We Who Seek: Marta Abbott
Czech-American, Rome-based artist Marta Abbott’s work is steeped in the natural world—in its materials, in its power, and in the human relationship to it throughout history and today. This month, we were lucky to chat with Marta about her work and her inspiration. Read on for a thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation about art and nature’s power to transport, transform, and communicate—and to see how Marta styles Seek.
Let’s start at the beginning—when did you first fall in love with art; how did you come to pursue it professionally?
My mother is a painter and I’m an only child, so I spent hours and hours alongside her in her studio, watching and learning, and trying things out for myself from a young age.I fell in love with art thanks largely to her, and then I fell even more in love with it because of all the worlds it let me dwell in. The idea of being able to access worlds other people have created and finding ways to give shape to the worlds in my own imagination were experiences I always connected with. I came to pursue art professionally in a sort of roundabout way. As many people do, when I was younger I struggled with owning the title of artist. For a while I focused on other kinds of work that involved creativity in some way, but that let me avoid devoting myself fully to my own practice. Several years ago, however, I was stopped in my tracks because of problems with my hips that were causing me a great deal of pain and some limited mobility. I ended up having to get two surgeries over the span of seven months and was told that if I’d waited much longer I could have lost the ability to walk. That experience reminded me how important it is not to take anything for granted or to hide from who you are. I decided then to rededicate myself to my artwork, because I knew deep down that that was what I should’ve been doing all along.
You trained professionally in the fields of art restoration and floral design before turning your full attention to painting. What initially drew you to painting, and when did you decide to make the jump to pursue it full time?
One thing I’ve always loved about painting is the freedom it gives me. It provides a world I can disappear into, where I can wander and explore and spend time with the things that fascinate me the most. I also love that painting is a powerful tool of communication and of connection, and a manifestation of the things that make us human. I really made the jump to pursuing painting full time once I’d healed more completely from the surgeries mentioned above (which took a few years). That was also around the time I had my son. It was, of course, probably not the most logical or convenient moment for it, but having him also made it feel all the more important to believe in what I was doing and to pursue my goals because I want to teach him to do the same.
You’re based in Rome, but you were born in Amsterdam and raised in the US. In what ways has each place informed your craft?
Each place has been so important to me in a number of ways. Prague is another city that’s a huge part of who I am. It’s the city my mother is from, and I spent a lot of time there growing up. On visits with her, I would sometimes find myself in the home of Alphonse Mucha (by then the home of his son), which was a perfect sum of all things Art Nouveau that dwelled together in a very bohemian atmosphere, and which must’ve left its imprint on my ideas of beauty and aesthetics. Czech was also my first language, so it’s the first language I ever learned or thought about art in. Amsterdam has informed so many aspects of my craft and my identity. One thing that always stays with me is its skies. There’s always some dramatic play of light happening overhead in Amsterdam. I love the contrasts and colors created by the way the clouds are illuminated there. You can see where Rembrandt got his incredible sense of light and shadow. The U.S. is more where I connected with the natural world, I’d say. Block Island, R.I. is a place that’s very dear to me. It’s where I realized how much I love looking at the night sky, how much I appreciate the ways the seasons or the weather can change a landscape, and the overall beauty of existing in relationship with nature every day. In many ways I discovered the power and the language of color there too. It helped me learn to make the observation of my surroundings into a daily practice. Rome has connected me to the natural world as well, albeit in different ways. Everywhere you go, you see nature working on taking back the city. Vines and flowers push their way through ancient walls, grass sprouts out of every crack in the pavement. It’s a reminder of the passage of time, and of the strength and tenacity of the things that grow from the ground. There are so many incredibly inspiring and overwhelmingly beautiful things about Rome, but for me, for now, this is the one I think about most often.
Out of all the places you’ve traveled to and lived in, which have you connected most to? Which felt most foreign? Where in the world do your fondest memories exist?
One trip I often think about is the one I took to Iceland. It’s been a long time since I visited, but the colors and the landscapes and the energy that vibrates from the ground there are still vivid in my memory. Japan is another place I feel very grateful to have visited and which certainly felt foreign when I first arrived. I stayed for almost three weeks but I wished it could have been three months because it felt like I had just barely scratched the surface of everything I wanted to see and know and understand better. Now that I’ve lived in Rome for ten years and have been raising my son here for the last four, I would have to say some of my fondest memories are in Italy.
Your use of inks and pigments that you make from organic, botanical substances create a chance for people to experience their surroundings differently and celebrate the way we see the natural world. What do you hope people see in your works of art?
I hope that my work does exactly what you described above. If the way I communicate my personal experience of the world around me resonates with someone else and moves them in some way, then I’m happy. I hope to help people see differently and to look more closely. Whatever my starting point for a piece or a series is, along the way I often realize that what I’m trying to show are the connections that exist between heaven and earth, as well as our own interactions with and roles within those connections.
Nature plays such a crucial role in your art - where does your inspiration come from for this? What lessons do you feel you have learnt in using nature as a part of your process?
Some of my inspiration definitely comes from having grown up with a mother who showed me how to look at and be in contact with the natural world, and to find ways to interpret it on canvas and on paper. A lot of my inspiration also comes from the fact that I am always, always taken aback by the beauty I find in nature. No matter how many times I see a night sky, I will always be in awe of it. Working with materials from nature has taught me to stay true to what I’m drawn to, to be appreciative of both the fragility and the strength of both the materials I use and of nature itself. It’s taught me to be gentle with the Earth, to embrace the unpredictable and uncontrollable, and to see beauty in every part of the cycle of life.
Is there a particular artist or designer that has been influential to your work?
There is a very long list of artists that I admire and want to celebrate in this answer, but I’ll try to keep it short. Kiki Smith is a hero of mine in many ways, as is Anna Atkins, and I love the way Olafur Elissaon translates science into art, just to name a few. Vija Celmins is another artist I discovered at a young age who has been important to me. I can’t answer this question without mentioning my friend Jason Logan of the Toronto Ink Company who is a champion of the intricate, wild beauty to be found in nature, but also of marching, or perhaps dancing, to the beat of your own drum. His work has helped me so much in understanding my own.
How would you describe your artistic style? And how about your personal style?
I would describe my artistic style as nature-based abstraction with a process rooted in intuition and experimentation that juxtaposes spontaneity with structure. In my personal style, I first and foremost seek out comfort because I really believe that if you don’t feel good in something it shows. I love things that are relaxed but still feel elegant, and I really appreciate garments that were made with intention, and which tell a story, which are all reasons I became such a fan of Seek.
Where do you go or what do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
When I can, I go to the sea, because that’s where I find so many of the things that help me feel connected to my creative process. When I can’t get to the sea, I often go to a park that I live close to and try to just focus on observing what’s growing, what’s dying, how the colors have changed, plants that I haven’t noticed before. Aside from that, visiting a good exhibit is always guaranteed to make me want to run to the studio and pick up a paintbrush.
What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved or inspired by?
I recently finished Reeds in the Wind written in 1913 by Grazia Deledda. It is a story based in Sardegna that talks about time and place and societal structures, among other things. The story itself is a very good one, but the way she tells it is incredibly poetic and rich and enchanting. Each scene is set like a painting. I would gladly pick it right back up and read it again.
What’s the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Be patient with yourself. It may seem obvious, but it’s something that I think many of us struggle with without even realizing it. A friend said it to me many years ago when I was trying to get over a heartbreak, but I still think of it often now in all kinds of situations, and definitely within the context of my work.
What advice do you have for creatives who are still trying to discover the best medium for creativity and expression?
I say keep trying! If pursuing your art is really what you want to do, don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to find the way that feels best. It can take some time, and that is totally okay. I would even say it should take some time. The more you let yourself experiment and explore, the more informed you’ll be for whatever you try next. Everything you do, whether it works out the way you wanted or not, will likely become a building block for the next thing, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. I would say the most important thing is to stay true to yourself, and not pursue one medium or another because it’s what everyone is doing now or because you feel like you should. What feels truest for you will always be what works best.
What are you seeking more of this year?
I’m seeking travel. New sights and sounds and colors and rhythms. The idea of getting to know an unfamiliar place sounds really nice.
Can you share an upcoming project you’re excited about?
I’ve wanted to find the right way to incorporate the written word into my work for a long time. Painting is another form of storytelling, after all. I think I’ve finally figured it out, so I’m slowly developing a series constructed around poetry. It’s a newly initiated collaboration that I’m very happy about.
Marta is wearing the Space Coat, Megan Shirt, Jaipur Pants, and Leta Dress.
Photo credit: Marta Abbott