Two billboards going up this week above the Missouri Bank building at 125 Southwest Blvd. arrive none too soon, reminding winter-weary Kansas Citians that the swimming pool season is on the way.
One shows three women playing cards in the bottom of a swimming pool — long hair, lacy dresses and cards floating free around them. The other shows a woman trying to catch 40 winks underwater, a pillow under her head, a white sheet billowing around her.
The images on those 10- by 23-foot billboards are part of Kansas City artist Mark Allen’s series of underwater photographs called “Ethereal Waters.”
Other photos in the collection can be viewed up close when Allen’s solo show opens this week at the Blue Gallery. A preview show for friends and family will take place Thursday. The general public is invited on Friday during First Friday events in the Crossroads Art District.
Allen took the first photos in the series when he was a senior at Lee’s Summit North High School, from which he graduated in 2010.
“I had an underwater film camera, and a bunch of my friends wanted their senior pictures underwater,” says Allen, 23. “I’ve always loved swimming, ever since I was a kid. I think it’s innate in our consciousness, this idea of being in the water. Our bodies are 70 percent water, we’re born from water and have evolved from water. I’ve always had this primitive connection to it.”
Recently re-edited, some of the photos haven’t been seen in five years. But others might look familiar, because they were displayed last year on the side of a parking garage on the east side of Walnut Street between 12th and 13th streets downtown. They were showcased as part of the “Art in the Loop” initiative sponsored by the Downtown Council of Kansas City.
Photography, which Allen took up in high school, is just one way he has found to express his creative self.
Performance art protesting the “deadly woes of vapid American consumerism” that he took up in college has grabbed the attention of police and YouTube viewers alike over the last year or so. He stuffs himself in a custom-made body bag in high-traffic places. He has done it at London’s famous Harrods department store, in Times Square in New York and at the international Art Basel show in Miami last December.
Closer to home he lay motionless in his body bag at a Wal-Mart store in Lee’s Summit in November 2013.
He’s now back home after graduating from Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. Right now he’s working with Vulpes Bastille, a gallery and studio collective representing nine young local artists.
He submitted “Ethereal Waters” to the “Artboards” project last September. Since 2008 Missouri Bank, in partnership with the Charlotte Street Foundation, has showcased the works of local artists on billboards atop its building. The artwork changes about every three months.
The photo of the women playing poker underwater is “the one that just captured a lot of people’s interest, because there are a lot of cards floating in the water around them … and a queen of hearts is flipped up just perfectly,” says Allen.
He chose that image for one of the billboards because he “wanted something that would be easy to see from far away but also had details that looked good up close.”
Interest in his underwater images has snowballed in recent months, he says. Not only will they be featured at Blue Gallery, but Skidmore Contemporary Art gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., has also contacted him about showing them there, he says.
He thinks the photos were “taken to the next level” when he had them printed on aluminum, a shimmery surface that suits and enhances the watery images.
“I think that’s what has attracted people to them,” he says.
People wonder whether he used Photoshop to create the pictures.
“People don’t trust images anymore,” he says.
He responds by explaining the hours — usually two or three for each photo — and the 1,000 or so photos it took to find just the right two or three from each shoot. He made a Vimeo video to show people the process.
“I have an idea of what I want. But it’s a lot of just trial and error,” he says. “It’s fun to test out different props and see how they work in the water. I really love fabric, and it works best because it punctuates the space of the water.
“It’s a lot of work, but I think you just open yourself up to whatever luck will happen.”
Almost all the people in the photos are friends from high school or from around town. All but two are swimmers.
He gave them all the same art direction: Relax. And puff your cheeks out a little while you’re holding your breath underwater. It’s easier that way.
All the photos were taken in swimming pools around town, and most of the time Allen was in the water with his subjects and his Canon digital SLR, safely zipped inside a waterproof case. It got to the point where he could easily hold his breath underwater for more than a minute.
When he looks at these photographs he took mostly in high school, he finds them “nice and pretty and safe.” But now he’s itching to create something deeper — pardon the pun — with his underwater photography.
Lately he’s been researching the five stages of drowning and wondering how to capture that horror on camera. He’d like to study more about art and has applied to graduate programs at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Hunter College in New York.
For now he’s enjoying Kansas City’s arts scene, which he says has improved dramatically in the years he’s been away at college.
“Art really belongs to everyone. I don’t think it just belongs to the elitist class,” he says. “I’m really inspired by the fact that so many people are trying to understand it and try to be a part of it.”
He laughs remembering his trip to an art museum in Los Angeles. He thought admission was free, just like it is to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. So he walked right in without a ticket before he got stopped.
“I think people should take advantage of all these resources we have here,” he says.
Opening this week
The public opening for Mark Allen’s “Ethereal Waters” is from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at Blue Gallery, 118 Southwest Blvd., during First Friday events. For more information, go to BlueGalleryOnline.com. “Ethereal Waters” will be featured on “Artboards” above Missouri Bank on Southwest Boulevard until May.