Q&A with Artist Amy Abattoir

LAWRENCE CHARLES MILLER: When did you understand that you would become an artist?

AMY ABATTOIR: I pushed art aside for a long time feeling that I had to do something else in order to make a living while other people got to “be artists.” I finally realized I would become an artist when I kept painting and drawing despite myself.

LM: Did you know you wanted to be an artist when you were a child?

AA: Yes and a criminal detective and a nurse and a fashion designer.

LM: Did you go to art school?

AA: I was fortunate to live in Germany with an Air Force family and had a fine arts foundation year at Parsons School of Design in Paris. The following summer I broke my back cleaning dormitories in Munich and went into garment design after recovery. When I could in the following years, I spent my spare time studying at the Art Students League of NY.

LM: Wow, sounds like you had a beautiful education. I didn’t know Parsons had a school in Paris. Did you really break your back?

AA: Yes, it’s a very small Paris campus, basically one building. My class was tiny and international. I was very fortunate to get that year of formal training. Yes, I really did break my back! I got a compression spinal fracture by falling over a railing in stone army barracks in Germany during my cleaning job. My art school days were over, but luckily I made a full recovery and entered the work force after that.

LM: You mentioned The Art Students League. Did you spend time in NYC?

AA: Yes, I was a textile and garment designer and manufacturer there for about 12 years. Most of the time I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In my spare time, I painted and went to galleries and museums.

LM: When did you move to this area?

AA: Seven years ago.

LM: The Converge Gallery in Williamsport currently has your paintings of the Pennsylvania landscape prominently featured in their “Suspended in Time” show. Was this work from a series? Am I correct in saying they are all done in oil paint?

AA: Yes they are in oil, and they are from an evolving series. They were painted from a collection of images taken while driving through the Pennsylvania landscape at dusk in an effort to arrest those moments for myself. I usually work figuratively and I didn’t intend to paint these landscapes at first. I later decided to experiment with motion and fleeting light in paint. I love the way the natural and man-made lights transition against each other in those fleeting moments and I wanted to push the images further. I especially love headlights shooting through all stages of nightfall.

LM: The paintings capture the Pennsylvania landscape as I (and I suspect most others) experience it. That is from a moving vehicle. The paintings are arresting because they capture this stream so successfully. The internal and external – the objective and abstract make something new. We think of landscapes in art as a record of the picturesque. These works go beyond. You mention that your work was figurative before you started this landscape series. Were you dealing then with the human form? Can you talk a bit about that work?

AA: Thanks for your kind words! Yes, I prefer drawing and painting human figures from live models. However I have done commissions where photos were needed. I also painted my children for a juried figurative show and they could not sit still enough to achieve the detail I needed for those particular pieces, so I used photo references for those. That process got very tedious to me in the final stages of each piece and I wanted to break away into a more immediate expression. That was how I decided to switch to something different and a bit abstract for this series.

LM: Working with photo reference can be very difficult, but it is part of the contemporary vernacular – Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas and of course Francis Bacon. Do you have any artists you looked to in this regard?

AA: Not that I looked to in this regard. I love so many artists and I do respect their tools including photographs. Lucian Freud is definitely one of my very favorite figurative painters. I wish for a degree of his raw bravery in my figures going forward.

LM: And Freud worked directly from the model. I look forward to seeing your figurative work. Back to the landscapes at the Converge Gallery. Many of the scenes are nocturnal. Was this intentional or a more intuitive development?

AA: Intentional so I could capture waning natural light against man-made lights moving through darkness.

LM: One of my favorite pieces in the show approaches total abstraction. Do you see this as a progression to another body of work – an investigation of abstraction? Do you think that landscape lends itself to abstraction as opposed to figurative work?

AA: I’ll definitely push further into abstraction going forward. I’ve been taking baby steps in that direction. And I may weave back again to literal interpretations as well. But my goal is to execute feeling before likeness and focus more on paint handling itself in the next pieces. I think landscapes can be turned upside down, rearranged, altered and abstracted in many ways while maintaining their core meaning and still serving as an environment. I personally have a much more difficult time abstracting the human figure.

LM: Feeling before likeness and paint handling also describes some wonderful work involving the human form. Now, I must ask you about the Williamsport scene. Williamsport is emerging as a creative engine. What is your perspective on this?

AA: I am new to the Williamsport scene. From the surface I love Williamsport’s urban aesthetic. It looks like an art town. It feels like an art town. It should be an art town. It’s becoming an art town. It’s remote enough to be unspoiled and unique. It is not already dominated by an art scene that is impossible to penetrate. There is nothing to conform to. The Pajama Factory is a community of artists you could easily find in Brooklyn or Pittsburgh or any art town. There are passionate and creative people here revitalizing buildings, opening creative businesses and making art because they love it and they see potential for growth. People are unpretentious and the artists support each other. These are elements that are not easy to find all in one place.