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Abbey Messmer: In Her Own Words
Oct, 20, 2020
Abbey Messmer: In Her Own Words
As residents of the Valley of the Sun, we find Abbey Messmer’s artworks refreshing to say the least. Her painted images and installations featuring pools of icy blue water make us want to dive right in, whether to cool off from the desert heat or cleanse ourselves of any and all bad vibes.
Messmer, who works on Grand Avenue in a shared studio with three other artists, moved from Texas to Phoenix in 2002. From 2012-2015, she was a member of Eye Lounge, an artist-run contemporary art collective in downtown Phoenix, and in 2015, she received a Contemporary Forum Artists’ Grant, now the Phoenix Art Museum Artists’ Grants, which afforded her the opportunity to exhibit work at the Museum in 2016.
Four years later, we’re checking in with Abbey to see how her process and work have evolved. Here’s Abbey Messmer, in her own words, on what inspires her and why she’s still completely enamored with water.
“I’m fixated on distorted imagery because it reflects the absurdity of reality…. We are constantly manipulated and transformed by the world around us, and I’m interested in this elastic experience and the effort by which we try to control or embrace it.”
Abbey at Joshua Tree. Image credit: Fausto Fernandez.
PhxArt: Tell us about who you are and how you came to be an artist. What was your first inspiration?
Abbey Messmer: I feel lucky that family and teachers were supportive of my artistic interests as a child. My grandfather was a woodworker and craftsman, my grandmother was a quilter, and my aunt was an interior decorator. I went to magnet schools and was able to have a specialized focus on art.
As a teen, I remember cherishing visits to the Dallas Museum of Art and being totally captivated with figurative work and surrealism. A high school art teacher encouraged me to pursue art in college, and I’m grateful for that direction and overall acceptance of art as a legitimate passion to pursue.
Abbey Messmer, The Question Will Determine the Answer, 2019. Gouache and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: When did you move to the Valley of the Sun, and what brought you here? Do you draw any inspiration from the desert?
Messmer: I moved to Phoenix in 2002 after graduating with a degree in painting and drawing (and a minor in anthropology) from the University of North Texas. My aunt and uncle lived here at the time, and they offered me an opportunity to explore beyond the environment I grew up in, which I would recommend to any young person. During visits to Phoenix before I moved, I met some key folks in the downtown Phoenix art community. This helped to anchor me, and the transition was very smooth.
I am certainly inspired by the desert, its vibrant colors, and the specific ways we, as humans, adapt to the heat. If you don’t live here, you think the desert is a dusty array of tans and browns, but the Southwest is full of stunning color and striking natural beauty. The desert can be very dreamy, and when I’m hiking in certain areas of Phoenix, the terrain often leaves me imagining life at the bottom of the ocean. Also, the heat itself pushed me toward making art in the water, so the desert has been very influential to my art.
Abbey Messmer, My mind filled in the blanks, 2018. Gouache and acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are some differences in the local art community today compared to when you first arrived in Phoenix?
Messmer: Since I moved to the Valley, I’ve always had a studio on Grand Avenue between Roosevelt and Van Buren, so I’ve watched downtown change dramatically over the past 18 years. I’m grateful Arizona State University moved one of its campuses downtown because it increased density and livability here and sparked the creation of new places, opportunities, and food experiences downtown. I ride my bike around the city often, and there is always a new condo or apartment building being constructed. With all this change, however, I’m thankful that Grand Avenue has grown at a slower pace and that its unique character has been preserved.
PhxArt: Your art focuses a lot on water. Can you tell us about that interest? Was there a specific moment when you knew water would be central to your practice?
Messmer: I’ve utilized water as a primary tool for my work for almost 10 years, and I’m still deeply enamored with the process and the outcomes. I remember when my cousin, who’s a photographer, introduced me to the waterproof Fujifilm camera. Without hesitation, I acquired one and began experimenting. I was initially struck by its ability to capture weightless bodies in space, but I realized I was most interested in how water in flux could transform an image. In college, I had focused on the effects of genetics and microbes on our biology, painting disease and mutant forms, but through a process of experimentation and discovery in Arizona, I embraced water as a fundamental tool for creating the work.
I’m fixated on distorted imagery because it reflects the absurdity of reality. Defining truth, from one individual’s belief to the next, can be nearly impossible, and the instability of the image represents the variable nature of perception. It also reflects the fragility of our physical and mental states. We are constantly manipulated and transformed by the world around us, and I’m interested in this elastic experience and the effort by which we try to control or embrace it.
Abbey Messmer, Pool – An Immersive Installation, 2015.
PhxArt: What media do you prefer to work in?
Messmer: As a painter, I worked exclusively in oils for more than 20 years, but in 2017, I switched to gouache and acrylic as a solution to a last-minute exhibition invite for which I wanted to make new work. (Thanks Kenny Barrett!) The water-based paints allow me to work faster, and I made some exciting discoveries by tackling a new medium. I’ve continued with this medium since, but I’m regularly tempted to go back to oils.
I also love installation, so that pops up from time to time in my work. My first project in Arizona was an installation in 2002 on Grand Avenue for the Stop ‘N Look window, and my last big installation—called POOL – An Immersive Installation—was in 2015 at Eye Lounge. For that work, I built a pool inside the gallery with sloped walls, a glowing light fixture, a metal ladder, and a sunning deck. I also created an underwater film, which was projection-mapped onto the interior surface of the pool. The experience began as you walked in the door. You were walking into the deep end of a pool, submerged in moving water imagery and surrounded by aquatic sounds. This was a very exciting and fulfilling project outside my primary painting practice.
Abbey Messmer, Enchanted in the Deep End, 2020. Gouache and acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell us about your process. How do you get started on an artwork?
Messmer: The paintings are rooted in photography. I use an underwater camera and dive to the deep ends of pools to snap liquefied versions of the landscape or tableaux vivants (living pictures). I absolutely love the process of painting, but the process of gathering the resource imagery is invigorating. I really enjoy the physical practice of diving and training my lungs to be at peace without oxygen for longer periods. It’s very quiet and meditative to spend time observing the world from the bottom of pools. I often shoot hundreds of photos, looking for heavily abstracted or distorted imagery with saturated color. I spend a lot of time sorting through photos to find exciting images to paint.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Messmer: I’m influenced by Lucian Freud, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, David Sedaris, Andy Goldsworthy, Wayne White, Paul Reubens, James Nestor, and Diane Arbus, to name a few.
PhxArt: Where are you currently showing your work?
Messmer: I have work on view right now at Walter Art Gallery in Scottsdale. I’m also part of an exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary of Eye Lounge at Step Gallery.
I work and typically show out of The Lodge Art Studio, which I share with three other artists. Normally, we are a hotspot on Grand Avenue when we open to the public on First Fridays, but because of COVID-19, our re-open date is still to be determined.
Abbey Messmer, A Succession of Beautiful Glimpses 2017. Gouache and acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: If you were approached by a creative just beginning their own practice in Phoenix, what advice would you give them?
Messmer: My best advice would be to seek out inspiring people, projects, and organizations and build an awesome network. Volunteer your time. Learn new skills and be grateful to those teachers who share knowledge. Do studio visits. Go to as many shows as possible. Support fellow creatives when they need a hand, and it will come back to you. Create solid routines with your art-making practice, but experiment and allow yourself opportunities to make discoveries. Write, read, develop your thoughts, and listen to others—because an outside perspective is often very helpful. Keep working!
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Abbey Messmer shares what’s giving her life as a creative during quarantine.
Messmer: Life in quarantine is not much different for artists who spend hours on end alone in the studio. While I paint, and since painting sessions usually last four to 10 hours, I rotate through podcasts and TV shows like Radiolab, Freakonomics, Hidden Brain, Broken Brain, Broken Record, Joe Rogan Experience, Kidding, Crank Yankers, Chopped, and Blue Planet.
Abbey Messmer, Sail Her, Don’t Sink Her, 2017. Gouache and acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the artist.