Allison Harrell Mistier is a New York-based artist who seeks to explore the human condition and offer healing through perspective in her work. Initially set on the path of pursuing a career in the medical field, she understood the greater medicinal healing potential through art and decided to change her path to share her perspective through multiple mediums including photography. Deeply inspired by light and energy, Harrell utilizes light in all of her works as she believes it is the perfect metaphor for so many things that we are trying to understand about ourselves.
In our conversation, we explore Harrell’s journey with art and science throughout her life to better understand how she got to where she is today. I find her brave decision to leave a career in the medical field and pursue art for the sake of greater potential in healing the world, truly inspiring and a reflection of how important expression in art is for society. We also explore thoughts on the current state of art, in this digital age, Harrell’s inspirations, and how her process as an artist has changed in motherhood.
Read on to learn more in an exclusive interview with Allison Harrell Mistier.
Dualities, 2022 - Paint Hybrid
I see that your art career debuted in New York with a solo show, after studying art and photography in college. Where did your journey with art first begin?
Though I had no idea of the term or its meaning, in recent years and through the journey of helping my son, I have discovered I am a highly sensitive person. It describes “a neurodivergent individual with deeper central nervous system sensitivity to physical, emotional, or social stimuli.” Basically, everything is more. As a child, I think I turned to express myself in visual rather than conversational ways. Before I understood language I was mirroring strong emotions back to others. It came with polarizing responses that heightened my own sensitive experience of the world. With deep empathy, it is nearly impossible to be a dishonest person, and you can’t pretend the feelings aren’t there. With the influence of imagination, the foundations of art appeared.
I first played around with textile assemblages. I created oddly illustrated pillows for my mother and other lace monstrosities. I revered the maker women in my family who preceded me, though none of my family identified themselves as artists. I grew up around a lot of talent, surrounded by beautiful craftsmanship and creative use of practical objects. I have also always loved cooking which I believe is a very powerful medicine and art form. I began cooking things from scratch at the age of 5. I have a scar along my forearm to recall the first time I snuck into the kitchen to make my own cookies. I very much value expressing life and health through food to this day. Around age seven or eight I started drawing a lot with pencil, and graph paper really excited me because I could count the squares and make precise perspective studies of the houses in my neighborhood. At the time I didn't know what studying the perspective of things was, but I did have these very unique ways of expressing myself through different art forms as a child. Along with drawing, I also studied music and played instruments in my younger years.
In my preteen years, I got into more traditional art forms and was making anorexic clay figures and oddly geometric tea sets. I really enjoyed ceramic forms in all kinds of odd styles. I found a place of intense discovery and belonging in the black-and-white darkroom at 16. I was accustomed to a lab setting and enthralled to see white pages filling with shadow until a vision of reality appeared. Waiting for grain to look like something was actual magic. My addiction to participating with light was born
Allison Harrel Mistier
You pursued the medical field initially but you have stated that it wasn't what you expected, which led you to pursue photography. Could you tell us more about that pivotal moment in your life and what made you choose to pursue photography?
I was deeply fascinated with everything, and I felt at home working on everything at a maximum. I pushed myself and in combination with some scars, I suffered some chronic conditions. I felt for people on this painful journey and additionally, I was also an athlete. I imagined myself pursuing the orthopedic surgery route to play an important role in healing people every day. During my premedical studies in college, insurance was taking a big conglomerate personality. I took it upon myself to do some informative interviews and heard consistent responses across different practices. The industry was turning the focus away from patient care to answer to the grilling pressure to justify diagnostic measures and more lengthy or specific patient evaluations. Nurses absorbed
a lot of the patient interface, which to me, dismantles some of the space for diagnostic arts. You have to get into a room and feel somebody, train yourself to find the right questions. The shift in the industry was disheartening to me and is still felt.
I always had my interest and experience in photography in the background. I made the switch because I realized there was a cure for me there. There was also a cure for other people, and that main cure is perspective. We can focus our perspective, and we have the opportunity to affect and even change the perspective of others in the language of art. So this occupied my interest and has become my obsession ever since. Photography is special for this, it’s literally a tool of seeing. You’re not only an observer. You are an editor. You come to realize that you are making critical decisions about what you see and how you see it.
An editor has a powerful role to play in both defining a story and proposing a document as if it’s a slice of reality. Except it is not a slice of real reality, it’s a reality you made a lot of decisions on. You're creating a language of perception. In this, I saw that there’s either propaganda or medicine. I can use my ability to translate the world in a way that has that healing effect. So I thought, “What’s the medicine that people need the most?” That is self-love. As you gain self-love or engage in things that make you feel beautiful, you start treating other things and people more beautifully too. So I'm still pursuing medicine, but it is a medicine of the mind and of the heart, of the whole consciousness.
via lactea, 2017 - by Allison Harrell Mistier
You saw the greater potential for healing with art, were there any artistic influences at that time that helped you make that decision to pursue photography?
Yes, I was really obsessed with documentary photography but I don't think that I was quite ready to follow people around like Diane Arbus or Mary Ellen Mark. But I would say that their photographs are tremendously liberating, for them to look upon people in all these different contexts, highlighting something that would have been perceived as grotesque or shocking by the public, and using their photographs as a reflection of humanity. I find it empowering how this reflection on humanity was held up by these women with a bold voice even though they didn't have to use words. That was very appealing to me and aided as an influence in my decision to pursue photography. I have a long list of inspirations that played a role in my approach that I could go on about, James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson, Kimsooja... I believe we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
You communicate the importance of light in all of your works, and you've expressed that it's a great source of inspiration for you. Can you elaborate on the emotional connection you have with light and how it drives your creative process?
I have always been physically and energetically deeply inspired by light. It is, for me, the perfect metaphor of so many things that we are trying to understand about ourselves. What is a photograph without shadows? It’s a white piece of paper without a story. This yin and yang, light and dark binary was and still is very inspiring to me. Light is mood, light is heat, and light is life. We are beings of light. We are actually bioluminescent, it's just a thousand times weaker than our visual eye can detect. Our cells necessarily utilize light as a part of their signal structure and liveliness. We are remarkably defined by light, and light is this miracle tool for seeing energy. When I was young, I understood Newtonian notions of light where it is a singular place to view something as matter and energy at the same time. Later, my mind exploded to discover quantum physics and its use of photons to reveal the nature of the universe, its use of the language of energy to describe everything. By introducing light into my process, I can communicate as an energy because if you look at something that is lit or reflective, it's changing the environment around it. It’s speaking an additional language as energy, so I can communicate as energy by using light in my works.
Baby Wearing in the Wild Across Fingers and Snakes, 2022 - Paint Hybrid
With art playing such a powerful role in shaping the views of a society, people have expressed concerns with AI digital art, shortening attention spans, and a wide range of other issues in our ever-advancing technological world. Do you see any flaws with the current art space?
I think that people, like light, follow an oscillating pattern. String theory talks about life being the music of the universe, and I believe that we are strings, we are vibrations, so there will be peaks and valleys. And that applies to the reality of art. I think we are faced with the challenge of hyper-saturation, but it's coming from a wonderful place. If we have enough automation in life, where people are thriving, and surviving better, then people have more time to think and express themselves. This is a positive. In so much that the saturation point afflicts potential success for artists, I think it is hard to feel special when there may be 50,000 versions of Picasso generating objects in that unique way that only they see. There’s also the dramatic rise in art fairs which represent more opportunities but increase that saturation. When you experience art, it’s an opportunity to have an imagination-based conversation with that artist and what they're trying to express to you. You have to kind of put yourself in their shoes, as they are probably trying to say something that will grab you. How many times in a single day? Instagram,
for example, is a gorgeous amplifier for a huge sea of voices, but what gets most valued in a fractional moment across an algorithm that favors faces and the self-views that align with it? We can focus on this saturation challenge, but what we want people to remember is that the point of art is movement. Maybe it moves the way you think about something, maybe it moves your heart. Maybe it reminds you of something that you try hard not to remember, but here is the universe reflecting it to you one more time saying, “this is important.” That little bit of movement, the art, is tectonic. Art is the mover, and the challenge is authentic movement despite saturation. In the case of AI, I know that art may feel less “special” to some, but I am optimistic about ways it can enhance our future. AI is a spectacular simulation tool. It can rapidly reflect back the wilds of our imagination (where we connect to magic). I don't think that AI replaces artists. I think it is a really masterful visualization tool. It’s not about how many things we can churn out. What has to remain special is measuring yourself based on yourself, and not using the production of art as a task and an object. We must bring the value back to being. True value comes from inside.
The Collective Heart Sculpture - by Allison Harrell Mistier and Andre Mistier
In 2011 you tweeted - “What is art?... Self-actualization peppered by influence and shaped by time.” How has your understanding of art evolved since then and do you still think this quote holds true?
I think that quote is valid, but it is also a time for me in my journey. I definitely needed to discover the technique, see where I was situated, and realize what the strengths of my talents were, as well as what I should collaborate with and what I could produce. With that quote, I was honoring the notion of inspirations and people we look to, and seeing how my artwork was evolving over time to strengthen my voice.
If I were going to answer the question of what art is now: Art is making a contribution in the ways that I am most compelled to fulfil my soul and draws upon the honest talents and gifts that I am cultivating. It is an engagement of spirit that gets materialized so that it can go on and do more outside of me. I think making art is more about being in service now. I have always had a deep sense of spirituality but now I give myself permission to make more parts of my day-to-day life into a ritual, including my art practice. The light inspires me in a very spiritual way and I meditate on it to then create something beautiful.
Prisma Motion, 2018 - Interactive Installation
I would love to hear you speak more about your process of creating, and how that process has maybe changed now that you are a mother of two.
Right now I am in somewhat of an incubator phase. I am working physically on art pieces, but a lot less than previously. Right now I have two young children calling me for necessary guidance, aiding their precious sense of self, and helping them understand their placement as being unique individuals who are special and important. I'm being pulled really differently than I ever have been in my life.
We are all gardens of energy that are constantly blossoming and changing, and kids really show you this. They are so pure and much more connected to their spirit, so I
have felt very inspired by my children. They reflect sharp and beautiful truth directly feeding my own expansion and the artworks that fill my sketchbooks. It’s been a really interesting time where I'm having an enormous boom of ideas. I’m writing a lot more again these days too. I’ve gone back to writing poetry which I used to write a lot in my earlier years. This period in my life has become, in part, a research and development phase for my artworks. I'm craving to make things more routine but there is also more specialness going into them. I'm most interested to see how I can convey my messages to a greater audience because I see the desperate need the world has. I've been studying new types of meditation, spiritual thinkers, and also the realities of different scientific discoveries. I'm very much a student of life right now.
One of the things that's more accessible for me to make has been painting with acrylic on glass tanks, where I utilize the direct sunlight to make temporary paintings on glass that wash away constantly with water. There are some really beautiful shadows and prisms of light being cast through the glass with these momentary compositions. By photographing them, I can begin a digital painting process motivated by intense color and abstraction (two great keys to the subconscious). Working with paint again has just been very exciting as I haven't done it in years.
I’ve also had the honour of displaying public messages on digital and print billboards around NYC and Chicago. I focused on affirmations for that context, because they offer immediacy. That has really stimulated a rapidly growing body of word artworks in other formats.
You Are Light - Billboard Display
Your involvement with Burning Man and the creation of sculptures like "Trees of Life" and “The Collective Heart” is very fascinating. Have you been involved in any more recent sculpture projects?
Yes I have. The Burning Man sculptures really unlocked something for me. If you activate more senses at a time, that's a really powerful amplified channel for that perspective medicine, for that message to go through and have someone adopt it for themselves which is the overall goal for the art. The Burning Man sculpture had light and sound that was choreographed together, but to activate the sculpture you had to simultaneously touch it and someone next to you. Physically together you could complete the circuit, powering the light and sound from within the sculpture. Skin-to-skin contact with at least one other person was needed, and we had as many as a hundred people lining up to try this immersive and interactive piece. That work was an example of just how electric we really are.
Since then I have made more sculptures, a lot of them being a more contained, personal or home-use size. I created this trapezoid that comes off the wall, lined with mirrored aluminum that changes the plane of a video playing inside the trapezoid. You see your reflection at the same time as the varied planes of visual moving to music.
The effect of synesthesia is really nice. My partner and I co-created and edited the audiovisual sequence and it was such an interesting and well-received piece. It's a very sonic, vibrant, and meditative visual experience.
Another one I made was a text piece that spells out “I PROMISE NOT TO LOOK THE OTHER WAY” in highly polished, near-mirrored aluminum. You can slightly see yourself in its reflection while you encounter this declaration. It’s meant to be a soft confrontation that says I won't pretend like this isn't happening. I could have the privilege of being safe in my environment and pretend that nothing horrible is happening over “there,” but then who’s going to go make what's happening over there any better? It's all the pretending that we're ok (even if we aren’t ok) that is why the cure doesn't come. It's very important to me that we don't look away, don’t pretend something isn't happening, and don’t let the bad things slip through.
I PROMISE NOT TO LOOK THE OTHER WAY, 2021
Do you have a favorite work of yours that you've created?
Well one of my favorites at the moment is a piece that hasn't been made yet, but I'm very excited to see it actualized. I'm working on an installation that would be a series of rooms that would be called “Objects of Expansion”. I’m exploring a location that will allow me to pull off my vision. It will need rooms and very high ceilings. Rooms are filled by topic, surrounding the viewer with vertical models, for example of fruits, and typical foods. The calculation of side-by-side, top and bottom food items will show how much it took to grow an average ten-year-old. Family lineage flowing into one person with astrological implications is another room. Messages that start as words, unlock meaning and transform into stories of one another. So many things and energies bottleneck the survival, thriving, and expansion of every single person. Without revealing too many details, the notion is that we are precious, immensely powerful and hold a tremendous volume of impact. If so much goes into each life, we cannot possibly take ourselves too lightly or avoid our great value.
Mockup Gallery Space with works by Allison Harrell Mistier
Can you tell us about your studio space?
All my life I have had to “make it work” to quote Tim Gunn, because I’ve never had a huge, work devoted space. Living in San Francisco and New York made it hard to have a steady studio space. I contrive environments all the time, though I have planned ideas about the ideal studio space I’m building. I have plenty of stands, turntables, gadgets and gizmos, beads, optics devices, crystals, swatches... that get thrown into boxes and pulled out when I need them. Having spent so much time on location for photoshoots, I have found a system and materials that work best for me anywhere. Everywhere is a studio for me, my studio - non studio.
There is also the digital side of my work which exists on my computer so I am able to do that anywhere. I set up and break down whatever I need, make it work. For me, home is where the art is or art is in the heart, so my studio space exists everywhere.
a, b, c' s, 2019
What does being an artist mean to you?
I think that when I put energy into art, I have to be honest. What am I able to say with authenticity? How can I train myself and work with my talents to then mobilize that message? It is in service. You can call it therapy if you want to, art was the beginning of my therapy journey. It is awareness of yourself and others, and art is all about translating and raising that awareness... so that it's in service to consciousness. If I can expand that for myself and others, we have the cure. I was initially attracted to art because of its potential to be medicine and is a part of the cure. Perspective is our cure. To that end, my partner and I are completing a very long journey of building an arts and community space in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn and finished our nonprofit filings last year. We’re around the corner from Beacon’s Closet and McCarren Park, and we open as Gather early next year. We specialize in the gathering of senses, ideas and community. We specialize in art, multi sensory experiences that bring art to life with music and new media and talks on urgent matters and unifying scientific discoveries. We openly seek ways to expand our positive impact.
You can learn more about Allison Harrell Mistier about her work via these links: