A day before Michael Abelman’s art show opened, someone wandered into the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery, looked around, and exclaimed: “How nice. Spring has arrived!” This random comment could serve as a description of the entire show. Bright optimistic flowers bloom on the gallery walls, defying the winter rain outside, encompassing all seasons. It’s hard to believe that the artist only started painting 10 years ago.
“I always loved art,” Abelman told the Independent about his start, “loved visiting museums and galleries. There are wonderful paintings in galleries along Granville Street, but I could never afford them, so I thought I would paint what I like myself.”
His vague wish to create beauty resulted in the birth of an artist, although from his background, one might never guess the exuberance of his floral canvases. By education, Abelman is an accountant; by profession, a salesperson. He grew up in South Africa and immigrated to Canada 20 years ago, together with his partner. He never painted in his native country, but Canada inspired him to start.
“In the beginning, I was really bad for a long time,” he admitted with a smile. “But I never gave up. I learned: studied with Lori Goldberg, took classes at Emily Carr, read textbooks and went to galleries.” And, of course, he painted.
“Studying art was a long, slow progression for me,” he recalled. “Each year, I would get better – maybe one percent. Then, three years ago, I had a big jump in quality. I joined Artists in Our Midst that spring and opened my house to the public.”
He sold several paintings that first year, which seemed like an acknowledgement of his skill, although sales don’t really matter to him. “I enjoy painting. That’s why I do it. If my paintings sell, all the better, but I would do it anyway. I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”
Abelman finds inspiration in the gardens around Vancouver. “I like painting what I see close to home. It’s beautiful here,” he said. “I’ve traveled to Europe, South America and Australia, but I don’t want to paint what I see there. I don’t want to paint Mexico. I want to paint local gardens. My partner, Leon, is a gardener. His garden is wonderful. I painted it one whole year. It motivated me. Leon grows some interesting tropical trees, plants from South Africa. He has a banana tree.”
Several paintings in the exhibition reflect the artist’s vision of his partner’s garden. One of them he even named after the gardener: “Leon’s Garden.”
Verdant greenery and the profusion of flowers of all varieties dominate Abelman’s pictures. Pink roses and red poppies, gorgeous dahlias and coquettish impatiens, slender blush-tinged mallows and exotic orange pokers beckon the viewers to enter the paintings, smell the fragrance, hear the leaves whisper.
All this multicolored magnificence has been painted indoors, in the artist’s basement turned studio, from photographs and picture books. “It’s often cold and rainy outside,” he lamented. “And I try to paint every day, at least one hour a day.”
He uses his own photographs and those of others as a motif, a starting point for his unique compositions, which are imbued with polychromatic light. He never copies a photo. To breathe life into his paintings, he changes the layout, applies his own impressions to the image or introduces a little mystery.
One of the paintings in the show, “Reflections Through My Window,” resonates with enigmatic undertones. Furniture and living stems, glass panes and a bouquet in a glass vase intertwine in the image, creating something new, discordant and harmonious simultaneously. It’s hard to discern what is reflection and what is reality, what is inside the glass and what is outside. “Mystery is good,” Abelman said with satisfaction when he talked about this painting.
“When I look at photos to find a new idea for a painting, color is more important to me than content,” he explained about his creative process. He constantly searches for that elusive quality that only reveals itself to true artists. “I’m always pushing the limits of beauty, but my esthetics change with years, evolve…. It’s all about that final lost layer of paint that makes all the difference.”
Sometimes, that final touch is a shadow or a few stray wavelets in a pond, or a lone petal falling into a stream. Water – be it a tiny rivulet in a garden, a pond in Giverny or the somnolent Burrard Inlet – features prominently in many of his paintings. “I love painting water,” he said.
Always on the lookout for new imagery, Abelman visited the library of Van Dusen Botanical Garden a few months ago for some flower books. When the librarian saw his paintings, she offered him a show at the library, and that show was mounted in the fall of 2013. His impressionistic flowers did very well alongside the real thing. “I was invited to speak to the Richmond Art Guild later this spring, because they saw my paintings at the Van Dusen. They have 60 members.”
He sounded amazed at his own luck, despite his rapidly improving skills and the attending commercial success, as if he can’t take himself too seriously. Even when he disclosed his secret ambition, he laughed, as if sharing a joke: “I want my paintings to be so good that it would hurt you to walk out of the galley without them.”
In Full Bloom is at the Zack Gallery until Feb. 16.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].