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Rik Allen and Shelley Muzylowski Allen on collaboration, working together, and making space travel a reality for bunnies

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Arriving late at a recent Rik Allen and Shelley Muzylowski Allen demonstration at Pratt Fine Arts Center, I found Rik and Shelley already at work at their respective benches. Rik was putting the front window on a spaceship, and Shelley was adding the second ear to what could only be described as an a-freaking-dorable bunny rabbit. As they worked side-by-side, creating work in their signature styles, it wasn’t immediately clear how it would all come together.

Later, as the bunnies were applied to the top of the spaceship, one of them sitting comfortably, while the other held on for dear life having apparently slipped off the rounded edge of the ship, I thought about collaboration, and about partnership. It never ceases to amaze me, how successful teams bring together the individual talents and sensibilities of the participants and through some alchemical magic, create something richer and more satisfying than either might achieve on their own. Feeling curious about the how Rik and Shelley manage to make it all come together, in their life as well as their work, I decided to ask them a few questions. I interviewed the two separately, and as it turns out, they have their stories straight.

How did these two love-birds meet?

Rik and Shelley met at Pilchuck Glass School when both were there for the first time in 1994. Rik was a TA for a kilncasting class taught by James Watkins  and Shelley, who is a talented painter, was a student in Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend’s class. The two became instant friends, but “romance didn’t ensue,” in Rik’s words, until a few years later when Shelley began coming down to Seattle from Vancouver, BC regularly to assist Rik and Randy Walker with their work. The two were married in 1998.

They worked on William Morris’ team at the same time, but didn’t work together closely. Shelley was an assistant at Karen Willenbrink, Ross Richmond and Bill Morris’s bench, while Rik was busy cutting, polishing and engraving in the Coldworking studio. “We drove in together in the morning, but didn’t see much of each other much during the day,” Shelley says. “The only time I saw him was when he came down to the hotshop to warm up.” It’s pretty chilly up there in the winter.

Do they work together often these days?

Rik and Shelley’s artistic voices are distinct, and the two rarely work directly together in the hotshop, except for when they are teaching or doing a demonstration. This is partly a decision made to “preserve their domestic space,” and partly due to practical considerations. Both are in demand, and quite busy with their own work, so their attention needs to be focused on meeting their own individual deadlines.

The two do work together, however, in a variety of other capacities. They team up to maintain the beautiful studio they share in Sedro Woolly, and share many of the same team members, which allows them to provide a bit of much-needed continuity for the artists who work with them. And, each brings their own unique skills to the table where some other aspects of work are concerned. Rik does Shelley’s coldworking and Shelley maintains their website and takes care of much of the office work for both.

Though the two only work on collaborative pieces when teaching or doing a demonstration, they both say they have a lot of fun doing it. There have been quite a few combinations of bunnies and frogs and airplanes and spaceships throughout the years, but the possibilities are nowhere near exhausted. They’ve talked, “though not super seriously,” about doing an exhibition of the collaborative work; there are quite a few collectors who I think would be thrilled to see that happen.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to having a partner who is also a successful artist, working in the same medium?

Rik and Shelley show their work at many of the same galleries, which is helpful because they are able to work together on building relationships with gallery owners and clients, and moving those relationships forward. It is also quite useful to have a second person at openings to help talk about the work.

Both mentioned that they really value having someone who understands what they are trying to achieve, who can help with problem-solving when they are stuck on an issue. They can sit down at the end of the day, and over a glass of wine, work through whatever technical problem has come up for them. They also respect each others’ opinions, and value having an ongoing critical dialogue as they develop new work.

The only drawbacks either could come up with were that they sometimes compete over the attentions of their brilliant stand maker Jeremy Bosworth – and sometimes it is difficult to stop talking about work.

What’s next for these two crazy kids?

Invitation - Shelley Muzylowski Allen's exhibition Midas at  Blue Rain Scottsdale.Both Rik and Shelley will be exhibiting in Habatat’s 40th International Invitational Exhibition in Michigan, and also at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s 50 years of Studio Glass this April. They are teaching a class together at Pilchuck this summer, third session, and Rik, who is on the board of the Glass Art Society, will be working hard at presenting the conference in Toledo in June. Rik has been doing a lot to increase the organization’s presence in the glass community, outside the conference itself.

Rik’s work is currently on display as part of the exhibition, Yesterdays’ Tomorrow, at the Museum of Northwest Art in LaConner, WA (see Lisa’s GlassTown post on the panel discussion at the museum earlier this year). And, the two will be flying off this week to attend the opening of Shelley’s exhibition, Midas, at Blue Rain’s new Scottsdale Gallery on February 16.

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