”
In all her work, von Allmen finds inspiration in nature. Fabrics are all made from natural fibres in earth tones and they often feature subtle leaf or feather designs. Her creations, obviously, reflect her own personality and interests.
On Sundays, June through September, Bea and Ernst von Allmen invite the public to their farm for a visit to Bea’s gallery between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The gallery is also open by appointment by calling 250-428-0119.
This fall, the artist plans to become more computer savvy by taking a course that will enable her to create her own web site and perhaps even begin online sales. And she ends the conversation on a sun-filled weekday morning with another piece of tantalizing news.
“This winter I’m going to work on something different that I’ve been thinking about for years,” she smiled. “But I can’t talk about it until I know it will work.”
Yet another reason to continue returning to the gallery, studios and home of one of the Creston Valley’s most innovative creators. And one of the nicest, too.