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Freehand Fellow Abraham McNally on Making Sculpture with Poplar Trees and Children’s Clothing

New York

Looking back on 2018, we were lucky enough to host Abraham McNally as one of our Freehand Fellow artists-in-residence. Abe is a sculptor from rural Vermont, who draws much of his inspiration for nature, so entering the urban, skyscraper-laden atmosphere of the city was a big change for him. We sat down with him to talk about how he was able to draw ideas from his new environment, and the story behind some of the unconventional materials (his own children’s clothes!) he uses in his work.

 

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a sculptor in the Freehand Fellowship program and a graduate of Bard College undergrad and Bard MFA. I’m originally from Vermont but now I live here in New York.

 

Can you talk a little bit about the materials and tools that you’ve used to create your sculptures?

Materials and tools are a really big part of my process — not just to get my work made, but to help me think about what work I want to make. I use materials and tools that come almost exclusively from the place I grew up in Vermont — in the very northeast corner of the state, almost all the way up to Canada. I’ve recently been working with this one particular kind of Poplar, a tree that grows a lot in Vermont.

 

What scale are the sculptures you create?

The scale of my work varies a lot. It could be something that could fit in the palm of your hand, or a piece that’s 25 feet tall. I always think of the scale of my work having to do with the scale of my body, always one to one. I think of the small pieces as something I could hold in my arms and the larger pieces as something that I could have shelter under.

 

Can you talk a little bit about the material you’ve layer into your sculptures?

Fabrics are a big part of my materials, which juxtaposes with the Poplar. The fabric I use is not random but clothing that belonged to my children. I have three small children, and they cycle out of a lot of clothes because they’re growing so fast. I love children’s clothing because they are so bright and filled with patterns.

Wonderful. How did you come up with the idea of using children’s clothing?

I kind of stumbled upon it. There were bags of children’s clothes in our apartment all the time that we would give away and I had been looking around for material base color to use in my work. I realized it was right in front of me. The pieces have this emotional quality. I found that having to cut up a shirt that belonged to my daughter when she was 3 months old was kind of a loaded experience. It made me value the material in a way that I normally wouldn’t have.

 

You have been working out of Freehand for a couple of month now. Can you describe a typical day in your studio?

I’m here as soon as I can in the morning — usually around 9. I’ll get a coffee at Smile To Go and I’ll head up to the studio, which is situated in the very top floor of the building. It’s a very good morning place — very bright and light! I have a studio practice that I’ve done for years every morning, before I’m allowed to look at any social media or anything online, I have to force myself to make a drawing. The drawings usually take as long as it takes me to drink my coffee. I move on to other work until lunch, and then I’m taking full advantage of Studio, the café downstairs. I really got to know the staff there during my residency. I’ll take a break, have lunch, work for a few more hours, and then I’m off to pick up my kids from school.

Recently I have found myself coming here in the evening, which is a completely different experience. The city becomes a much bigger part of the studio itself, because out of every window I’m surrounded by the Midtown skyscrapers.

 

What has been the best part about working in the Freehand studio?

It’s been a great experience — not only because it’s here in New York, which is so different than the small town that I come from, but also I really enjoyed getting to learn about the history of the building, and using the architectural space as inspiration. It’s a way to juxtapose this very rural set of materials against an extremely urban environment.