Naarm based painter Abbey Rich (they/them) is known for their inspiring palettes, organic shapes and large public murals. But their work began in fashion. We popped over to their space at Schoolhouse Studios to talk about the wonder of public art and what inspires them.
For those of us who don’t know who you are – tell us about who you are, and what you do.
I would describe myself as a painter most of the time. Other times I would describe myself as a multidisciplinary artist. But I think “painter” suits me more. I do murals, some sculpture, and stuff for exhibitions as well. My work exists in public and private space. With public space being the most prominent part of my career so far.
How did you get started as a creative?
I started as a textile designer and I started my own clothing label when I was 20. So, for a couple of years, I was running a clothing label, doing fashion weeks, and making everything in-house. But I found it really difficult to enjoy. There were a lot of ethical questions, and a lot of things I couldn't quite reconcile.
Then someone asked me to paint a mural about 5 and a half years ago, and I was like “Yes please, that sounds fun.” Having not really painted that much in my life, I really loved it. And then made steps to move over to mostly doing murals, and push into public art.
I’ve done lots of different things. I was tattooing for a while, and trying to figure out what made sense for me. I’ve been a full time artist for nearly 7 years, and at 28 now, I’m very grateful to be where I’m at now. I’ve had a lot of people help me along the way, and I learnt everything from other people, as opposed to school, and doing it the more traditional way.
You’ve taken on more and more public art projects and murals. How did you tackle such large scale projects?
It’s taken a while to hone the process in a way that there’s the least stuffing about, or risk, or scariness. There are lots of things that can go wrong, things you need to have and think about. Like licenses for working at heights, lots of materials, and lots of check-offs with the sites and who the work is for. I’ll have a check list of all the things my client needs to figure out, and all the things I need to figure out. I’ll do a design first, send that for review, then a mockup. When I go to install, I’m pretty adept at going from small scale to big scale, which is the fun part of my job. I don’t mark it out with a projector or stencils. I just do it freehand. Sometimes I’ll use a ruler for stripes. I don’t know how I can do it, but I can take something small, and draw it on a large scale.
What is something you enjoy about public art?
That it’s accessible to everybody. There are so many problems in the art and creative world, and how art is only for a privileged few. So, making art in public spaces is really cool.
I just did a piece in a shopping centre. Like, fuck capitalism and so many things that are wrong about shopping centres. But, I’m in a space where people don’t have access to art in the way we do in the city, and so these kids, who otherwise wouldn’t get to see this stuff, get to see it, get to play with it and get to understand the scope of what art really means.
Some people will say I’m too commercial or sold out in the work that I do, but I think that’s the real shit. That’s where art should be. I’m currently doing work for a fancy gallery, and I find that really difficult to get my head around. For me, the purpose of what I do is to be really fun and playful. There are lots of stories behind what I do, but the purpose is for someone to come to it, with no understanding of what I do, who I am or what art means, and they can enjoy it, they can get a kick out of it and walk on with their day. And that’s the thing that is really important to me.
But who am I, as a white settler, making art in public space? I’ve been trying to make space and trying to work with artists who didn’t grow up here, Artists of Colour, who can say something that I can’t. I work with Olana (you can check out his work here) and I watch him do his thing. I watch young Black kids walk by and say, “That is me, and I can see myself in this work!” That’s what’s special about public art, we have the capacity to really make people feel good. To change public spaces that are shitty and unloved, into something really beautiful that makes people feel safer and excited. Public art can do a lot.
What brings you joy in your work?
I really enjoy working with other people, and creating work that I can’t do on my own. Getting to learn from other people and the act of painting itself really makes me happy. Moving your body around, all of it is joyful.
Sometimes when I’m in my studio by myself, it can be hard and I can feel very much in my own head. But, that feeling is quickly diminished when I paint, and it’s really wonderful and such a privilege to get to do every day.
What has been your favourite project or collab you’ve worked on?
Working with Olana is one of the favourite things I’ve ever done. When we’re on site, we just talk about our love of painting, and we’ll both get really stoked about it. I’ve never met someone who feels the same way as me about painting and works in the exact same way. And that’s really cool. We have a really good vibe, and it can be really chaotic at times. We’re just trying to find more ways to work together because it’s a real joy and we work really good together. But anything in a public space is really exciting.
What do you want to see more of in the spaces you work?
Less cis het white people. I’m tired of the gatekeeping of art in general. Tired of going to exhibitions where everyone is white. Truthfully, what have I got to say and what am I saying? I really doesn’t say a lot in comparison to what other people are doing who are kept outside the boundaries of the art world. I really want that to change. For the spaces to look a lot different. I’m thankful that I have a lot of friends who are working to change that.
There’s currently an exhibition at Schoolhouse Studios, and opening night wasn’t about white people standing around drinking champagne. It was about community. This is what we need to see more of. But these institutions have existed for so long, and we’ve been told that is the level of success we need to aim for. But until that gets broken down, there is going to be that divide. I think there’s still a long way to go, but that’s what I’d like to see more of.
What did you want to be ‘when you grew up’?
I wanted to be a journalist or a cricket player. I was very sporty for a very long time. I really like reading and writing, but I’m too chaotic to be a journalist.
Who inspires you?
But growing up, my mum is an artist too. She didn’t get to do a lot of work when I was growing up. And now to see her doing the same thing, and seeing her have success is exciting and inspiring.
Abbey works from their studio on unceded land of the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation.
Shot by On Jackson Street.