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Generations of light and color

May 11, 2017 12:23PM ● Published by J. Chambless

'Passing Through (on the C&D Canal)'

Gallery: Artist Abigail McBride [5 Images] Click any image to expand.

(This story will appear in the Summer 2017 issue of Chester County Life, distributed on June 7)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Abigail McBride could hardly have escaped becoming an artist. Her grandmother was an illustrator and watercolorist, and her mother runs a successful gallery, so Abigail has spent her entire life surrounded by art.

Speaking at her home in Chesapeake City, McBride traced the course of her life and career, during which art has been a constant companion.

Abigail McBride in her home studio in Chesapeake City.

 “My grandmother was a very early influence,” she said. “We used to fly out to visit her on the farm in Minnesota. She lived on a dairy farm. When she was young, her parents couldn't afford to send her to college, so she went and got herself a full scholarship to an art school, I believe it was in Chicago. She supported herself as an illustrator in the city, which was unheard of. She met my grandfather through correspondence when he was in the Army. So that meant she had to move to a dairy farm,where they had six kids. My mom was the oldest of those kids. My grandmother just carved out an art career for herself.”

She also offered art lessons to all of her children and grandchildren. “I was the only one who took her up on it,” McBride said. “I was 6 or 8 years old when she started to teach me. I always loved drawing people, so on the airplane flight to the farm, I would pull out the in-flight magazines and draw people from them. I would show her the drawings when I got there. She'd critique them, and on the flight home, I would pull out the same magazine and adjust the drawings. 

“I remember that she told me I needed to put shading on the faces, and I said, 'Won't they look dirty?' She said, 'It's going to make them look better.' I remember doing it and having this 'A-ha' moment. Magic! I couldn't believe it!”

McBride's mother owns the McBride Gallery in Annapolis, Md., “so I grew up in a gallery. I always knew I wanted to be an artist. One of the biggest benefits of the gallery was that when I was coming up, I saw becoming an artist as a plausible career. Most parents would tell you to have a back-up plan, but my mom didn't talk about that. I didn't find out until later how extraordinarily rare it is to make your living at it.”

McBride grew up in Arnold, Md., went to Westmont College in California, and with the help of her mother, set up her own studio. “She told me to register as a small business, to be sure to collect sales tax, she explained invoices. When I was in college, they refused to talk about the business side of being an artist,” McBride said. “I was living the dream – living like a missionary because I never knew how much money I was going to have. As an artist, you might sell three paintings and you feel like you have all this money, and then for three months you sell nothing.”

So McBride did some website design work after college, but she was determined to keep her main focus on being a full-time artist. Her early gift for portraiture paid off, “but I found that I couldn't draw anything else,” she said, so she moved toward landscape. A workshop at the Cape Cod School of Art was transformative – an immersion in living at the school and painting daily with other artists and accomplished teachers. She worked as a studio assistant for the art classes, helped around the studio and painted all day, every day, for several summers.

“That was my grad school,” McBride said. “It was fantastic. You have to leave acres of canvas behind you to maintain that mindset of being willing to take big risks and fail, and learn from your mistakes.”

By the time she emerged from this period of her career, McBride's gift for capturing the luminous essence of a scene was firmly in place.

Along the path of her career, there have been some highlights, starting with a writer including her in an article about palette knife painting in American Artist magazine. The story got her exhibitions and representation, effectively launching her career. While McBride was still in her 20s, she founded the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painter's Association, and the “Paint Annapolis” event. She also turns up in reruns of a Maryland Public Television segment about a winter painting trip she used to take part in, and she is featured in the Schiffer Publishing book, “100 Plein Air Painters of the Mid-Atlantic,” by Gary Pendelton.

McBride had early gallery representation and several eager buyers, including her future husband. “He was collecting my paintings out of the Philadelphia gallery that represents me. He bought several of my things but he never came to openings,” McBride explained. Captivated by one painting of a young woman at a piano, he couldn't stop thinking about it. A year later, “I had a solo show and he comes the day after the opening and asked about the painting,” McBride said. “He asked if the gallery owner could contact me. I was living in Annapolis at the time, and I brought the painting up. That's how we met. It was very romantic. He was surprised when he met me because he assumed that Abigail was an old-fashioned name and that I was much older.”

Today, the painting hangs near the family's front door.

After that meet-cute introduction, the two would meet in Chesapeake City as a midpoint between his home in Philadelphia and her home in Annapolis. Today, their home sits on a quiet side street, almost in the shadow of the town's signature bridge. Initially, the young couple tried living in Philadelphia, but McBride felt stifled by the pace of city life and the constant surroundings of asphalt and brick.

With the eventual addition of two sons, now 5 and 7, McBride kept busy with portrait commissions.

“After I had my kids, it helped me reorient my understanding of how important my work was,” she said. “Up to that point, so much of my life was about whether or not my work was good, and if people were appreciating it. But when I had my kids, it was like, 'I'm responsible for this human life.' That has so much more weight than whether or not somebody likes something that I painted. It felt ridiculous that I had been so anxious about it. The next time somebody wanted a commission, I didn't freak out, and it was easy. It gave me perspective and it made me a healthier person.”

McBride approaches portraits – whether dazzlingly detailed charcoal or fully painted images – as “a true collaboration. Very different from when you're painting only for yourself,” she said. “I try to get a sense of who the person is, or the reason for the portrait. A portrait commission is a time when you are bearing witness to this person. Whoever commissions you is doing it to honor something about this person. My role is to be a witness to that. And it's more important that it feels like the person, rather than be absolutely accurate. The spirit is more important than precision.”

For her plein-air paintings, McBride said she works mostly on site, all in one sitting, to capture the essence of a scene. At this point, she has painted landscapes so often that she could paint an imaginary place, she said.

Her love of art has extended to teaching others, and she is a regular private instructor at the Chesapeake Fine Art Studio, based in Stevensville, Md. She also teaches two portrait classes at the Anne Arundel Community College. She teaches teens and adults, including a boy of 13 whose youthful enthusiasm reminds her of herself at that age.

“I love teaching, because you learn so much,” she said. “Teaching is giving back, because I had such amazing teachers. I'm so grateful for my education. When someone really teaches you, it's priceless. I feel I'm passing on the knowledge that I've learned.

“With teaching, you get to see the beginnings. You can say, 'You need to do XYZ.' Then if they do it, and it works, I can go, 'I need to start doing more of that!'”

McBride credits The Palette & the Page in Elkton as being a hub for the local art scene, pulling artists together. “When I first moved here about 10 years ago, I came from such a tight-knit art community. But there was no consolidated community of people here doing a similar thing,” she said. “At first, I was really trying to re-create my experience in Annapolis, so I started the Paint the Town event here in Chesapeake City, and we did that for maybe five years. Then we did the Town Hall Ten, where we had art exhibits going on in the Town Hall.”

McBride's studio is in the front living room of her home. There aren't any doors to close, even when her children are home. “They are growing up with me running my business in that room, so they don't come into the studio,” McBride said. “Just like I used to go with my mom and do errands and stick labels onto show cards, and help with the framing. My sister and I would go to every opening at the gallery and stand by the punch bowl, and we would pour punch for people. We were always a part of it.

“I want my kids to grow up with that. When people come in for a portrait, I have my kids play with the siblings of a child I'm painting. They know their job is to be gracious hosts. I want them to be a part of all this endeavor. I want them to grow up seeing the work of it, and not think it was just magic.”

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From Oct. 5 to 28, McBride will be part of “The Study of Light: A Visual Diary” at the Gibby exhibition space in Middletown. There will be a reception for the six exhibiting artists – McBride, Melissa Gryder, Nancy McCarra, Michele Del Pilar, Andrée Tullier and Sarah Wardell – on Oct. 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. Visit www.thegibby.com/exhibitions.

For more information, visit www.abigailmcbride.com.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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