Allison C. Meier (Phi Beta Kappa, University of Oklahoma) is a Brooklyn-based writer and arts journalist who is fascinated by cemeteries and overlooked histories. Currently, she is on staff at Hyperallergic, and moonlights as a tour guide at New York burial grounds.
An Oklahoma native, she graduated from the University of Oklahoma summa cum laude with a degree in Journalism, along with minors in French and English Literature. After graduating, she worked in an Oklahoma City art gallery and did freelance writing, before moving to France to teach English for a year.
Her sense of adventure and possibility led her to New York City, where she has been published in the New York Times, Slate, ARTNews, Narratively, Mental Floss, and GOOD Magazineand has worked as the senior editor at Atlas Obscura, communications manager at Cooper Union, and staff writer at ARTINFO. She’s talked on cemeteries, art, and great trees at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Brainery, the Rosenbach Museum, and Green-Wood Cemetery, and curated a 2017 group exhibition on Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay at UrbanGlass.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up in an Oklahoma oil town and spent my whole life in the state until I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, then decided to take a big leap and go teach English in France. Despite moving to another country without knowing anyone there, and least of all knowing much about teaching elementary school, it was an excellent experience in shaking my expectations in myself. And being a rather mediocre teacher who relied on repeated readings of Eric Carle books for material, it also made me more sure that I wanted to be a writer.
When I came back to the United States, I moved to New York, similarly showing up with a suitcase and a three month lease. It was a slow build, from odd jobs to a management position in higher education communication, but six years later and I’ve managed to work professionally full-time as a writer.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
“Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new” in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George often loops in my head when I’m at a writing impasse. Sure, it’s a little cheesy, but remembering that it’s your voice that can offer some new perspective, even when it feels like everything’s been said, is such great advice.
Some of your work involves finding art in unusual places, most notably in cemeteries – what inspires you to see beauty in these often overlooked landscapes?
Yes, I moonlight as a cemetery tour guide! And I also write about them as places of visual culture. Some of my recent tours have concentrated on spiritualism in the 19th century, and forgotten disasters of New York City. Cemeteries are places built for the living to mourn and remember, and thus are indexes of the past which is often forgotten. For instance, I recently tracked down the grave of Camilla Urso who was the first woman violinist to perform on the American stage in the 19th century. After I wrote the article on her, the Brooklyn cemetery where she rests stabilized her tilted monument and added her to their database. It’s those kinds of connections that inspire me to keep taking a second or third look at places other people ignore.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and an arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
Both science and art are about finding new ways to understand the world, and without them our world becomes stagnant. It’s troubling that our country is at a moment where institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts are threatened and funding for studying climate change is slashed. Curiosity and creativity are vital to foster, and supporting education in the arts and sciences encourages more potential for discovery.
Who has made the greatest impact on your life and work?
Undoubtedly my parents, who despite their science and math backgrounds, never steered me away from a career in writing, even when I was toying with the questionable decision to major in poetry. (Not that there aren’t great poetry professionals, but I was no teenaged prodigy.) I recently wrote a catalogue essay for an artist who makes grotesque sculptures based on trypophobia, a phobia about clusters of irregular holes, and they proudly placed the hideous publication on their coffee table. I think especially when you grow up in a small town where literary and journalism careers seem improbable, having people who encourage you early on is essential. Oklahoma also has an incredible program called the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute where admitted high school students can study on scholarship under professional artists in their fields, whether film, painting, dance, photography, or performance. I studied writing two years, and it definitely impacted my confidence that this passion could be a life.
What advice do you have for others?
There is always something to explore, something to unlock a story, no matter where you are. I get some of my best story ideas just by stopping to read some rusted historic plaque, or by noticing the designs of things like the manhole covers in the streets.
How did your experience teaching in France impact the way you target younger audiences to engage them in the arts and overlooked history?
The best compliment I’ve ever been given by a reader was that I wrote about “pretentious things in an unpretentious way.” Meaning that, a lot of people see art as this elite realm, and a lot of arts writing unfortunately reinforces that with convoluted “art speak.” I just try to find the human story in whatever I’m covering, even if it’s 17th-century Dutch printmaking or late antiquity textiles. Although most of my teaching in France for the youngest students didn’t get beyond describing the weather in English, I do remember how excited six-year-olds were to see the last page of The Very Hungry Caterpillar when the titular, ravenous character morphs into a beautiful butterfly. No matter what age, when engaging art is presented in an accessible way, it’s transcendent.