CARRBORO — Gordon Allen is hunkered down in his studio on a quiet lane in Carrboro. He’s dreaming of what he considers true and beautiful – a setter on point, a salmon splashing in a rocky stream, a lush green mountain valley.
From his mind he creates an etching, a watercolor, an oil or maybe a book or magazine illustration. This art falls from his inborn talent first realized when he was in the third grade.
Allen, 59, scoffs at being labeled a wildlife illustrator.
“I’m an artist who is passionate about the natural world,” he said. “From my experiences as a kid waterfowl hunting on the eastern shore of Maryland and trout fishing in the Adirondack Mountains, I’ve seen things that are profoundly beautiful that keep drawing me to the sporting world.”
He came to his profession with little formal education in the arts. He remembers being the first in his high school, the Gilman School in Baltimore, who did not even bother to apply to college.
“I was sick and tired of formal education,” he said. “I remember being in art class my junior year when the bell rang to go to English class. I said I’m not going; I’m an artist, and that’s what I want to do in life.”
So instead of going to college, Allen moved to an island in the Chesapeake Bay, where he was a duck hunting guide in the winter and a fishing guide in the spring and summer. Then at age 21 he got a break that catapulted him to success in the sporting art world.
“My father arranged for me to meet Gene Hill who was editor of Sports Afield magazine. He saw that I could really draw and that I knew a lot about hunting and fishing,” Allen said.
Hill hired the young man to illustrate his book “Mostly Tailfeathers,” a collection of stories, observations and reflections about the American sportsman’s way of life. From there Allen received other illustrating assignments that kept him afloat financially.
“This was not really what I wanted to do but it was a living and it snowballed. I sold a lot of original drawings to collectors. This led to etching which I figured out by trial and error,” Allen said.
He shoots photos and then produces the etching. His paintings are created from what he sees as true and beautiful.
“I like to set up my easel and go to work,” Allen said. “To me it’s a profound experience painting outside. It’s amazing to be alone in the natural world, to capture its beauty and to create something alive…”
And so he has. Drop into the world that Allen has created and this is what you will see: wild turkeys foraging on a country road, an abandoned tenant house decaying under the pines, a boatyard bar and grill, your reflection in a quiet stream, the peacefulness of a workboat docked on the eastern shore. You’ll admire old trucks and cars abandoned along the way. You’ll watch shore birds in a May marsh. Early morning will be a special time of peace.
You’ll hear Bob Whites calling, you’ll bump down a dirt road with anticipation of a duck pond at the end, you’ll admire moss clinging to live oaks on a mill pond, you’ll meet scraggly old men, you’ll listen to stories around the guide camp, you’ll dine by campfire on freshly caught trout.
You’ll paddle a birch canoe down the Saint-Ann River, you’ll see black ducks and mallards foraging near the shore, you’ll travel to Newfoundland and Sicily and marvel at the fall colors.
You’ll revel in a quiet evening picking up decoys, you’ll ride a quail wagon on a Georgia Plantation, you’ll find contentment as your dog retrieves a grouse. You’ll follow geese going home to roost, you’ll lean against a tree and try to lure a wild turkey, and you’ll be content to channel surf in a wooden sail boat.
You’ll cook over an open fire at day’s end, you’ll raft down a river in Argentina fishing for trout, you’ll stuff yourself at a gentleman’s lunch after a morning pheasant drive.
You’ll raise a litter of setter pups and listen to the geese, you’ll tramp through a cornfield harvested by hand with an old side by side cradled in the crook of your arm.
You’ll learn to tie a blood knot and the proper way to cast a flyrod, and you’ll paddle rapids and seine a pond…
Allen is a man who loves his work and is content with life. He lives on an acre and half of land in Chapel Hill with his two dogs and his wife, Dr. Maryann Feldman, a professor in the Department of Public Policy at UNC-CH.
He looks ahead to completing commissioned paintings of Millpond Plantation in Thomasville, Ga. He’s interested in painting oils that are playfully inventive with color. His projects will also include cityscapes and landscapes, but as Allen says his passion will always be the sporting life.