The Clearing

I was featured this month in The Clearing, an online journal published by Little Toller Books in the UK. Here’s the feature:

Western Red Cedar and Spruce Sapling by Amory Abbott

July 4, 2019

This month Little Toller publishes Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Savage Gods. For this series on The Clearing Paul invited poets, writers and artists from around the world to respond in their own way to a simple, one-word theme: transformation. The result is a series of explorations, in words and images, of the alchemical cycle of change: breakdown, rebirth and renewal. This is by the artist Amory Abbott.

Western Red Cedar and Spruce Sapling is inspired by the effects and necessity of lightning strikes to renew and revitalize forests. Wildfires are often demonized as horrific natural disasters, accepted as “acts of God,” or manifestations of the recklessness of humans, when convenient, however, lightning strikes have been burning down swathes of land since time immemorial, and remain a quintessential “wild card” we have no means of predicting, or controlling. We are just now beginning to see the consequences of a century of fire suppression in our remaining wild places, which have become increasingly-arid, man-made tinder boxes. The ghostly, glowing elements in my work suggest that the beauty of what there is to lose and the beauty of what comes after are inseparable in the present moment – a coniferous memento-mori if you will –  a reminder that grief forever holds the hand of hope.

An Interview with Radical Art Review about Dark Ecology

A series of mine - Go Be Forgotten - is being featured in Radical Art Review’s latest issue called “Farewell Earth,” and I was recently contacted by them to talk about the Dark Ecology movement, how I discovered it, and the conceptual ways in which informs my art practice. Here’s the text:

I happened upon Dark Ecology when I was researching for my graduate thesis in 2015. A core interest in my art practice and research was aimed at interrogating the history of sublime landscape painting. A lot of the nationalistic ideals of American progress and God-given-right to land ownership and westward expansion in the late 19th and early 20th century used the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, Frederick Edwin Church and the like as a sort of propaganda. The art and writing of that time shifted the American perception of the wilderness from the devil's playground, into being more like the garden of eden. When that happened, we got our first national parks, conservation movements, environmentalism, Thoreau, John Muir, and Transcendentalism, but all at the cost of kicking out or eradicating the indigenous populations, and further planting the seed of a dangerous idea:  that "nature" has no intrinsic value beyond it's enjoyment and industrial use by humans (cue birth of the DNR).

It was hard to come to terms with that, and still make landscape art. My path forward through the consequence and shame of that discovery was to think of how I could offer a different approach, or better yet, turn it against itself. I found an essay called "Dark Ecology" by Paul Kingsnorth, who refers to himself a "recovered environmentalist" -read it here: This essay seemed to find a way through the grief surrounding what we've done to the land, and how we've characterized it, and combined a desire to "go back" to how things were before with a consideration of how we may have to adapt our lives to massive upheaval in the near future. Both Kingsnorth and Timothy Morton (author of Hyperobjects) argue for a "planetary grieving process" in order to unfreeze us from what seems like the disastrous tipping point of climate change, pollution, human consumption and civilization (I personally hope that it happens sooner than later because of the collateral devastation humans are causing to the other living things on this planet). What was clear to me was that we could not continue to "Use cleverness to save us from our own cleverness" as Kingsnorth said it. I kept reading Kingsnorth, and found a publication he co-founded called The Dark Mountain Project and discovered a community of people all writing and thinking about what comes next. 

Alongside and in response to my new findings, I began defining some visual and conceptual criteria for my artwork: a visceral experience of the unknown, nature on its own terms, human fallibility, and a shadow cast by industry and conquest. Where these concepts all connected for me was through the idea of darkness. So I asked myself: What would a "dark sublime" landscape look like? I came up with some rules for what my landscapes could and couldn't depict, and started tapping into my own feelings of grief and melancholy to drive the work forward. The supernatural element to my work came from wanting to exaggerate the feeling of a place, that it was somehow imbued with magic that we don't quite understand, but found undeniably alluring. The monochromatic black and white approach was a way of tapping deeper visually into that darkness, and as a latent rejection of the color-orgies of the history of sublime landscape. I decided I would "set a trap" for viewers: by creating a dramatic, aesthetically-pleasing landscape that referenced the compositional and virtuoso tactics of historical sublime paintings - landscapes that looked majestic, wondrous, and compelling - and then reveal it as overwhelmingly unappealing to travel to, where the land is quaking and splitting and reforming, and a place that the viewer could not survive. Dark Ecology flips these historic uses and notions on their heads, and still offers something positive at the end, although it requires a shift in perspective (or at least a dark sense of humour). Creating beautiful places that I could never travel to, whether by their non-reality or my own species' extinction, lead me to looking for what appreciation I might still find on the other side of grief for our world, even if there was effectively no hope for humanity. I think Dark Ecology would agree that even though we may be torn apart by our own consequence, there is a comfort in believing, as Kingsnorth said, "the end of humanity is not the end of the world full-stop" and that this cataclysm and upheaval is something beautiful, something to appreciate, something to love, even if we will not survive it. To me, that is the essence of Dark Ecology - the melancholy - the sweetness in despair, the good-grief, the appreciation for the way the planet will deal with us just like everything else. not out of spite or malevolence, but from necessity, and that ultimately, that's ok.

It will be ok.  

A Poem: Rain In June

“Rain in June”

I should ask a hydrology expert
Or perhaps a creative geologist
Why the rain darkens where it lands
On the flagstones and soil
Traces of expression
Gatlin the sidewalk
Congregating as one shadow
Encircling the underwood

Could they convincingly explain
Each speckling stain
And how with enough of them
I turn toward a book
And not my easel
Thunderheads gathering
Until my bones feel the pitter-patter

They warned me about this place
And vitamin D
And wishful thinking
But then, the solstice is imminent
And tomorrow maybe sun

A Short and Sweet Interview with uBe Art Gallery

From uBe Art Gallery's "Drive-By Interview" series, in conjunction with their MyScape group Exhibition. Nov/Dec 2016, in Berkeley, CA.

magic wizards, mighty creatures, and valiant heroes

12/09/2016    uBe Art

Launching our next round of Drive-by Interviews is artist Amory Abbott--one of 26 artists featured in our current exhibition, MyScape.

What are you presently inspired by?

My recent work has been inspired by the theme of Darkness, and I draw creative influence from three main sources that meet at darkness: Gothic Romanticism, Dark Ecology, and Black Metal.

Words to live by?

"The answer is in the studio."

Do you encounter misconceptions about being an artist?

Quite a bit. A frequent misconception I run into is people perceiving me as some sort of special genius, as if I was someone with other-worldly talents that are off limits to normal people. While that can be flattering, I think it ultimately devalues the artistic profession, insinuating I was lucky enough to find a shortcut in life to success, rather than face the trials and tribulations of other traditional professions.

Person: "Wow, you're such a great artist!"

Me: "Well, I've got a masters degree in art and I've been practicing for over 20 years." 

Person: "Yes, but you're so gifted!"

Me: "No, I've got a masters degree in art and I've been practicing for over 20 years.

What I'd like to make clear to those people is that I've been devoted to learning a skill, a trade, and a craft, for a long time to get where I'm at. Anyone gets better at anything when they do it for a long time, and higher education only fortifies it. I may have a knack for art, but everyone has a knack for something. Like any other struggling professional, I've had to be self-disciplined, follow my passions, find my best outlets and most compelling interests, properly educate myself (and take on massive student debt), and have years upon years of practice to become good at it. 

When you are in need of inspiration are there particular things you read, listen to or look at to fuel your work?

When I need inspiration, I go to the woods. I look at the trees, the rocks, listen to the water, the mountains. I let the wilderness tell me what it needs, and when I find it, I go home and research like crazy. 

In an imaginary world where your artwork could speak, what would it say?

My landscape work typically depicts the world in a state of cataclysmic change, as a realization of our planetary future through the lens of Dark Ecology. I suppose my world would say something along the lines of "Dear selfish humans, you did what you did, and regardless of right or wrong, it's over. You will not live to see what follows, but it will be ok. The earth will right itself, and life will begin again."

Describe a quality have you retained since childhood?

Since I was young I've been an advocate for wild places. I've always lived close to nature and have certainly retained a healthy fascination with the wilderness as a place of power, or ancient magic. I credit my childhood obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien and his fictional world of Middle Earth. Listening to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings being read to me, and reading through the picture books, my fascination with fantasy realms with magic wizards, mighty creatures, and valiant heroes has kept my sense of wonder alive and active.

What does creating art provide for you?

Creating art provides me a visual context to explore my interests in history, the environment, and contemporary issues. It's also a profession that allows me to focus on practice, discipline, research, philosophy, and whatever else makes it in. It's also deeply satisfying to see how feelings come out on paper, and to share those visceral experiences with others through my work.


MFA Visual Studies Thesis Paper


The following is the abstract of my thesis research. Below you can find a link to the whole paper.

Darkness, in historical notions of the sublime, is the visceral experience of the unknown. Darkness is nature on its own terms–an intricate system at work outside of our understanding. For humanity to experience this greater concept of nature, each area of this thesis research works to recover a bigger picture of human history as it relates to ecological history. What is needed is a reintroduction to the natural world around us–to witness, simply, the awesome, unfathomable power of the wild.

This thesis supports the work titled The Dark Sublime, a series of large charcoal landscape drawings that depict the natural world in states of cataclysmic change. By exploring the common theme of darkness in American Romantic literature, Metal music, Fantasy, and Dark Ecology, The Dark Sublime offers a more complete experience of the sublime in the natural world, and in contemporary landscape art. 

You can download a copy of my Thesis paper HERE.

Caldera Residency - Written Statement

For this post I've copied my written statement for the Caldera residency application. I'm so happy to be making work that was informed by my experience there, as it is some of my strongest work yet. The following is the plan I created for my week at Caldera:

Over the first year in the Visual Studies program I’ve pushed my art practice away from the narrative habits of having a background in illustration. The challenges I face now are how to maintain the authenticity of my traditional style without trying too hard to tell stories. Breaking from traditional illustration has let me consider more of the involvement of the viewer in narrative choices. My most recent work allows the viewer to step into the place of a character or witness in my work, and that conceptual approach is an unfamiliar and intimidating new direction for me. This is where I see my greatest artistic growth happening. After creating a strong series of urban cityscape drawings in charcoal this spring, I’ve felt a need to return to natural imagery, and to explore the medium of oil paint. I pull the most inspiration and imagery from the natural environment. Many of my paintings and drawings have been inspired by trees, and my spiritual experience of the wilderness. The Caldera Residency would give me a one-of-a-kind opportunity to approach my current research with a complete immersion in the natural environment, and bring new perspectives and ideas to my practice.

While at Caldera, I’d like to create a series that uses the landscape around the camp to facilitate a more authentic experience with my practice. The reference imagery I’ve used for my recent work have been photos from my own hikes in the pacific northwest, but the fleeting moments of experience as I make my way down the trail do not provide me with a greater sense of the space, the location, and my place in it. This kind of work attempts to reveal the sublime in a place, to distill an image down to the most basic emotive, natural representation and leave the exploration to the viewer. On my hikes, I get to experience this exploration, but the artwork is created out of only photos and memories. I feel that having a week in the wilderness, with the primary intention set on making art and expanding my considerations in my practice, the resulting work will be more immediate, interactive, and fresh. This experience would introduce a new process of making that I feel would greatly benefit my future as a working artist.

High on Art: Artistic Integrity and Marijuana Use

In light of Oregon decriminalizing the recreational use of Marijuana on July 1st, I’ve had some good discussions with art friends about the use of pot when making art, and decided to write out my thoughts on the subject. I am first and foremost drug free, and I admittedly soapbox against the use of recreational drugs (caffeine aside) in the creation of fine art. Here’s why:

First let me say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the use of medicinal substances to benefit a lifestyle in a way that allows people to be more productive, feel happier, treat chronic pain or illness, and overall enjoy themselves. As a medicinal substance, people will need marijuana to cope with issues I am lucky to not have. However, one cannot walk into a doctors office and complain of a lack of creative inspiration and walk out with a prescription for mind-altering drugs. 

My issue is with a dependency that develops for many artists to summon inspiration when they can’t just be honest with themselves and get their life right. I think what many artists find is that their greatest inspiration and ideas unravel out of just that struggle to find, and face, the self. 

My argument is that in the creative world, there is a threshold that can be crossed where the dependency on a chemical substance - pot, heroin, caffeine, pills, etc - begins to negatively impact the author’s ownership over the work. If one simply cannot claim to be a successful artist without the use of a controlled (or uncontrolled) substance, then they are compromising authenticity, and ultimately lying to themselves and others who appreciate and purchase their work. When this happens in the world of fine art, music, dance, etc, ones ability to express themselves honestly is lost and the work loses credibility, and worse- perpetuates the debilitating label continually placed on creative arts as an inferior profession for druggies, stoners, and all-around slacker culture. 

I was told by a frequent marijuana user working in a creative field that people take art way too seriously. In response, I’ll say that I think people take a need to escape their reality way too seriously, but saying that art is being taken too seriously is like saying lawyers take the law too seriously, or that an architect takes load-bearing walls too seriously. Art is a valid profession, and it is especially hard to make it in an industry that values artists less because art is still seen as a “talent” or a hobby that anyone with a blunt and a sketchbook can get into. We work hard, and HELL YES art should be taken seriously. 

What I’m getting at is that art will always be tied to self-expression, and appreciated for that. If one depends on a drug that compromises who they are because they think people won’t like the real them, then they’ve got a lot more problems to deal with than just not feeling inspired. Artists have to lead by example. It’s our job to feel, to fear, to fail and to be honest. We are one of the last professions that still values individuality, and what does it say if we can’t even be our real selves?

The Creative Benefits of Rap Fandom

I’ve been drawn to creativity all my life, and ultimately I don’t think I could say life would offer me much without the presence of creativity. Life experience is the source of creativity. It’s an ink well, a paint palette, sixteen bars, a concerto, a pose, Blue Steel, a slice of pizza.  An artist sees life around them, finds subtle and profound meaning in what can be seen, and what is rarely seen, and translates that into imagery. The imagery is sometimes visible, sometimes on in the mind; it can be audible, felt in vibration, picked up, held, consumed, and animated. The complexity of creating imagery — composition, conceptualization, history,  metaphor, and execution — when done well, is something to behold, and something inspiring.

An area of creative experience that has always fueled my work has been that of rap music. I’m not tied only to rap, and many days and many works in my studio are fed by several types of music. I will say first that working to black metal always seems to darken my palette when the work needs to go there. But when I think about rap music, I’m very particular. I’m not a fan of the entire genre and aspects of the more violent, sexist, and downright ignorant group of rappers that dominate the radio I have no interest in. I was introduced to a specific group of artists in the late 90’s that were doing something different. They were mostly white men from New York,  doing something completely new altogether. Two rappers/artists that I’ve followed closely are Aesop Rock, and Rob Sonic.

When I was introduced to them seems like ancient history, but I can specifically remember asking a friend where he’d bought the album The Sanity Annex by Sonic Sum, and going and getting it that same day. I can also remember the first time I heard “Delorean” by EL-P in my friend’s car on the way to the grocery store and had to know who the guest featured rapper was on that track. Over my years in college I followed Aesop and Rob, inspired by their ability to create such visually rich imagery in their music, as well as producing their own tracks. Alongside their music practice, I truly respect their collaboration with fine artists and illustrators in the generation of album artwork as a visual component of the audible work. They were, and have remained, a culturally relevant and of-my-generation example of artistic relevance, and mastery of craft.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet these two several times over the years at live shows around the midwest Indianapolis and Chicago, and last winter in Portland, Oregon where I’ve moved for graduate school. I’d consider myself a super-fan, sometimes to a nerdy degree. My wife and I stopped in San Francisco on our honeymoon and I dragged her to Grubstake just to buy a t-shirt for the Mallon Boys to sign at their next concert I went to. I’ve illustrated unofficial gig posters for shows of theirs, entered work in twitter contests, and framed signed posters from their album sleeves. Now I have no claim to say that I know these two as individuals, and we have certainly not had more than a few exchanges over handshakes, pats on the back, photos, and twitter replies, but being an artist, and a keen listener, it’s not hard to deduce quite a lot about these men as artists through the analysis of their lyrics and music. Any work of art can be a life story. Every word is truth in experience to some degree. Visual and verbal imagery leave traces, big and small, of the personal narrative behind it. While my focus in master studies is moving away from illustration, a need grows in my work for coded ideology, insight, and communication. I turn to rap music often to analyze the layering effect of metaphor and composition. Aesop and Rob seem to fold imagery in over itself, buried in layers, like rap inception. Their rap duo Hail Mary Mallon has been a delight to hear and witness. While solo work, as any artist can agree, tends toward a more serious and introspective experience, HMM takes a more playful approach to collaboration and pays homage to the early days of NYC rap. The metaphors and imagery that unravel out of each track are a time machine, an inside joke, a conversation over hamburgers, a breakdance party on a beach, a fundraiser concert. What I find is a confidence in skill, a mastery of verse and production, a complete authorship, and a willingness to ask new questions with and from the work. Over the years, like any group of visual, performative, or musical artists, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing an ongoing evolution in their work, a refinement of style and approach, and a deepening relation to that of fine artists. 

So if you’re an artist, of any kind, listen closer to your music. For me, there is something powerful to be gleaned from a rap song. Not imagery to appropriate, but as an example of the potential of experience, of the way a thing can be said, photographed, danced, or painted. I consider my fandom of Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic a valuable asset in my artistic practice. Just as any painter may study the work of Gerhardt Richter, Edward Hopper, or Claude Monet, There are also contemporary artists in a wide variety of fields and disciplines that are influencing the evolution of art. These two men are true artists, and an inspiration to me and many many others.

Here are some works of mine related to the article:

"The Wind-Blown Way Home" inspired by lyrics from Aesop Rock's track "Gopher Guts" -  Amory Abbott  ©2013

"Live from the Burgundy Camry" Unofficial Gig Poster for Hail Mary Mallon's Portland show. Amory Abbott ©2015 


"The Isle of Astonishing Motherfuckers" Fan Poster for Hail Mary Mallon - Amory Abbott ©2014


"Whiskers the Undead" 1st runner up for a twitter contest to draw a character from Aesop Rock's album Skelethon. Amory Abbott - ©2015


And finally here are some dumb/fun photos of me with the Mallon Boys. Thanks for reading!

New Website

Ok here's my Grad School website project. New Portfolio website, managed by me! Enjoy!