Heather Gabel is one of my favourite artists. Her fine art evokes old world charm and nostalgia with a timelessness that simply mesmerises. The care, thought and love that goes into each piece is always evident and the works challenge us to think and dig deep. Set to launch her latest exhibition – NIGHT VISIONS – this Friday (12 Oct.) in Chicago, Heather had a moment amidst all the chaos that comes with readying a show, to answer some questions about her latest works, future projects, thrifting, collecting, growing up, mystic symbolism and more. Seriously. This interview made me laugh and made me cry—Ms. Gabel you’re magnificent!
Much of your earlier work deals with beautifully macabre imagery intertwined with the graceful opulence of the past, whereas your art works for upcoming exhibition, Night Visions, explores themes of emptiness and loss, personal connectivity with the dead, and the preponderance of a spiritual after life; are these themes influenced by experiences you have been dealing with in your own life of late? What inspired you to express these themes in your work for this exhibition?
HEATHER GABEL: Yeah, they are reflections of events I’ve personally dealt with. My friend Pope died unexpectedly a little over a year ago and it completely shattered me. I live about an hour from Cassadaga, the Spiritualist Camp, and I went after he passed and just totally had the most incredible experience. It fucked with me because I felt like if this was possible then anything is possible. For example, that if I started levitating it would make sense, which is a crazy head space to be in. It ultimately made me look inward and these pieces reflect my emotional landscape. It wasn’t so much inspired by as a result of that deep loss, a way to fill the empty space his death had created inside of me.
From my own experience grief can be all consuming and of course shapes and changes us, for better and for worse. For me, in my life, the experience of my mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and watching her decline for the past decade triggered my grieving over the loss of her as the strong, articulate, funny, sharp, loving person I once knew her to be. This has without a doubt affected me for better and worse – better in the way it’s inspired me to live a quality, full life of gratitude every day and worse in that, for example, I’ll see women of my mum’s age out and about with their daughters lunching, shopping etc. and I get such pangs of jealousy and feel such an anger that I no longer can experience this with my mum that it can put me in a terrible head-space for some time. I know grief is a very personal thing but, I wanted to ask you if you could please share with us an experience from your life where you’ve been affected a) for the better and b) for the worse in relation to grief.
HG: My grandmother, Casbana, on my Dad’s side, died about 7 years ago. I had only met her a few times in Baltim, Egypt where my Dad grew up. She only spoke Arabic, I only spoke English. She was hugging me, kissing me, speaking to me and we were both crying. It was intense, I was 23 the first time I met her but I felt like a child, we had this connection that felt timeless. When she died I felt an incredible loss because even though we’d shared this magical experience, we’d never even had a conversation, so it’s made me more aggressive in my daily life to make choices and place value on things in a different way which is a positive. I think it also made me have to face the fact that you just have what you have with people, you can only have so much sometimes and you have to realize and be grateful for it because maybe what you never got to share with them is in part responsible for the beauty of that relationship. I could feel that way about someone who had lived a long and fulfilling life but when Pope died, I was angry. I still am. He was only 26 and it was not a death of natural causes. It’s made me distrustful and it’s made me feel a lot of hate and horror and can bring me to a dark place in a flash if I’m not careful about really trying to just think about how amazing he is. I see him in dreams and flashes in other living people’s eyes sometimes, it’s always bittersweet.
‘Night Visions’ is another name that’s used in reference to dreams; are you a person that tends to dream often? Have you ever had a reoccurring dream or do you notice reoccurring themes in your ‘night visions’?
HG: I would say yes to both, but I’m using “Night Visions” here to include among actual dreams, also twilight visions and daytime hallucinations, razor sharp memories, apparitions, bursts of creativity, anything in the shadows that is veiled by some sort of other plane or heightened mental state.
What’s your personal favourite piece in the Night Visions exhibition collection?
HG: I think it’s the piece titled “Night Visions” (pictured below). Just because I’ve incorporated hair into the piece in a way that I’ve never done before. It’s nice to finally have a more concrete purpose for all the hair I’ve amassed and exciting to have made something different.
The show includes pieces in mixed media collage, photographs, and prints. I really love your collage pieces especially; what is your story with collage? How long have you been working with it?
HG: Thank you, I’m really excited about them. I started making flyers to get into shows when I was in high school, so it’s been over 20 years. They were collages. And all the band work I’ve done over the years, I’m drawing/tracing/photocopying something in the same way I’d assemble a collage. I did a lot more painting than collaging before I had my daughter. I had so many ideas and was so busy after having her that I couldn’t utilize painting and make everything I wanted to any more The collages came out of that need to be able to pick right up where I left off, no getting paint out, washing brushes. I hurry to my studio as soon as I have a chance, when my daughter is sleeping, to work on things I’ve been thinking about making all day.
Are there any others mediums you’d like to try working in that you haven’t yet?
HG: Right now, no. I’ve done photography, ceramics, painting, silkscreening, a little jewellery I like all of it, but am really content with what I can to make within the limits of a collage. In other words, I haven’t exhausted it yet.
Do you have any techniques or rituals that you use to get your creative juices flowing?
HG: Not particularly. I’m always looking for things, images, scouring bookstores and thrift stores so the hunt keeps me always wanting to make things with the new treasures I’ve found. When I actually make things I just put on music and work. Drink coffee.
There’s a lot of focus on the female form in your work. What is it in particular that draws you to portraying that?
HG: It’s the best way I’ve found to accomplish what I’m trying to do. It isn’t a conscious decision exactly, it’s just what I, and pretty much every other artist throughout history, have been compelled to record/express. In other words, I don’t know.
Your work often also has magick and sometimes Egyptian symbolism and imagery; is this something you’ve always been interested in?
HG: It is. I was really hung up on the upside down cross for most of my twenties, but I’ve always been enamoured with symbols in general. I’m half Egyptian so that particular symbolism has always had a special significance for me. Touching hieroglyphics for the first time sent shivers down my spine. It’s like they possess a magic from being charged with so much history and stillness.
I noticed a photo you posted on Twitter of a coffee cup/mug that says ‘Life’s a witch and so am I’ – I know I could be taking it a little too literally but, is Wiccan philosophy/spirituality something you identify with?
HG: I love the ritual and ceremony of Wicca but I don’t practice any kind of religion as it’d be regularly defined. I do identify with it on many levels though. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school from second to eighth grade. I went to mass twice a week for those years as well but the only real lasting effect it’s had on me is a deep admiration for the mystery and beauty of its cultish ritual and ceremony. The incense and candles are pretty irresistible. The afterlife scenario depicted in the Egyptian Book of the Dead though, I really love it, I just like a lot of occult philosophies/spiritualities in general.
You’re originally from Windsor, Canada and at times have lived in Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Gainesville, Los Angeles and most recently St. Augustine; what impact has the place/s you grew up in had on your work?
HG: I mostly grew up in the suburbs of Detroit so I was always going downtown to see bands and I absolutely loved it. The blocks of burnt out Victorian houses, steaming sewer caps, absolutely empty, it was hauntingly beautiful. When I actually moved downtown I was in heaven. I was a block away from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library and Wayne State College Campus were walking distance and that’s just the things that were open. There was the abandoned train station, countless abandoned houses and warehouses, churches. It was a fantasy! I had a couple friends and we’d just traipse through all these amazing places. Taking pictures, collecting treasures, it was endlessly inspiring. I think those years really cemented the aesthetic I employ.
Once I moved to Chicago I didn’t get to do my own work as much but actual homework. I was in school for fine art/photography and working and that’s when I started touring with Alkaline Trio to so most of that time was spent doing band designs. When I moved to Oakland I was still touring a lot. I would paint when I was home and started doing shows in SF. I’d always been enamoured with California and the Bay Area in particular. It was a great place to be for me at the time because I loved being there and was felt stimulated to make things, that’s when I started doing a lot more work for bands. When I moved to Florida I realized how much I’d taken Oakland for granted.
The scene in Gainesville was an ill fit for me. As a result I did a lot of work because I was pretty much a hermit living on vampire hours due to the insane heat. LA was a welcome relief afterwards. I like living in cities. I felt more like myself again there and was surrounded by people and an energy that I fed well off of creatively. Now, I’m a half hermit in St. Augustine. I’m working from a more personal place than ever, feeling more connected to what I’m creating and am happier than ever with the results which makes the isolation ok with me.
Recently on Twitter you also posted the tweet: I wear long skirts and like some Doors songs, my teenage self thinks I am the lamest ever; what were you like as a teen?
HG: I think I’d heard “Light my Fire” and “Break on Through” but the thing was that the jocks at my school, and the popular kids at my school, and the mean rich kids and some of the burn outs; maybe everybody liked them. So it was more a refusal to listen to it because it was shit if those assholes liked it. There were some nice goth/skater/weirdo kids in my art class freshman year but they were seniors so they were mostly gone when I had 3 more years to go.
I wore black and ate lunch at a table by myself and sometimes kids threw food at me. Pretty classic high school “freak” situation. Some kids would cough “Dirty” when I walked in the room. I didn’t really care though, I had a group of friends from other schools and was going to shows and was immersed in a totally different culture than them, a culture that did not embrace The Doors! And I think I thought long skirts were just for hippies or something. I had always been a mini skirt wearer.
You have many admirers of your work – I know this because any time you put your work up (I adore the indian ink on saucer art) for sale on your etsy it pretty much always sells out before I can buy a piece! – do you work solely as an artist at this point in your career?
HG: I’m doing some more of those saucers now, I’ll make sure you get one this time! I do, either doing graphic design for bands, doing my own work for exhibits or to put in the store on my website or on etsy as well as the odd custom request I might get.
Your work has been exhibited nationally in the US and internationally; does being a professional artist put any pressures on your work? Does it ever actually feel like work?
HG: It doesn’t whenever I am asked to exhibit it’s always exciting and I get inspired. Sometimes the band work is tedious, but just as often it pushes me onto something new technically or conceptually that I can use in my own work.
Do you set regular work hours for yourself? Is there a certain amount you like to produce in a given week?
HG: I don’t set hours, with my three year old daughter it’s not very realistic. I basically work whenever she is sleeping or at school. If I make something every few days I’m satisfied.
Both yourself and your wife are both highly creative people; in what ways, if any, is she an influence on your work?
HG: Well she has always been incredibly driven. It’s always bigger and better and what’s next nonstop with her and it’s rubbed off on me. The older I’ve gotten the more focused I’ve become but she’s been a really motivating force for me since I first met her. I’m more of an in the moment person than her but I am definitely more productive as a result of her work ethic.
I know you enjoy thrifting as much as I do. What’s one of the most amazing purchases you’ve found while thrift shopping?
HG: This past summer I was doing merch for Against Me! It was with The Cult but on a day off Against Me! Played their own show in Grand Rapids. Some of my friends from Chicago who have a vintage store drove out and we thrifted all day. It wasn’t looking too good at first but then they spotted a Victorian era black crushed velvet cape with black goat fur trim, amazing collar, totally insane, hopefully/quite possibly a mourning garment (swoon). VICTORIAN! It had a note pinned to it inside with information and lineage of the woman who had it donated upon her death. It’s in amazing condition, fits me perfect and was marked $45, I asked if they could do better on the price and I got the thing for $35. Insane. It was in the back lounge of the bus for half that tour and it turned out my wife would wear it when she wrote at night and James, the guitar player, would just put it on and look in the mirror. Hilarious! I can’t wait for it to get cold so I can wear it. Did I mention, Victorian? $35?
Tell us about your scissor collection! How many pairs do you have? Which is your most treasured pair? When did you start collecting them? Why scissors?
HG: I started collecting them about 18 years ago. I don’t really know why, I’ve always liked the feel of them. They are the perfect unity of form and function to me and I love them equally for both reasons. Maybe it’s because I use them every day. I have 42 pairs. I have a few favorites. The first was the one that started me collecting them, my Mom’s classic Singer sewing shears. She would always forbid me to use them and I was always using them for cutting paper which dulls them. When I moved out I took those scissors and just kept adding more. Another amazing pair were a gift from my friend Matt when I was touring with him and Alkaline Trio. We were in Germany I think and he brought them to me at the club. They are huge, heavy and just perfect, you could easily cut your pinky off with them. The ones I use for actually making collages come from a desk set my wife got me the first Christmas we knew each other. They are my go to’s.
Do you collect anything else?
HG: Yes. I collect hair. My hair, whenever I cut it. It’s in bags and envelopes and the little sanitary napkin bags from London that have a little lady holding a parasol printed on them, some are dated. I’ve been doing it since high school, from the first time I cut my hair short. I use it in my work sometimes but mostly it is stored kind of randomly and sometimes freaks my wife out when she finds it. I get it. I’d probably think it was weird if she did it too.
To move on to the topic of music for a moment, you’ve played bass casually with friends, were in a band when you lived in Detroit called the Unloved when you were younger and have sang a few times with friends; is there any chance will be hearing music from you any time soon? I read in a previous interview with you that your wife had built a studio and you were hoping to record a split 7″ release with her!
HG: Yeah, I don’t know if “practicing” (aka drinking 40s while wearing and sloppily playing a bass) a handful of times counts as actually being in a band but it was so fun. My wife and I have been kicking the idea of doing a seven inch around for awhile, as a band, just the two of us, me singing, her basically doing everything else. I had a dream that we were taking promo pictures and they were so amazing, I told her we should probably start a band when I woke up the next morning. It’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, just to have in the 7” collection we’ve each been adding to since our early teens, and she has been so kind as to agree to do it with me. Which is great, since she actually knows what she’s doing. I just say things like “Can we just have distorted bass? Like Rudimentary Peni?” or “How do you make the sound on this Sisters of Mercy record?” We’re both so busy who knows when we’ll ever get to but it’s something that we both want to do.
And lastly, what’s next for you?
HG: I have a solo show, Night Visions, opening October 12th at Johalla Projects in Chicago. In December I’m doing a collaboration on a collection of jewellery with my friend Laurel Baker who has a boutique in town called Anchor. It’s is something I’ve never done before outside of school so that’s pretty exciting for me. I will be in a group show this December at Parlor Gallery in Asbury Park, NJ. Also, Matt Skiba and I are doing a show, Love in A Void, together in NYC next year, it’ll be all collaborations (I’m making collages and he’s painting/drawing on them) which I’m really overjoyed about. Aside from that I just finished a few new shirt designs to put in my webstore and am working on prints to add there too.
More magic all the time!
*All art featured by Heather Gabel – 2 – Lord of Silence / 3 – Night Visions / 4 – plaques from Left-up-down to right: Shells of the Dead, Three Wishes, The Ovate, The Messenger, Mysteries Revealed / 5 – untitled / 6 – Spirit Portrait / 7 – Black Magic saucer / 8 – Heather’s scissor collection / 9 – As Above, so Below