Allen, Tina 1955–

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Tina Allen 1955


Discovered Talent for Sculpting

Years of Struggle

Work Commemorated Humanitarian Achievements

Merged Aesthetics with Practicality


Sculptor and conceptual designer Tina Allen has created monumental memorial statues of distinguished Africans and African Americans. She has won commissions to sculpt the likenesses of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, among others. Allen also works in more abstract artistic venues that bring together ideas and objects from other countries in an attempt to create a less vicious, more loving world.Essentially, Im a conduit to express the unseen and to bring back and reposition the emphasis on the good and the great, Allen said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography.

Born in New York in 1955, Allen was the daughter of Gordon Specs, Powell, a studio percussionist for CBS Records. Her father was the first African American musician to play in the bands that provided live music for the popular Ed Sullivan and the Jackie Gleason television programs. Allen grew up in a household where well-known musicians often visited and creative expression was greatly encouraged.

Allens parents divorced when she was a child, and she then moved with her mother to Grenada. She spent the next four years there, and was deeply influenced by the radically pleasant societyshe found on the island. Grenadine native artscalypso music, the figurative arts, and its indigenous religionall left a tremendous impression on Allen.

Discovered Talent for Sculpting

Allen had been painting since the age of five, but her budding artistic talent took a new direction when she met Lithuanian-born sculptor William Zorach on a Grenada beach one day when she was ten years old. She came upon the New York City artist while he was vacationing on the island. Allen showed him her work and he had an opportunity to meet her family. A few years later, after Allen and her family returned to New York City, Zorach became her mentor and allowed her to visit his Brooklyn studio. At the time, she was also enrolled in a museum-sponsored art program for artistically gifted youths.

Allen created her first three-dimensional work when she was given an assignment in a high school art class to make an ashtray from clay. She was reading Aristotle for another class and, when she arrived home, decided to make a bust of the Greek philosopher instead. Allen

At a Glance

Born December9, 195$, in Hempstead, NY;daugh ter of Gordon Specs (a percussionist) and Rosecleer Powell; married Roger Allen; children: Koryan, Josephine, Tara, Edm&tion; University of South Alafoami, B.F.A., 1978; alsostitdieditlhe NewYork School of Visual Arts, the Pratt Institute, and the University of Venice.

Career: Artist. Taught art in Alabama, early 1980s, and hosted a local television show in Mobile.

Member: Art 200; board member, International Center for African-American-Asian Relations; board member, Los Angeles Support Committee for the African National Congress.

Awards: Fannie loy Hamer Award;.Urban, league Award, 1988.

Addresses: GalleryM. Hanks Gallery, P.O. Box 5386, Santa Monica, CA 90406.

recalled in the interview with CBB that when she presented the bust to her class, the teachers first reaction was, Where did you get this? She soon began winning competitions and awards, and as Allen told CBB, though she had originally intended to paint, sculpture was more natural for me than painting. I loved to paint, but I had more of a feeling for three dimensions, and I could move very quickly even after all these years of study, Im only about ten or fifteen percent better that the first time I started. Because when I started to sculpt, I could do hands, I could dofeet, I could do eyes, I could just do it.

Years of Struggle

Allen studied art at the University of South Alabama, and lived in Mobile for a time. She was a VISTA volunteer and, for nearly a decade, hosted a local television show on the arts. She eventually moved to New York City, where she attended the Pratt Institute and the New York School of Visual Arts. Allen struggled to win small commissions that would keep her afloat financially and eventually realized that she needed to set her sights higher. In 1986, she entered a competition in Boston for a commission to create a memorial statue of African American labor activist A. Philip Randolph, who founded a union for trainporters in 1925. To her surprise and delight, Allen won the $85, 000 commission and her career began in earnest.

After completing the statue of Randolph, Allen created statues of other African American leaders. In a profile of Allen on the University of Texas at Austin web site, she describes her body of work as writing our history in bronze and her creations as totems that tell the children this, this kind of behavior, this kind of person is worthy of attention. Her work also attracted the attention of South African leader Nelson Mandela, whom she met when he visited Los Angeles in the summer of 1990. At the meeting, Allen presented Mandela with one of her works, Icon I: Tribute to the African-American Man.

Work Commemorated Humanitarian Achievements

Eventually, the South African government selected Allen to erect a statue on the island where Mandela was once imprisoned. The work, which is modeled on the Statue of Liberty, is five stories in height. Allen has also created a 13-foot statue of the late author Alex Haley for a public square in Knoxville, Tennessee. The statue depicts Haley looking in the direction of his beloved Great Smoky Mountains and holding a copy of his groundbreaking novel, Roots. In addition to her statue of Haley, Allen has created likenesses of Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X.

Allens art extends beyond standard figurative sculpture. She has also created a four-story pictorial relief wall for the King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles. The pictorial wall features events from the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. and blood preservation pioneer Dr. Charles Drew. She makes much smaller abstract sculptures as well, and collectors of her art include Hilary Rodham Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Denzel Washington, and Robert DeNiro.

Merged Aesthetics with Practicality

Allen also executes conceptual projects as well. For a Childrens Peace Park in South Africa, she is commissioning small works in bronze from children around the world to be placed at the memorial site. Even though Im sculptor, I also dont always feel that I need to express mypersonal ego as much as I need to use art as a way to heal and communicate, Allen told CBB. The sculptures from Japanese, Mexican, and American children commemorate the many children who died during South Africas violent struggle for racial equality. During her travels throughout various parts of Africa, Allen was moved by the differing standards of physical beauty within African culture. She has infused her work, which is often praised for its emphasis on the more African facial features of her subjects, with an added dimension. For an African, Allen told CBB, the emotional nature of a person is part of their beauty, not just the bones and the skeleton Im trying to lift up the idea that human strength and courage are beautiful, and we have to redefine what beauty is about.

Allen travels extensively, both for her work and personal enrichment, and spends her free time reading books on religion and mythology. She is still inspired by the ideas of the Greek philosophers. We need to go back to Plato and Socratesfor their pharmacies, to dig up some medicine to help us in a universe where the center of it is love and service, Allen told CBB. She also serves on the board of directors of the International Center for African American Asian Relations, which aims to improve cross-cultural ties. Allen sees her work as part of a global mission to create the kind of warm, harmonious community that she experienced as a child in Grenada. If a human being is no longer tender and loving, they cant raise their children so that they want to live, the game is over. The minute you no longer are able to raise a generation willing to carry the future on their backs, the game is over, Allen told CBB.



Essence, January, 1995.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Tina Allen on May 19, 1999 and from a profile of Allen on the University of Texas at Austin web site in conjunction with its proposed memorial sculpture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at

Carol Brennan

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Allen, Tina 1955–

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