American Family Dreams

TASI tenant McLaurin to host ‘Blue and Permanent’ in November

Abigail McLaurin plays housewife in her space at The Art Studio, Inc. Abby’s work evokes the nostalgia of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s by using found family photos as inspiration.

It is fairly easy to spot Abigail McLaurin at The Art Studio. She is the slim girl with clothes covered in colored blotches with streaks of charcoal and chalk across her face. She resembles a Dickensian urchin most times, but she isn’t begging for change — she is normally in the middle of a creation.

“Creation” is a better term than painting to describe her work. Her large panels are paintings, but they also include chalk, pigment, ink and found objects — and possibly the odd footprint or two that may have found their way in there.

Ironically, Abby’s work often deals with women who look exactly opposite — housewives from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, prim and proper with their aprons on, performing the “womanly” duties as wives and mothers.

“It’s that sort of cliché American dream,” she says. “Mom dressed up in the apron, working in the kitchen and dad coming home from work — that housewife role that she played. I’m interested in family and how it’s evolved over the past 50 years and where it’s going.”
Abby studied sociology in school and says she is interested in the changing dynamic of the family, with divorce rates rising and both parents having to work.

“I know it’s part of the female right that she can work, that she doesn’t have to be a housewife, but it’s also a forced condition because you can’t afford to live off one income anymore,” she says.

Abby’s work often features a “Leave It To Beaver” type of mother image, but she says her work has a feminist viewpoint.

“I can’t help but see through my own eyes. I don’t have a penis — that’ll be the day,” she says, laughing. “I’m not against men or anything, but I am exploring that female role. As I get older I keep thinking about whether I want a family or not and I think that emerges within the work — that instinctive urge to settle down and what does that entail as a woman, you know?”

Abby will display her latest works at The Art Studio in November, in a show titled “Blue and Permanent.” The show opens with a reception, 7-10 p.m., Nov. 2, and runs through Nov. 29. The title is taken from “The Drowned Children,” a poem by Louise Glück.

“It’s one of my favorite poems,” she said. “It’s very dark, but what I love about it is the way she uses metaphors to describe this horrific event, but it’s also beautiful, in a way. One of the last lines is ‘…blue and permanent,’ referring to the children being blue — drowned — and the fact that death is permanent.

“I thought that it would be a great metaphor for the work, because right now it seems my main subject matter is children exploring violence, adult violence, in some manner. We do it all the time, whether it’s through tearing down a sandcastle or pretending to shoot our sister, we explore violence. We don’t understand the real implications of what it is until we are much older.”

Abby says she is nervous about the show’s title.

“It comes from a really dark poem, but not all my work is dark,” she says. “I think a lot of childhood — just like any person — it’s not all happy fairytales, but it is what makes life special. It’s those struggles and conflicts that make life beautiful, in a way. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s the best way to describe it.”

Abby says she has had friends who were concerned that her work was too dark and that she was purposefully trying to create a conflict with the viewer.

“I said no, I was not drawing from personal experience,” she says. “I see myself as more of a story collector — hearing other people’s stories, gathering images, trying to interpret what’s going on. So the work is very personal in that it’s trying to make sense of what’s has taken place. But it’s sharing a story.”

The idea of children and violence comes from a letter she found while exploring an old photo album. It was written by her great-grandmother and describing an incident with her great-uncle.

“When he was a boy, he was playing Cowboys and Indians and one of the kids accidently hung himself,” she said. “They made a noose and hung him, but he accidently choked on his gum and died of asphyxiation.”

“Sometimes our play time can become more serious.”

McLaurin said her great uncle never really recovered from the experience.

“He always had problems,” she said. “I think that’s where the title comes from — the things we experience in childhood can be permanent in our consciousness and can affect us as adults.”

McLaurin said the letter will be on display at the exhibition.

While her latest body of works deals with children’s experiences with violence, Abby says she just finds themes that reflect the area of the photos she gathers.

She is already shifting to her next series which will explore a certain aspect of religion.

“I am really fascinated by talking in tongues and Pentecostalism the Southern Bible belt,” she said. “It’s where I grew up. I’m not a churchgoer but I am interested in exploring that side of my background.”

Abby is quick to point out that while some of the work’s subtext may be dark, the work itself also has a sense of fun.

Abigail McLaurin poses in front of a painting in progress in her space at The Art Studio, Inc.

“It’s very colorful,” she said. “For most people, it brings them back their childhood, playing Cowboys and Indians — it seems quite fitting for more of a mature audience, I would say 40 or 40 plus, because that time period that I’m dealing with tends to be the 1950s-1960s.”

It’s the sense of nostalgia for those decades that Abby finds fascinating. She begins most of her paintings by collaging images from old “found” photographs that she collects.

“I worked at a Starbucks for a while and one client brought in two boxes of colored slides that somebody was throwing out, a family photo album from 1945 to 1972” she said. “They knew my work and that I was collecting them so they brought me photos.

“I’m a slight hoarder of other people’s family photo albums.”

She said she really looks for photographs that are slightly strange or capture the awkwardness of a long past situation.

“It is interesting that I can look at slides from Fort Worth and then look at a photo album from one of my friends (in North Carolina), and you can see a cultural difference in not just the time period, but also in how the family behaves, the setting, the kind of stuff they collect on the walls — Southeast Texas is unusual, especially here in Beaumont. It’s right on the border of Texas and Louisiana, so it’s a unique culture that takes place here.”

The 26 year old is a native of Charlotte, N.C. and has been in Beaumont for just over a year. One of the first things she did when she arrived was become a tenant at The Studio.

She attended Coker College in Hartsville, S.C. where she earned a bachelor’s in art.

“I’ve always known I wanted to be an artist,” she says. “It’s not a question of what I wanted to be, it’s who I am.”

Abby says that she has always been interested in the figure.

“Gosh, it goes back to my first drawings as a kid,” she says. “When you look at the work you did as a child, you can make relationships between the work you did then and your adult work. Mine has always been narrative.”

Abby’s work, it can be said, is both accessible and off-putting. How one sees the work depends greatly on the viewers state of mind.

“I’m not trying to persuade the viewer in any way, I’m more of an observer,” she says.

Much of her work is also quite substantial, comprising large panels pieced together.

“Part of it goes back to the idea of memory,” she says. “When we think of things, we remember bits and pieces, so it’s that kind of idea. It’s also a play with composition. I want to break out of that square or rectangle.

“We refer to the family of many parts as one, and that’s part of why the image is all broken up.”

When it comes to a style, Abby says she doesn’t really think she has a particular one.

“Right now, it’s working with really bright colors, I’m playing around with fluorescent colors,” she says. “I use a lot of different things, it’s more of a mixed media. I use acrylics, enamel, oil, watercolor, dyes, wallpaper, toys — sometimes you’ll find underwear in it, just bizarre things.

“Usually, the objects that I incorporate within my work are very domestic, things that you would find around the home. All my work is about the home, the interior struggles of family life and the idea of unity within the family unit.”

Abby’s work seems to hold a dynamic tension between the modern and the classical. Her paintings, focusing on the figure and the domestic as they do, also incorporate splashes of paint, streaks and slashes — she even distresses the surface of some of her pieces.

“I enjoy sanding and tearing it down,” she says. “Some more than others. It has to do with the content and composition.”

Abby is hesitant to suggest anything to visitors to the show, saying that she doesn’t want to influence what they see in the work.

“I don’t know if they can take away anything,” she says. “I want them to experience it, for the work to bring up a memory of some sort. A lot of times that’s what happens.”

She tells a story about a previous piece that, on the surface, seemed to be a happy piece.

“There were kids playing in the water, but in the background there was a creepy dude holding his crotch,” she says. “There was this underlying theme of something really dark taking place in this happy scene.

“It brought up a memory for one particular viewer. That happens sometimes within my work. It’s not necessarily my intention when I start the work, it just happens to emerge within it.”

Most of the time, Abby says, the story reveals itself as she collages the photos. It is not unusual to see her painting look a certain way, only to visit her studio space a few days later and find it changed — sometimes slightly, sometimes in a major way. Panels will be moved or dispensed with entirely. That’s not to say they won’t return after that.

Abigail McLaurin surrounded by her paintings in her space at The Art Studio, Inc.

“It’s all based on the story,” she says. “Just like in any story, there’s a conflict. You can look at the ‘happy ever after’ scene, but there’s also a conflict, there’s a villain — multiple elements are taking place in it. It’s not hitting you over the head with it, you do have to look for them.”

So plan a visit to “Blue and Permanent” — there’s a story for everyone.

The Art Studio, Inc. is located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont.

Andy Coughlan
ISSUE Editor