Eastern ‘Block’

Maurice Abelman in his work space at The Art Studio, Inc.

Maurice Abelman in his work space at The Art Studio, Inc.

Printmaker Abelman discovers inspiration in Estonia

Maurice Abelman is quiet. The soft-spoken artist is not the kind of person who one expects to stand on a street corner and rant at the world. Through his detailed woodblock collages, Abelman comments on the world around him, but it was from an increasingly narrow point of view.

Then came Estonia.

The 35-year-old printmaker spent the summer in the Baltic country conducting workshops and says that his world view expanded and infused his art with a new vitality. In October, Abelman will reveal his transition in the exhibition “Evolve into Many,” at The Art Studio. The show opens with a reception, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Oct. 3.

“Evolve into Many” is a concept that Abelman says he mulled over for a long time.

“It has a number of different meanings,” he says. “What I do in printmaking is create multiples of the same print over and over and over again, and I use those multiples in different compositions, transforming what was originally one idea into many ideas. The name of the show, quite literally, represents the process I use.

“But also, I was really inspired by what happened in Estonia, and a lot of the concept of this show I had been working on before Estonia, so a lot of the stuff is me fumbling around in the world trying to figure things out — trying to understand my process, trying to understand what’s going on — just the confusion of what’s going on locally and nationally. So a lot of the stuff was my old style of thinking transitioning with this new approach.”

Creation and Destruction by Maurice Abelman

Creation and Destruction by Maurice Abelman

Abelman says his work now has evolved from mere commentary into being more proactive.

“Sure, I can comment on critical issues in society, which was my big thing,” he says. “I can say this is wrong and I can make this fantastic picture. But then I am getting to a point where I can complain and complain, but what am I actually achieving? It wasn’t until I was actually working with students that I could actually say that this process could be more than just that — it could be more than just a way for me to vent.

“It can be a way to actually inspire change — that can actually show, as close as humanly possible, a true reflection of society. Because it’s not totally biased from my point of view, it’s from a number of people’s points of view. Even though it’s still limited within that group, it’s still a broader approach than just me myself.”

Many know him as Jake, which is his middle name, and that’s what many of his friends still call him.

“I felt that whenever I graduated I needed a transition, and switching to my first name seemed more professional,” he says. “‘Jake’ — you’re a friendly guy. ‘Maurice’ has a more professional approach — but I’m still a friendly guy.”

The California native moved to Beaumont when he was 16 and earned a degree in graphic design from Lamar University. It was not until he was finishing his undergraduate work that he became exposed to printmaking.

Kitties by Maurice Abelman

Kitties by Maurice Abelman

“(LU printmaking professor) Xenia Fedorchenko convinced me, in a round about way, that printmaking would be the correct approach for the illustrations I was already producing,” he says. “I had my show up, senior thesis day, and Xenia comes over and says, ‘Jake, your artwork, you should transfer this over to printmaking — woodblocks would be the greatest thing.’ I looked over and thought, ‘Printmaking?’ I remember all the horror stories, it’s so process oriented.”

Abelman said he couldn’t see how that would work as he was used to creating his images digitally.

“I don’t have to pay for material, I don’t have to pay printing costs — I am looking at it from a more pragmatic approach,” he said. “I told her, ‘Why would I want to spend all that time doing something?’

A couple of months later, while searching for jobs in the graphic design field, Abelman visited Fedorchenko in her printmaking class at Lamar.

“She said, ‘Pull up a chair,” and showed me how to translate one of the images from (Adobe) Illustrator on to the woodblock and carve it out — I instantly fell in love,” he said. “Ever since then, I kept on to it and kept on to it, and I was able to produce work that wasn’t necessarily from a graphic design point of view, but utilized a lot of the methods of graphic design.”

Abelman says he now works directly on to the woodblocks as creating in Illustrator first is an extra step — although designing on the computer does allow him more opportunities to play with the composition. His technique is to create multiples of small images, which he collages to form large-scale compositions.

“I have a stockpile of imagery, so instead of creating new images — which I still do, I still add to the inventory — I have a bank of imagery that you see throughout my work,” he says.

There are a number of different approaches to making woodblocks, Abelman says.

Maurice Abelman works with a student during a workshop in Estonia in summer 2015.

Maurice Abelman works with a student during a workshop in Estonia in summer 2015.

“You can go super huge, like, ‘Look at this big thing I created.’ But then you run into problems such as, ‘Where am I going to get this thing printed?’ The presses that can print something that large are few and far between,” he says. “You’ve got to go a big city, or you’ve got to get it professionally printed, or you’ve got know someone — or you’ve got to rent a steamroller. It’s trying to overcome that whole problem of creating something large by using smaller pieces to create something large.”

Abelman says he trying to do is a controlled collage, where the pieces play a vital role in relation to each other.

“Whenever I collage them all together they actually create new ideas from different ideas within it,” he says.

With this technique, the smaller images themselves repeat, but the relationship with the other images gives the larger image its meaning and shifts the meaning of the individual images.

After earning his master’s in printmaking, Abelman found himself at a bit of a loss. He had a show at the Beaumont Art League in November 2014, but was searching for a new direction. Then fate lent a hand.

The Estonian performance art group Non Grata, a global touring group who have visited Beaumont several times, whose events also feature printmaking. The last time they were in town, Fedorchenko introduced Abelman to artist Al Paldrok.

“I showed him my work and he was like, ‘You gotta come down to Estonia — everyone’s going to love you down there,’” Abelman says. “I’m not really an outgoing type of guy, I just like to concentrate on my work, but I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, even though I tried to come up with every excuse mentally not to go. I forced my self to go.

“It shifted the focus of my work. It was the key that reinvigorated me and got me producing work again.”

Estonia was a creative fork in the road, Abelman says.

“If it was successful and people liked the work I was producing, if I was accepted, then I’d pursue my art career,” he says. “But if I wasn’t successful, then I’d pursue my graphic design career and just shift the artwork into more of a hobby.

“But since it was so successful, since I was so inspired by the students there, I feel the work I am doing has more purpose.”

Abelman said that his internal drive before going to Estonia was to solve the confusion he has about society.

“Visually I would try to interpret situations or issues, whether critical or mundane issues, in imagery,” he says. “But whenever I would show the process to the students, the imagery they created — I mean, some of them created things I couldn’t even imagine.

“I was thinking that the work I produce myself is so limited because it’s only one perspective. But if I share this work, with a number of people and I have more than one person come together with this collage, that’s more of a reflection of society than anything I can create just by myself.”

Students work on a collage during Maurice Abelman's workshop in Estonia in summer 2015.

Students work on a collage during Maurice Abelman’s workshop in Estonia in summer 2015.

Abelman’s enthusiasm shines through when starts to talk about a 10-year-old student at the Estonian workshop.

“He had no artistic training, it was just pure thought that he carved into the woodblock,” Abelman says. “We used that (image) quite a bit in one of the large-scale frames we collaged.”

Abelman said the original purpose of the workshop was to set up a site-specific work, but it developed into three large-scale panels. He hopes to develop the workshop theory to be able to produce site-specific installations in several cities, both in the U.S. and in Europe. He will be in Oklahoma in February, Estonia again next summer and hopes to visit Japan next year.

The collaborative aspect of the work, and the chance to include a variety of perspectives and experiences is the driving force of Abelman’s creative resurgence.

‘Evolve into Many’ is that,” he says. “What I’m going to try to do in my future shows is more of a combination of bringing other people into the fold, into my work. So not only am I creating all the work myself, but I am also actually combining other people’s work with my mine. So this show is the last step from what I was into this new approach.”

Jake Abelman with a few of the woodblocks that form his prints.

Jake Abelman with a few of the woodblocks that form his prints.

“Evolve into Many” offers visitors a chance to say goodbye to the old, insular Jake, and welcome the worldly Maurice. From any perspective, the quiet man has a lot to say.

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

By Andy Coughlan

ISSUE Editor