Correction: this article was originally published under the incorrect byline 'Diana Gonzeau' in the spring print edition of the Maine Cannabis Chronicle. The article was written by Avery Marcotte, as appears in the above byline.
Snow falls softly on the western prom this Tuesday afternoon, drawing the world close, white and grey. From over the hill a shock of pink bobs just into view and dances between the tree trunks. The pink shock shifts into a head of hair. This is Abbeth Russell, who has graciously agreed to sit for an interview. Abbeth has been a notable member of the Portland art and music scene for many years since moving to town to finish her education in painting at the Maine College of Art. Her work has appeared in over 65 shows in the greater Portland area since 2010, and in 2012, Abbeth began the Hidden Ladder Collective alongside co-founder Will Hessian. In addition to her work in the visual arts and organizing in the art community, Abbeth performs in The Bumbling Woohas, a touring band since 2013.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Interviewer: Where would you say your creative practice began? What’s your earliest memory of a creative-type project?
Abbeth: When I was a really little kid, even before I knew how to write, I was keeping notebooks and journals. I was really inspired by Harriet the Spy, so I was really into hiding out and drawing people and drawing situations, and then when I could write, filling notebooks and journals with my thoughts. And I was really into bugs when I was a kid, so a lot of the content of my journals were weird bugs and stuff, and I feel like over time that kinda shifted into those bugs being more like imaginary realm creatures. But yeah, I grew up just like in the woods without cable and stuff, so my brother and I were always making stuff and building stuff. I lived in a pretty creative house; my mom’s a weaver and my dad’s always building stuff out of wood. And I lived with my grandma too growing up, and she did rug weaving. So there was just a lot of building stuff and like the general concept of, y’know, if I had gone to my grandma and asked, “what should I do today?,” she’d always be like, “draw me a pretty picture.”
Interviewer: When you start a painting, do you usually think of a story you’re trying to tell first? Or is it more like a feeling that you want to evoke?
Abbeth: Um, I would say more of a feeling. I kind of have two approaches to working on paintings. One of the approaches is I just go to the panel and start putting paint down and it just builds from there. I definitely don’t have any writer’s, I mean painter’s, block. I just go for it and stuff just comes out. But the other approach that I take sometimes if I wanna be more directed is, I still keep a ton of sketchbooks and just like fill them up with drawings, and so a lot of times if I’m going to start a series of paintings, I’ll flip through the sketchbooks, and I’ll scan in the drawings I feel excited about and print those off because I know I’m going to get paint all over them, and I don’t want to use my originals, and then use those as kind of like a jumping off point. And so yeah, I’d say the storyline often develops as I go. Like I kind of react to what I put down.
Interviewer: Do you feel your paintings are ever finished?
Abbeth: Yeah, yeah definitely. When they’re done I feel like they kinda — this sounds weird — but I feel like they kinda glow a little bit. I just kinda like, know, they feel like they’re alive. I very much believe in art having a soul, and I know it’s done when I feel like it has that soul.
Interviewer: Is that soul something you’re giving to it, or something else, something you meet along the way?
Abbeth: Um, I feel like it’s a collaboration between something deep inside me and something far outside me. And when those things come together, that's what gives [the paintings] life.
Interviewer: So since I’m here from the Maine Cannabis Chronicle, do you consider smoking part of your practice, is that something that you regularly do?
Abbeth: No! That’s funny because when Michael was like, “do you want to do an interview with the cannabis chronicle?,” I was like, “well I really don’t really smoke weed that much.” Like, I can’t really handle smoking weed. I’d say I smoke weed a few times a year, and when I do, it’s more like a serious experience. I feel like I almost use it in the way that some people use psychedelic drugs because it affects me really strongly.
Interviewer: What kind of recreational activities do you find help you creatively, like in your time off?
Abbeth: Wow, I struggle with the concept of time off because my life and my work are so intertwined. That’s been something I’ve been trying to work on during the pandemic, like to not be in constant high-stress work mode like, produce, produce, produce! One of the things I’ve been trying to do during the pandemic is do yoga and meditate and go for a walk everyday, in addition to playing music and painting everyday. But I guess those aren’t really recreational. Oh! Playing games too, I love playing games. If you saw some of the stuff about Hidden Ladder Collective, you might have seen that my friends made a board game, which I was the lead playtester for, PBL ROBOTS, so that game is really important to me, and games in general.