Between Heaven & Earth

Rome-based artist Marta Abbott explains how she uses organic materials and botanically derived inks as conduits to express a deep connection to nature.

My journey started quite early on. I am the only child of a painter, and growing up I was happiest passing time with my pencils and paper in my mother’s studio. At school, I always felt most at home in art class and I studied painting and drawing at university. The worlds of visual expression and communication have always been what I’ve understood best and always been most comfortable. In terms of subject matter, the natural world is always what has resonated with me most strongly.

I grew up surrounded by nature…

… which meant I could indulge my curiosities and examine the things that fascinated me up close. It allowed me to develop a consistent and close relationship with the natural world, which created the base of what I do now.

One great influence is my mother, who taught me how to paint and who taught me how to look more closely at the world around me. I have always loved the work of Kiki Smith, Helen Frankenthaler, Anna Atkins, Marlene Dumas, Anselm Kiefer, Josef Sudek and Cy Twombly, among many others.

As far as the what, I would say that botanical forms, light and shadow, the sea and the night sky have always been of great inspiration to me.

The theme that seems to link everything I do in one in one way or another is the connection between Heaven and Earth. As above, so below. There are innumerable, invisible forms of life and energy moving between ground and sky all the time (take light and sounds, for example), and sometimes we humans feel them but we aren’t always able to identify them. We are conduits whether we know it or not. I guess I’m always interested in the ways those forces move through us and the way that manifests in our experience of the world and our creative interpretations of it. The place I always come back to is the night sky because there is nothing more beautiful to me than all those tiny points of light sparkling in the dark.

My creative process varies a bit depending on the context, but it usually starts with wanting to answer a question or to find a way to communicate something I felt or understood. I experiment a lot and I enjoy seeing where that takes me. Working with materials I can’t always control or predict is a part of the process I welcome, because I really enjoy finding ways to meet the challenges of that. I would say my process is one part control to one part chaos. The spaces where they meet are where my favourite things happen.

Nature and my painting practice are my medicine.

They are parts of my life that act as kinds of maps for me. Nature teaches me, it inspires me and it helps remind me of what is really important. The daily habit of observing, of giving space and time to the quiet beauty all around us, it’s something I hope to pass along to my son as well. I hope I’m able to transmit what nature is for me to other people through my work, to encourage them to experience the world a little differently.

I think the nature of nature itself is what helps me! You will never look up to see the same clouds formations twice, you will never be able to keep track of every star or know where and when lightning will strike or how many hours before a flower’s petal falls away. The harder you look and listen, the better you may get at guessing and at understanding nature’s rhythms, but they are her own. Nature is a reminder of the importance of wonder.

“There is nothing more beautiful than the night sky –
all those tiny points of light sparkling in the dark.”

I feel connected to nature all the time.
I live in a city so sometimes I do wish there was more nature to connect with, but often all it takes is looking at the morning sky or noticing a shift in weather to be reminded of how constantly connected we are to the natural world. Islands are where I best connect with nature. I love a strong island wind. I like to imagine it passing through me.

I had always experimented with teas and flowers as sources of colour but it was when I discovered the work of Jason Logan (The Toronto Ink Company) that I really fell in love with using colour from nature and botanical inks. I saw the incredible realm of what was possible and realised that those colours not only helped me express what I wanted to, but that they tell the history of civilisation. They are alive and they hold so much information if you look even a little bit beyond the surface.

I create the inks with water, gum arabic, salt, vinegar and heat. But it really depends on the materials I’m using and the colour I’m hoping to get. There is a pretty general recipe that works for most botanical sources, as well as a wealth of other colour wisdom, which can be found in the book Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Inkmaking by Jason Logan. I highly recommend it as a starting point for anyone looking to start exploring the world of natural inks.

It’s a funny thing – aesthetically I’m really drawn to the quiet drama and potent magic that can be black, white and the misty worlds in between, but somehow I always end up coming back to colour. Which is a way to say that the ‘why’ of my use of colour is something I’m still figuring out, but the most obvious answer is that colour is such a strong tool of communication. It is a language all its own, one created by nature. Colours have such a potent and primal effect on all of us, and so I think of their use as a highly intuitive part of my practice.

Red and pink feature a lot in my work.

The heart, blood, love, what is soft but also strong, life and also death. They are both such powerful colours which are able to evoke both the physical and the spiritual in their viewer. Another connection between Earth and sky in a way.

There are multiple places that feel like home to me. They are Amsterdam, Prague, Rome, Connecticut and Rhode Island. I was born in Amsterdam to a Czech mother and an American father. I grew up mostly in Connecticut but I have strong ties to Rhode Island as well. Rome is home now because that’s where my son was born. I had already lived here for six years at the time, but the day he arrived is the day it became home for me.

I don’t have to give Rome a big introduction, but I will say that one of the things that inspires me here, aside from the overwhelming beauty and incredible history, is how particularly strong-willed and unruly nature seems to be here. Everywhere you go there are plants and trees pushing through walls and sidewalks, things blooming in unlikely places. Some parts of the city have practically been sculpted by roots and vines. I find that very inspiring.

My interior style is a mix of old and new, but I tend to give precedence to the things that hold sentimental value or that have already lived a few lives. I need to surround myself with things that have a story. Light is really important to me, as is keeping spaces as free and open as possible. I’m by no means a minimalist but I like to make sure a room can breathe.

One of my favourite objects I have is a framed shopping list written by my maternal grandmother who I was very close to hanging on my wall. I found it after she passed away and I love it because it’s such an ordinary yet intimate, personal item that keeps my memories of her alive. There are other objects like that – talismans and reminders of people and moments that are very important to me. Those are the things that mean the most. Aside from that I would say my books and any and all artworks I am lucky enough to own.

Pre-spring feels like the earliest hours of dawn, when you know the sun is finally about to peek out over the horizon but you can’t quite see it yet. We are lucky to have mild winters in Rome, and spring usually doesn’t take too long to arrive, so I would say this time of year is about the anticipation of finally seeing the first flower buds on the trees, the first little bursts of colour and new life.

This season I’m looking forward to what is now my yearly Winter/Pre-Spring practice – seeking out the hidden sources of colour in what at first glance feels like a predominantly grey time of year. That, and the early to bed, early to rise rhythm that this period encourages.

I love Icelandic poppies this time of year!
I used to work in floral design and ever since, I look forward to February each year because I know they’ll come around. They are so dramatic and sculptural, and full of colour and movement, and they’re a little bit mysterious to me. I don’t think I could ever tire of them.

I love the idea of Pre-Spring. It feels so much more uplifting to me than how I usually think of this time of year, which is more like a continuation of winter. My perfect gathering would include music and dancing, candles and lots of flowers. I would use the flowers to decorate with and to cook with. Ingesting flowers is like eating sunlight. Last January my dear friend Lauren Cerand was visiting Rome, and she made us a sort of Pre-Spring potion with flowers, fruits and herbs we gathered from my terrace. It felt like a ritual to welcome the sun and to awaken the spring, both outside and within ourselves. That would be our Pre-Spring gathering ritual!

See more of Marta’s work @martaabbott

Photography by Studio Daido and Katrina Tan