Allison Kunath Art

Van Studio



two months living + working on the road


April 17, 2017

I started 2017 living and working in an ambulance turned camper van named Jeannette as I traveled North with two friends from Nicaragua to Los Angeles. The invitation to join the trip was a welcome surprise after cancelling several return flights, overstaying my Nicaraguan visa, and creating way more large scale work than I could figure out how to fly with. (I did some fancy footwork to send a client home with two 6 foot paintings rolled up between a sophisticated combination of yoga mats, garbage bags, and deconstructed rum cases - so I knew I could figure out how to pack the work with a little creativity. But I would be looking at some serious oversized baggage fees to get four months worth of work back by plane. The van had plenty of room (*significant overstatement) for my art, including a safe dry place under the mattress for large work to lay flat. The van also came with the promise of beach camping, tons of waves, and a once in a lifetime adventure. 


We sprinted through Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and mainland Mexico in just under a month. That meant long days of driving, and stopping in each place for only a night at a time in most cases.


We took a little extra time in Antigua to climb the inactive volcano Acetenango (when in Rome) but otherwise, we were on a mission for the Baja Peninsula, where we’d slow down a bit. I love working on the road - but my trips usually include way less distance to cover, and way more time sitting still. Since we preferred to wrap up our drive days by sundown, and since I still haven’t mastered painting by the light of a headlamp, it was hard to find time to create for the first week or so. But once I started to wrap my brain around what my new normal felt like, I started to work while we were driving. 


I had to approach the process with a bit of a beginners mind, allowing space to find a fresh approach that would work well with a bumpy ride. If I tried to control too much and hold onto the ways of painting that I’m familiar with, I’d spin out in frustration. (If you’ve ever traveled through Central America by car, then you know how quickly you get acquainted with axel smashing potholes and the Spanish version of speed bumps, topes.) I worked with a little drawing board on my lap with a tiny palette taped to the surface to prevent it from sliding around too much. I got really good at anticipating the lurch of the van as we slowed down for topes, and how to use my peripherals to sense if we were going to have to swerve to pass a slow tuk-tuk or sixteen-wheeler loaded up with sugar cane. I came to really appreciate the moments when a bump or a bounce made my brush behave in a way that I wouldn’t have asked it to on my own. If you don’t count the short breaks to chat with the boys at the military checkpoints, or the necessary pit-stop for pupusas, I found myself in the zone for hours of uninterrupted flow. 


In central Mexico and Baja we started to find camping spots with waves that were worth sticking around for. Anytime the swell was in our favor, or the vibe was just right, we set up shop for a few days and I had the chance to make work outside the van. Working in the elements is always such a beautiful challenge. Nothing is the same as it is inside 4 walls. When it’s hot, the sun changes the temperature of the paper and the speed that the paint dries. When it’s windy, the temperature drops and the moisture in the air picks up. Dirt and sand and salt water and wind all play an important role in the dance I’ve learned to love. I claim I want freedom, to control less and surrender more - and it’s like all of those things show up to test me. They come around exactly when I need to be reminded to loosen up a bit. Nothing helps you give less fucks than having a Gekko come and shit on the painting you’ve been working on for the last hour.


I love moments that let me see how I’m changing, how I’m different than I thought I was. The me that would have been devastated by a mistake made in a moving vehicle (or an unwelcome fecal collaboration) is a version of myself that I came to know by studying over time. I took good notes, and without knowing it, I locked up those observations in a vault as this clear idea of who I understand myself to be. I understand how dangerous that can be in a general sense - but I didn’t realize how limiting it had become in regards to my career. Jeannette the van helped me reframe the way I think about living and working. 


For the longest time, I had doubts about ever having a career as an artist. There were many years spent painting nights and weekends on my kitchen floor, doing what I could with what I had. As I started to trust myself more, the work got braver, and when I eventually got my first studio outside of my home I locked that space into my mental vault as a key component to my advancement. I started to believe that good work could only happen in a proper studio. I thought I needed to stay put and hunker down in a controlled environment to make any progress at all. While it’s undeniably helpful to have a designated place for your work, the van taught me that my requirements for that space are actually way more simple than I thought. The combination of living simply and being in a constantly changing and inspiring natural environment was insanely nourishing to my work. My life for two months was paint, surf, cook, sleep, repeat. Vanlife gave me a complete perspective shift, and a reminder of what it actually takes to make me happy. Grateful for times like this when I feel like I have so much, with access to so little.