by Allie Pesch
“I drive around and park in ditches,” Greenwood artist Isabelle Abbot smiled as she described her typical afternoon’s work. “When I see a beautiful field, I feel an urge to capture it before it turns into a subdivision,” she explained.
Born and raised in western Albemarle, after spending her early childhood in Ivy, Abbot and her family moved into an old, converted boarding school near old Greenwood Station. The blue mountains, rolling yellow fields, and round hay bales that were the setting of her childhood are now the foundation of her art.
Abbot’s landscapes are more personal than picturesque. Rather than reproducing a forest run wild, or a vast mountainous vista, she focuses on humanizing her landscapes—conveying the scenes of man and nature working together—namely, farmland.
Abbot likes to refer to her work as “land portraits,” rather than landscapes. The fields in her paintings are all altered by human hand. Though the tractors, cattle, or farmers may not appear themselves, the marks of their presence on the land are always present. A barn, a fence line, or merely the sunlit streaks of freshly cut hay define Abbot’s horizons.
Abbot’s paintings, typically oil on canvas, are relatively small. Her scale reflects the intimacy between man and the land that she hopes to capture within her work. One of her very favorite formats, she explains, is 12 by 12 inches square, “to mirror the size of a person’s face.”
“I make art because I value the act of noticing,” she writes in her artist statement, “In my paintings, I strive to simplify the land … to capture the sense of a particular place in a stolen moment and to convey that atmosphere to my viewers. If I succeed, then I have preserved what I notice in the world.”
Painting from life, participating in the very act of noticing that she hopes to instill in her work, is one of the things that her undergraduate professors at U.Va., Phil Geiger and Richard Crozier, drilled into Abbot. While she may finish some paintings in her studio at her parents’ house, most of the work is done outside.
“Pony Express Road in Greenwood is one of my favorite places,” she said.
Fellow local artist Meg West, whom she met in one of Geiger’s classes, has shared with Abbot many of the best places to paint in the area. White Hall views are recognizable in many paintings as well.
Despite the ephemeral undertones of her landscapes, when asked how long a typical work might take her, Abbot explained, “I might nail it in my first try and spend only a few hours on a piece, while with others I will struggle for weeks and weeks.”
She quoted one of her favorite artists, Wolf Kahn, who said, “A painting’s done when it stops giving us a royal pain in the ass.”
Along with Kahn’s slightly-abstracted, colorful landscapes, Abbot is also influenced by Lynchburg artist Annie Harris Massie, whose “distilled” landscapes are also hinged on a transient balance of light and shape.
Despite recent success, it took some time for Abbot to recognize that her longtime hobby could, in fact, become her career. Her early years at Crossroads Waldorf and later at Tandem Friends School encouraged artistic expression. Her mother Bliss used to work at a Montessori school, and her father, Bahlmann, is an architect and musician. “Art has always been celebrated in my family,” Abbot said. Still, when she transferred back to U.Va. after her first year of college at Davidson in North Carolina, she continued to think she might be an English major. However, her love for her art classes eventually won her over.
After Abbot graduated from Virginia in 2005 as a studio art major, West helped her land shows at Three Notch’d Grill and the New Dominion Bookshop. When a graphic design job that she had lined up fell through, her show at New Dominion serendipitously sold out at the same time. As Abbot described it, “the art seemed to be working when nothing else did.” Rather than having to wait for her big break, Abbot’s art career seemed to find her. After a show at King Family Vineyards last summer, two different gallerists who had happened to see it began representing her, the J. Ferguson Gallery in Farmville, and Kaller Fine Arts, in Bethesda, Maryland.
Eight pieces of hers included in a group show of emerging artists at Kaller in April sold out and her solo show, Homeland, in Farmville, which closed June 27, also did quite well.
In the last two years, Abbot has also shown at Siips on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, twice at the Gallery @ 5th and Water in Charlottesville, as well as in Richmond. Last September, she spent three weeks as a fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst County. Her work is in the permanent collection at Longwood College, and in several local private collections, including those of Coran Capshaw and Cathy Carr. In April she spent a week in Cork, Ireland at the Crawford College of Art and Design. Despite the speed at which her career has taken off in the last year, Abbot feels confident in her decision to pursue a Master of Fine Arts at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she will begin in August. She received a full ride from UNCG, including the Holderness and Thrush scholarships.
“I decided to go first for myself, because I didn’t go to an art school and I feel like there are some gaps in my technical education,” she explained, “but also to learn more about the business side of being an artist.”
But most of all, Abbot is looking forward to having the time and space to paint—“to experiment and try new things.”
While booking shows so quickly is great, “you get bogged down in what kind of work they are expecting of you, a certain type of painting, and you don’t have time to branch out,” she explained.
And after she completes her MFA? Chances are you’ll be passing Abbot alongside the ditches of Greenwood roads again before too long.
“My paintings are really about home—a personal connection to a place,” she said. “I feel like I need to be in my home to do them.”
And we’ll be happy to have her back.
Abbot’s work is currently on view at Three Notch’d Grill in Crozet.