A Conversation with Cathy Abramson
“Dreams of the Underground”
On display in the Margaret W. & Joseph L. Fisher Art Gallery through December 23rd, 2019
Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center
Can you describe your artistic process?
I start by taking photos, lots of photos. I try to carry my camera or iPhone with me and will stop and take a picture if something strikes me as noteworthy, a building in the golden hour, a shadow, people gathered at a public event, a reflection in a window. Often the images won’t make a full composition but have an interesting texture of an element that could be part of a painting. I spend a lot of time thinking about the images I’ve gathered and something will call out to me and then I’ll start composing an image in Photoshop. Frequently this image becomes a small painted color study and if the potential is there for a larger painting, I’ll go ahead and will begin sketching the image in paint on a toned canvas or panel. First I work up a value study and when I’m pleased with the result I add color. I often use squeegees and rollers in addition to my paint brushes to get a desired effect.
When did you know that you were in an artist?
I always loved to draw. I never got good grades in art courses but it was just something I loved doing. I needed a job and took illustration and graphic design courses and became an illustrator and art director even though my first degree was in Political Science. One of my first jobs was as an art director at a political magazine and I drew a pretty good Ronald Reagan. One letter to the editor commented on a cartoon I did for the magazine. It said that one of my cartoons was offensive...I knew I was off and running!
When I retired as an art director, I was able to take a 3 year course of master painting techniques at the Compass Atelier in Rockville, get a studio and paint as much as I could. I can now spend a good amount of my time painting.
What are your artistic inspirations? Are there particular artists or art movements that are an inspiration to you?
I’m a representational painter and like the structure of painting something recognizable. I’ve always loved Edward Hopper and my work is often compared to his although I think my paintings are not as lonely and the characters are not as isolated. I’ve always been interested in narrative and looked to illustrators for inspiration. I’ve spent many hours looking at the art of Ben Shahn, Edward Sorel, Ralph Steadman, David Levine, Leonard Baskin and copying their work. As far as painters are concerned, aside from Hopper, there are any number of contemporary painters that I admire: Burton Silverman, Alyssa Monks, Steven Assael, Lucien Freud, any of the California figurative painters.
More recently I’ve been following Alex Kanevsky and David Kassan. Often the last show or artist I’ve seen becomes my new favorite.
Why does the urban environment inspire you over other environments?
I love the activity, interplay of light and shadow, and the sheer mass of architectural forms. Everything is constantly changing in the urban environment and there’s an urgency to really look and see what’s going on. There’s also a need to examine the underlying politics and social interactions and decode what is apparent and what lies just below the surface.
What is it that you hope to capture of your experience in Washington DC and other locations?
Many of my past paintings in the district had to do with neighborhoods and people in transition. Many neighborhoods including the Kennedy Street corridor are being overhauled and there are stories to record and examine. Now I’m interested in the Brutalist buildings in Washington, DC. There’s a gritty beauty in parking garages or the many government buildings that are wall-to-wall slabs of concrete. Believe it or not, even the FBI building has a certain charm. I like to see how people interact with these sterile buildings and think of a narrative for those settings and people.
You have a painting in the exhibition entitled “Cathedral”. What about the subject matter inspired you to call the painting after a type of church?
“Cathedral” is an underpass at the beginning of Magazine Street in New Orleans, near the National WWII Museum. I’ve done a number of paintings at this location and there’s the potential for many more. I loved how the light filtered in between the massive highway supports, much like the light filtering through stained glass windows and falling on the columns in a cathedral.
The texture of the concrete and metal are similar to textures found in cathedrals. The parked cars add a human scale to the setting much like the congregants who are dwarfed by the soaring ceilings in a cathedral. The final note is that cars and technology are worshiped in America.
Tell us about the people in your paintings? For example the women that is the subject of “ In her Shadow” or “ Dream of the Underground”
The woman in “In Her Shadow” is Ms. Vee, Veronica Cooper. She is a force of nature and began her career as one of the first female pullman porters, She has worked as an accountant, seamstress and artist. She owned and operated Culture Coffee on Kennedy Street and opened Culture Coffee Too in Fort Totten a couple of years ago. She is always stylish from her brightly colored glasses to her gold lame pants.
I don’t know much about Sara, the model and dancer in “Dreams of the Underground.” Sara Lavan is the Founder, Executive and Co-Artistic Director of local motion project and was a model the day of a photo shoot and fundraiser that I attended I loved the way she hugged herself and seemed to be wrapped in her own world and dreams. And, what’s not to love about her pink hair.
What is that you would like the viewer to take away from their experience of seeing this exhibition?
I’d like people to come away with a new appreciation for our urban environment, it’s stories and it’s people. Living in a city is a moment to moment experience and I try to isolate a moment, capture it, and move on. These fleeting moments often resonate with the viewer’s own life and narratives. I love to hear the stories the viewers invent on the spot!
Is there any advice that you would give students who have made the decision to pursue art?
It’s very simple, if you love it, do it. Making a living as an artist can be a stretch but you can find a little time here and there for your art. Scale your projects to the time you have available so you don’t get frustrated. If art is important to you make it a priority and expect others to respect your time. Try to schedule time for art just as you schedule time for work, family, friends and all your other interests. Making art can be a joyful, sensual experience and making good art is probably one of the most difficult things you can attempt. The sense of accomplishment you get when you produce something you are proud of is unbeatable.
What can we expect from your work in the future?
I have so many projects and paintings in mind. My next few paintings will be portraits, some personal and some of the women I met while teaching some art classes at a local women’s shelter. I struggle with portraiture and want to get much better. After that it’s back to paintings of DC. I took a number of photos at last year’s Funk Parade and can’t wait to paint from those amazing, colorful images.
A CONVERSATION WITH STEVE WANNA
In the Eternity of an Instant: Mixed Media by Steve Wanna
Margaret W. & Joseph L. Fisher Art Gallery
Schlesinger Concert Hall & Arts Center
Please join us for an Artist Talk – August 17th, 2019 12PM-3PM
How have your personal experiences impacted your art?
That’s a difficult question to answer for me because I don’t often tie my personal experiences to my work. I immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and have been straddling two cultures ever since. Yet I don’t feel like I belong fully in either. I suppose this sense of not belonging is pretty common among artists. I’m also a contemplative person by nature and that definitely seeps into my work in big ways. My current worldview is largely informed by science, mathematics and Buddhism. I firmly believe in statistics and coincidence—the business of fate and whatnot makes no sense to me. This has the largest influence on my art by far. A lot of my work has elements of controlled randomness, whether in the decisions surrounding the work, the process of making it or the final result itself.
Where did you go to school?
I started out taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College when I immigrated here with my family. I transferred to James Madison University to complete my undergraduate and Masters in Music Composition. After that I went on to the University of Maryland to work on my doctorate in Composition with a focus on electronic music, followed by a year-long postdoc at a studio in Paris. That year was very important in that it afforded me a period of incubation and reflection. A lot fell in place for me over the course of that year. I’ve turned to visual and multidisciplinary art recently, and am self-taught—it’s another way I feel like I straddle two cultures, not fully fitting into either. Robert Irwin is another one who’s work and writings resonate with me.
Who were and our your creative influences?
My formal education is in music. My biggest influences for the past decade or so have been Iannis Xenakis and John Cage. They both approached randomness and stochastics from slightly different perspectives. Both worked with processes that removed them from the making of the work, but Xenakis was willing to manipulate the results of his processes to achieve slightly more specific goals, while Cage was willing to completely surrender the results to the processes that yielded them. My aesthetic falls somewhere between the two.
You mentioned that the Myths of Creation series was influenced by images from the Hubble telescope. Can you talk more about how scientific thought has impacted your art?
Science has had a huge impact on my thinking, both in art and in life. My work isn’t scientific per se, but definitely inspired by certain principals like systems theory, swarm intelligence, and game theory. I also use technology in some of my work, but there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. When the Hubble images started coming out, I became obsessed. The caption on one simply noted the distance of the exploding star in the image, and it was something in the hundreds of millions of light years away. Aside from being a staggeringly impossible number to fathom, there was something profound and a bit sad and poetic about it: what I was looking at was an event that happened some hundreds of millions of years ago, yet somehow we’re now witnessing it.
Describe the process for creating the Myth of Creation pieces.
These are pretty involved pieces, and the process has evolved. I start by making the boards and preparing them. Then I make the plaster shells that will hold the pigments. Once all that prep is done, I fill a shell with the various pigments and aggregates. Here I have some measure of control: the order in which I put the material into the shell has some effect on the final result. I’ve built a special enclosure for this step because once I make the drop, the piece has to stay in place until it dries, then I have to spray it with fixative before I can handle it. Because I use powder pigments, I had to come up with a way to spry the fixative indirectly so that it doesn’t blow the powders away. After all that, I add the frame, seal the edges, and pour the resin. The process can take a week or more, yet the actual drop itself happens in a split second. And it’s by far the most exciting part of the process!
The series created with synthetic wax – She Who Makes the Moon the Moon is inspired by a poem? Can you talk more about that? How is literature and poetry important to work as an artist?
A lot of artists find inspiration in literature and poetry. My work is not representational and therefore never a literal (no pun intended) translation of whatever inspired it. I often find inspiration in reading stories or poems and equally in reading scientific articles. I think there are tremendous and fertile sources for the imagination in scientific discovery. That series is inspired by a story entitled “The Distance to the Moon,” from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. Calvino takes modern scientific knowledge, mostly about the formation of the universe, and retroactively creates fantastical stories and myths that work with them in beautiful ways. It pains me when people describe science as cold. The scientific method may be disinterested in how we feel about it, but the creative spark that sets a scientist’s mind on some hypothesis is the same one that every artist and poet feels. It’s a human spark of curiosity about things larger than ourselves that we do not yet understand but might hope to bring forth with a lot of imagination and hard work.
How has your background in music composition inspired your work?
A lot of my work is concerned with time and processes that center on the passage or capture of time. Time is an integral part of music—sound is a physical phenomenon that is essentially the propagation of vibrations over distance, something that requires time. I find myself creating works that either freeze time through some process, or require time to unfold. I also find myself applying in my visual works a lot of the same aesthetics I’ve developed in my music: an affinity for controlled randomness, an openness to process, a willingness to follow these highly experimental works wherever they need to go.
Describe the process of making “ Come Closer”
This work was the first in a series based in my obsession with shadows. I had a very specific idea in mind and tested a lot of different materials. I played with paper, glass, even tried making some materials from recipes I found. The look I had in mind was that of thin porcelain with light behind it. My partner Tonya suggested having someone make it and that’s what happened. I sent my designs to a ceramic artist and he slip cast them to my specs. The electronics came next. I designed the sounds I wanted using software I’ve used before with other works but I had to get help from my brother who’s an computer engineer in order to realize the works as standalone objects, each with its own microprocessor. We had to work on translating the code to work with the hardware. I then designed the layout of the boards that would go inside the porcelain boxes—they hold a microprocessor, a small speaker, and an LED strip. The small computer runs a program that controls the sound and light. They both ramp up and down at randomly chosen intervals. Each box emits a single pure tone. The combination of all the boxes together creates a complex sound. The piece is quiet and soft, and like many of my works, it’s meant to invite quieted and contemplation. What I find most poetic about it is that because the boxes are independent of each other and are ramping up and down at random intervals, you’ll never hear the same combination of sounds no matter how long you stand there. But the differences in timing are not so huge as to be immediately noticeable. This means the piece effectively looks simple at first glance but you realize there’s actually a lot more to it when you get to know it. This element of discovery is true of a lot of my work. And probably of me, as well…
When people look at your work, what do you hope they get from it? What kind of reaction were you going for when creating this body of work, and what kind of conversation do you hope it provokes?
I hope my work has an impact on people, an impact that is beyond, or rather before words and conversation, the same kind of impact a beautiful sunset might have on one. I’ve always found beauty like that to hit me almost like a physical punch in the gut. For a moment, words fall away and there’s nothing but you and the object and the bare experience. The mind has been foiled by the surprise, arrested for an instant by the experience and impact of beholding that object. Process is something we can talk about, modify, and improve, but impact is beyond words. I guess if someone looks at my work and is clearly impacted by it but has nothing to say that would be okay with me!
What can viewers and art lovers expect from your work in the future?
I’m hoping to move more in the direction of installation work, especially large-scale installations—that’s the kind of work I find most exciting and engaging. I’m continually looking for ways to better present sonic works, so I’ll continue pursuing that. I’ll also likely continue to explore the works and ideas represented in this show.
The Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria Campus is excited to exhibit a unique sculpture for the fall exhibition season. Susan Hostetler’s Shifting Migration will be on display Sept. 22, 2017 to March 22, 2018. An artist’s reception is scheduled from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23.
The Passage Gallery at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria Campus is excited to present the work of 2017 American University graduates Sarah O’Donoghue and Zarina Zuparkhodjaeva in the show Change, Witnessed. The show will be on display Sept. 22 to Nov. 5 with an artists’ reception scheduled for 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23.
The Margaret W. & Joseph L. Fisher Art Gallery will display the unique mixed media art exhibition Haunted by Quiet Places by Annie Farrar. The exhibition will be on display from Sept. 22 to Nov. 5 with an opening reception scheduled for 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23.
Haunted by Quiet Places is an exploration of the relationship between realism, reality, and our experiences of space and time. The exhibition includes Annie’s two sculpture series Vanitas and Singularities which use mirrors, skulls and sentimental objects that have emotional ties and meaning to present images that both ask viewers to think of the past, future and expansive nature of time.
The Margaret W. & Joseph L. Fisher Art Gallery at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria Campus will display the art exhibit The Time of No Time, a collection of works by artist Nahid Navab. The show will be on display from Aug. 7 through Sept. 17 with an artist’s reception scheduled for 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12. Some of the pieces in The Time of No Time are multi-layered, multi-textured abstract, and figurative handprints imply a state of floating in search of a shelter or something to hang on. Navab explained that her work tells stories and represents figures and objects that hold their dignity while facing chaotic situations.
The Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center is honored to display the art exhibition Zip Infinity, a series of acrylic paintings by artist Maremi Andreozzi. The show will be on display in the Forum Gallery of the Schlesinger Center from Aug. 7 to Sept. 17 with an artist’s reception from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12. A closing reception is scheduled from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16. In the Zip series, Andreozzi studies the movement of a single white line zipping and looping through a patterned space. In the Infinity paintings, she expands on design and pattern.
In partnership with the Alexandria Campus’ Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, the Richard J. Ernst Community Cultural Center at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale Campus will display a series of printmaking artworks created by 13 D.C. metro area artists. The show, The Language of Impressions, will be on display in the Ernst Community Center’s Verizon Gallery from June 1 to June 30 with an artists’ reception from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 3.
Artists participating in the show include Cheryl Edwards, Joan Belmar, Adjoa Burrowes, Helen Frederick, Amelia Hankin, Azia Gibson-Hunter, Maroulla Morcos, Lisa Rosenstein, Anne Smith, Hendrik Sundqvist, Alec Simpson, Michelle Talibah and Nikki Whipkey.
Cheryl Edwards and Exhibition Director Mary Welch Higgins organized and curated the show. The Ernst Community Cultural Center is located at NOVA’s Annandale Campus, 8333 Little River Turnpike, Annandale, VA 22003.