In this in-depth interview, Abdi lets us into his world. We hear about the moment he knew he had would it took to become a professional, what his typical day is like and what his frustrations are as an artist.
My favorite part is when Abdi talks openly about when his faith is tested (which he says happens “all the time”).
Abdi: I’m primarily a painter, sculpture, print-maker, I dabble a little bit in like animation and really bad filmmaking [Laughs]. But for me it’s all kind of centered around drawing. I really just like drawing. Drawing for me is my way of experiencing the world around me.
Dan: So Abdi, what inspires you as an artist?
Abdi: I feel like every artist draws the most strength from what they know. And I grew up obsessed with sports and obsessed with basketball. It was to a point where it was like really weird. I knew the high and weight and the stats of the previous year of every single player in the NBA. Like it was crazy. So I just grew up really just memorizing just every little aesthetic detail of certain sports and just the physicality of the body. And it’s in those details that everyone has in their life that they’ve experienced where your strength lies as an artist. So that’s the kind of stuff that I’m drawing on right now. I’ve always just been drawn to people and just drawn to drawing people as a means of kind of hoping to understand them more and understand myself more.
Dan: So was there a moment when you decided that I’m going to pursue being an artist professionally?
Abdi: After my sophomore year of high school, I went to this national competition in Miami, it was the NAACP AXO competition. But I just thought it was like a free trip to Miami, I got down there, I saw all the amazing art with all the other painters and I was like, “Well, it’s good to get here, free trip to Miami I’m chilling” and then I wound up winning the whole thing and I won like the gold medal. And I remember sitting in the pool after that just by myself in our hotel and I was just kind of like, “I think I might be a professional artist”[Laughs]. It was kind of like right there, it just kind of made sense to me.
Dan: So what was this piece that won you the competition?
Abdi: I think it was called ‘Extreme Self Portrait’, like this great high school titles to paintings. It kind of represent this marker for me that I just keep, so I still have that painting. And it was just this self-portrait and I was using all these really classical terms that they were teaching us. Like contrapposto where it’s basically your body is turned in one direction to where you’re looking or where your head’s going and it kind of just creates this dynamic flow throughout the painting.
Dan: Yea it’s against the pasto.
Abdi: Yea. There you go. [Laughs] Conta – Pasto! [Laughter]
Dan: Okay, so Abdi, you were on the Bravo series Work of Art.
Abdi: Yes, yea [Laughs]
Is that correct?
Abdi: [Laughs] That is correct!
Dan: How did that come about? How did you get in the show?
Abdi: When I graduated from UPenn, I just wasn’t sure what the heck I was doing after college. I majored in fine arts, we were in the middle of this crazy recession, I was like I don’t really want a real job. And I applied for all these fellowships and grants and for some reasons I just didn’t get any of them. And then I heard about Work of Art. I was living with some friends in Philly. We got an email from the chair of art department at Penn and he was like, “I heard about this show…”. As soon as I heard that, I jumped on it. I started to get my work together, I got on the bus at like 6.30 in Philly, to get in line at 8.30 in New York for auditions that started at I think like 9 or 10.
For some reason even before I started the process I just kind of knew that I needed to be a part of it. Because for me, I feel every artist makes art because they enjoy making it physically but also because they feel like they have something to share with the world. And the idea of sharing my art with millions, literally millions of people was just kind of, I can’t think of anything better than that actually [Laughs].
Dan: Now, what did winning the show change for you?
Abdi: It’s interesting because the art world isn’t like any other industry. It’s not like I was like scooped up into some agency with like 3 CDs that I need to produce in the next 3 years. I was kind of just blessed with the cash prize, I had a show at the Brooklyn Museum and the money really allowed me to begin my art career in a way that every other artist on planet Earth would pretty much kill for. To have just the resources to kind of experiment and play around with some really great materials and really great ideas and to move to New York and rent space and to have some time where I didn’t have to have any other jobs and to…
Because as an artist, you’re basically fighting against all other things that fight for your time and energy and mental space. So I mean I know so many artists that they went to this great grad school, and they come out with so much debt and, I mean I have my own debt from undergrad, but to have those burdens and then try to be creative and try to further artistic thought as a whole is just something that’s kind of daunting to me [Laughs].
Dan: So, describe for me a typical day.
Abdi: The hardest thing in art is just to get started. So if I could get started on something like, I’ll try to start on like a sketchbook drawing or some…just to get me moving. Like it’s almost like a warm-up if you’re like an athlete or a dancer or something or actor. Or I’ll do like something really mundane like just cutting paper or something and then I’ll try to get into the art. And once I get into the art, that pretty much kind of consumes the rest of the day [Laughs].
And then I try to always have a, not a set amount of time, but I really try to make it a priority to take care of more business stuff. Answering emails, touching base with potential collectors, working on some semblance of a web presence. Don’t judge it right now cuz it’s kind of crappy, but…
Dan: [Laughs] Too late.
Abdi: Yea, too late, go ahead it’s okay. It’s out there, it’s my bad for leaving it out there.
Dan: And how is that balance going for you right now?
Abdi: I mean, I just need to make stuff. And if it’s good it’s good, if it’s bad it’s bad, but an artist is just someone who makes art. So if I’m going to consider myself an artist I just need to make stuff.
I just read David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water and he talks about like this part where it talks about real freedom. And he’s talking about how freedom isn’t what this world thinks as is freedom. And he describes our world as a world of winning and achieving and displaying. And as an artist, that kills you artistically. Like if you are just thinking about who’s the person’s going to look at it, who’s the person’s who’s gonna buy it, where can I show this work, how am I going to impress these people?
And for a long time especially after Work Of Art, as productive, as beautiful as the experience of Work Of Art was, it really did so many voices in my mind of who I was supposed to be and what art I was supposed to be doing next.
So now I’m at a really great part where I’m just kind of making stuff. And, yea, I’m hoping to not care what it is and how it’s received yet.
Dan: So what’s next for your career?
Abdi: It’s almost the time in the art world for what happened in the music industry in the mid-90s with, basically the rise of the independent music label. So I kind of just want to self-produce my work and continue to self-sell it.
Dan: Okay, so let’s talk about fears now. What fear do you have?
Abdi: Sometimes I fear that I’m not an artist. Sometimes I fear that I’m not supposed to be doing this, sometimes I fear that I don’t really want success as an artist. Sometimes I fear that…
Dan: What does that mean?
Abdi: The art world is a big thing so I don’t want to paint it with one big brush. But part of me doesn’t want to just be scooped up into the art world system of turning out work and appeasing collectors and having a work reach this at auction and having this show to do and having this next show to do and having to maintain some similar style so that people can kind of latch onto it, and then doing the networking and going to parties and meeting rich people and schmoozing with them.
It’s like part of me doesn’t want to do that. Part of me just want to make art so part of me is like “I don’t really want this if that’s what my job entails”. Because it is a job, it’s a profession, it has an office be it as large and amorphous as it is and it has bosses and it has people that are in control of certain things, you know?
So part of me just sees a lot of the way the sausage is made and doesn’t really care for too much of it. But that’s part of why I’m kind of just doing things my own way right now. Because in the end of the day it’s about the art and I don’t want to let anything stop me. Whether it be, ’cause I mean…
…Every sphere of our society is exactly the same. Like there are hierarchies, there’s power, there’s money, there’s nasty stuff that runs every single facet of your life. Like whether you’re a teacher or a doctor or you are in some very altruistic profession and there’s still really ugly things that you have to deal with. So I don’t want to be a baby and be like, “Oh yea I’m not going to do this because I don’t like the way this functions in the way the art world is.” But no, in the end of the day it’s about the art. So I want to do whatever it takes to make great art, keep making great art, and allow people to enjoy it and participate in it.
Dan: So what would you say like are kind of your personality, character traits that have helped you get to this point?
Abdi: I don’t know, my faith is really important to me. As a Christian, my faith is really important to me, but then I think the things that faith teaches you are very important as an artist. Just as every artist basically just lives by faith. And not in like a “Oh I hope my bills get paid” kind of way, but as an artist, you’re just hoping that the next stroke you put on the canvas or the next block you put together on the sculpture is gonna make it good. ‘Cause every piece of art kind of sucks until it’s done. You know, really, It’s just a mess until it just kind of falls together.
Dan: Are there moments when your faith is tested or there’s doubt in your faith as an artist?
Abdi: Oh my God, all the time. Like 2 hours ago, before I came here I was working on a piece[Laughs]. Yea, that’s the struggle. It’s like “Oh my God”, you’re either…so much of the time, you’re just at really low points as an artist in what you’re working on.
Dan: So what does that mean, low points?
Abdi: Yea, low points where you just don’t really know what you’e doing, you don’t really know if what you’re doing is worth anything, you don’t really know if it’s on a track to become anything good. You don’t really even know if you like doing it. Like low all around. Like I’m just being honest, like very low.
But you have something that keeps you going because you really do love it. For me it goes back to the root of the word “passion” which kind of comes from the like Judeo-Christian sense of “something that you’re willing to give your life for”. Like we think of the word “passion” is like “Oh we really love’s that, he’s passionate about that.” It’s not necessarily alike but it’s something that you’re willing to sacrifice for and you’re willing to suffer for.
Dan: What advice would you give to aspiring artist or those thinking about becoming an artist?
Abdi: Study art history, find artists that you relate to, find artists that you like. Because when you kind of create this brotherhood for yourself, or brotherhood/sisterhood, you kind of just enjoy being around those artists, they might be dead or whatever, you enjoy that you’re doing the same thing that they were doing. And it kind of just becomes just this team and you guys are working together in different time periods to some same beautiful goal.
And I would say learn the art world inside and out. Like you have to learn the profession. You have to learn the mechanics of it. But then, don’t make art that is a result of that. Don’t make artwork that shows that you know about the art world. That all you’re thinking about is the art world. Because you should be thinking about things within yourself. You should be thinking about things that just interest you.
So learn the business, learn the world, but then at the end of the day, do whatever the heck you want. Like do what you want to do, if you can just find what you enjoy doing, and do it, and find a way to do it every day, I can’t think of anything that’s better than that. Even if people don’t necessarily give it the respect it deserves. Like if you had a ball making it, no one can take that away from you.
This post originally appeared at PROLOGUE PROFILE.