Abbeth Russell works with several mediums, acrylic and ink seeming to be her primary choices. Whichever she chooses to use for any particular project, Abbeth has a way of infusing narration and soul into each piece. Her surreal figures linger somewhere between expressionism and abstract, and her color palettes can be moody and suggestive, or bright and explicit. She discusses her current work as having the subject of protectors:
“They are at once soft and vicious. They are motherly and warm. Covered with plush fur or feathers. With sharp teeth and claws or a nightmare mask covering a distorted face. A slug-trail of poison. A rack of antlers twisted like a labyrinth. These are creatures you want on your side.”
ArtVenue knew there was something magical about this collection of paintings, and we just needed to get to know the source of such creativity and thoughfulness. Here is what Abbeth shared with us.
Home is where the heart is-where is home for you?
I know there are many places I could live where it’s summer all year round, but I am cursed with a love for New England. Three years ago Portland, Maine stole my heart and I’ve lived there ever since. I grew up an hour North of Boston, forty-five minutes if you drive fast. Some day I will break up with the Northeast and move to somewhere that doesn’t spend half the year buried in snow. But I will always drive like a Masshole.
How and when did you discover yourself to be an artist?
When I was really little I used to sit in my grandmother’s room and tell her elaborate stories. I didn’t know how to write yet, so I picked up a couple different colors of crayons and moved them around on paper in ways that would help me remember the stories I was telling. This memory is so vivid, and I’m realizing right now that if I saw those notations made by my three-year-old self, they would just look like scribbles. A couple years later I was obsessed with bugs. I filled notebooks and sketchbooks with drawings, poems, and observations of mosquitoes and spiders, crickets and ants. I kept filling up pages until I had a stack of books that reached the ceiling.
“I love how it feels to work for hours and lose track of time. I love being in that invincible place where food and sleep are no longer necessary. I never feel more complete than I do when I am there.”
Some time in my early teens my great aunt, who was a nun and also an artist, began to go blind. She gave me all her brushes and I started painting. Next thing I knew I was hammering together six foot by four foot wooden panels to tell elaborate stories with paint. I guess the short answer is I’ve always been an artist.
Where did you learn the skills and gain the knowledge you, as an artist, posses today?
When I was thirteen I rented the movie “Pollock” and declared Jackson Pollock my art god. Soon after Pollock I became obsessed with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring. I read everything about them I could get my hands on. I learned so much just by falling in love with these dead artists. I became obsessed with art theory and got a subscription to Art Forum for Christmas.
“Stop erasing. Stop throwing stuff away. Stop starting over halfway through… Just make stuff.”
In middle school I got into an art appreciation program. I ended up winning some art awards that allowed me to participate in workshops in Boston. In high school I had a permanent pass to the art room. At this point I knew I wanted to attend an art college. I ended up going to three over the course of six years. I had amazing teachers that have been added to my list of art gods. I learned from other students. I learned from the cities I lived in. The most exciting thing about being an artist is that everything is applicable. Every fact I learn, every experience, every person I meet… they are all material. It is impossible to be bored when you are an artist.
Describe your art with 3 adjectives, a genre and a metaphor.
Adjective: Magical, obsessive, and alive.
Metaphor: Touching my paintings would turn your fingers and then your entire being into something from a strange and iridescent world.
What is your creative process, typically?
I have a constant need to create. If I haven’t been productive, it’s hard to feel at ease. No matter how much I make, I never feel like I’m making enough. So I guess I never feel at ease and I don’t really want to. I love working late at night when I’m closer to dreaming and my thoughts get stranger. I come up with my best ideas and images at this time. I also like the idea of waking up early and making work with my morning coffee. Sometimes this is better in theory than practice. I love how it feels to work for hours and lose track of time. I love being in that invincible place where food and sleep are no longer necessary. I never feel more complete than I do when I am there.
“Ideas come from making, not thinking about making.”
Last exhibition or gallery you visited?
I just went to an exhibit in Orono, Maine called “Draw On.” It’s an art show that is happening in galleries all over Maine where artists do huge drawings directly on the walls. A friend of mine did an incredible drawing in the show so I made the drive to go see it.
What kind of art makes you happy from the inside out? What kind makes you wish you were in your happy place?
I know I really love a piece of art when I get a crazy adrenaline rush and think to myself, “I HAVE TO GO MAKE ART RIGHT NOW!!!” I can run on that kind of adrenaline for weeks. I was recently very active in a big campaign in Portland objecting to the city determining what is and isn’t art. Hundreds of artists came together to fight against this and it made me realize how much I love artists in general. Overall I think the more people who make stuff the better. This isn’t to say that I like everything everyone makes. With music I am easily impressed by almost anything because I’m not a musician. With art and writing I’m kind of a snob because I have high expectations for myself and think everyone else should too. Art that tries too hard to be shocking really irritates me.
“Everywhere, everything, and everyone are my inspiration”
Are there any projects you are working on right now that you can’t wait to finish and share? Any other mediums you would love to explore and experiment with?
Right now I am working on a series of paintings called “The Fourteen Humors.” In ancient Greek medicine, the four humors are black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Supposedly, in a healthy person, these four humors would be in balance. While I was falling asleep one night, I started thinking that there are more than just four humors. A humor is a fluid that determines disposition and health. I started drawing and came up with a system of fourteen humors. I am creating a painting of each. I won’t give away what they all are, but I will reveal that yellow bile relates to alcohol and black bile relates to coffee. This project is consuming my mind right now in the best way possible. I am also more than halfway through writing a novel called “Destroyer Sky.” That’s the other endeavor that’s consuming my mind. I would like to do more video collaborations with my brother.
“I have a constant need to create.”
Where/who do you gather and/or seek your inspiration from?
Everywhere, everything, and everyone are my inspirations. From the best of people, places and things to the worst. I can’t escape seeing through the lens of my art and I don’t ever want to. Mustard falls onto a pink shirt and I think, “Wow, what a great color combination for a painting.” Someone gives me an odd insult and I think, “Awesome, that’s going in my book!”
Do any psychological factors or traits transpose into your work?
I believe my paintings have souls, so yes. Ideally, all of my psychological factors and traits will transpose into my work.
Pick your own favorite piece on ArtVenue. What is it of, why is it your favorite and what does it mean to you?
I have two favorite pieces on ArtVenue. They are the first and last in a series of eight paintings. The first is called Guardian Angel. This piece was a huge breakthrough for me. It generated a whole new way of working which involved a lot of gloss medium and a power sander. I’m so happy with how you can literally see through the layers of this painting. I also love Death of a Protector or Only Then is There Room to Create More. This painting took on a life and death of its own. One day I turned it sideways and realized the protector character had died. It became a painting about how things have to be cleared away in order for new things to come about.
What is some advice you could give to budding artists, hopeful to make a name for themselves or looking to build a portfolio?
Stop erasing. Stop throwing stuff away. Stop starting over halfway through. I love the movie Pollock, but that scene where he stares at the blank canvas for hours before inspiration hits is not the way masterpieces are made. Just make stuff. The best teacher I ever had said, “Inspiration is for amateurs.” Picasso said, “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” I said, “Ideas come from making, not thinking about making.”
ArtVenue would like to thank Abbeth for sharing some of her time and thoughts. We are simply thrilled to have her on ArtVenue – welcome to the family!