One of my favorite kind of field trips is to artists' studios. There's something thrilling about getting behind the easel, or the wheel, or the loom, and seeing the process of creativity. I love the craft of art, and love examining the tools of the artist. I like knowing whether artists keep house carefully, or work through chaos. It is good to be reminded of the "work" part of art; we tend to forget how much sheer effort goes into what we see as nearly miraculous visitations from some mysterious place. So I was delighted to visit painter Abby Leigh at her studio in New York City.
I met Abby a couple of years ago when we were guests at an Environmental Defense Fund dinner, and we hit it off immediately. We discovered that we shared a love of music, and the French countryside, among other things. She is now working on a new series of paintings involving environmental disasters--capturing the way they feel, more than the way they look: the murky depths of an oil spill in which the diver is obliterated, moving blindly through a thick, dark stain, the only visible trace the phosphorescent stripes on his tank. Abby will have a show of this work in the next year, so I'm only posting one image. Her studio is very organized, and very neat, and full of books and catalogues and cases of treasure; she pulled out a few trays of Victorian glass eyes. An enormous surgical lamp hangs over one table--I had the image of the artist needing to peer into the depths.
Her work has a precision to it that is of a piece with her surroundings--or rather, the other way around. She considers. I especially like the black abstractions tacked to one wall.
I made my way past the painting area, where she has several canvases going at once, and into what I thought was going to be a storage closet, but turned out to be a modern cabinet of curiosities. I am crazy for rooms like this--every square inch displaying someone's obsession. In this case, skeletons of snakes and seahorses, bats and birds, insects, butterflies, shells, eggs, fossils; taxidermy on shelves, on the walls; etchings marching across the ceiling and down another wall.
It was a marvel. Of course I stopped in my tracks, and had to look at each and every box, and wonder at the intricate beauty of bodies, bats being among my favorite creatures.
Abby mixes her own paints of various precious pigments, and the arrangement of jars and tubes was its own work of art.
She is also a whimsical person, and not a gardener, she informed me, though I found her version of a seed bed to be a good substitute for a green thumb.
In the spirit of visual jest, I offer a portrait of myself metamorphosing into sea horse.
It was in the cabinet of wonders that I understood something about why I love visiting artists' studios. An artist's work always offers another way of seeing the world; it is almost painfully generous, that an artist turns herself inside out, and offers that up to the gaze of strangers. After I left the studio, I began to notice pictures of environmental degradation that had a weird beauty to them, something I would not have picked up until this visit. And the fascination for the bones, for the structure, for the remains....what's left behind. There is a way of looking at death and seeing life, in these rooms, that I find moving. And hopeful.