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These young artists found meaning, inspiration after heartbreak and illness
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Abby Rhodes, 28, discovered a love of art while caring for her ailing grandmother. - photo by Nick Bowman

Ambitious, abstract art is gaining a foothold among Hall County’s young working class.

A new generation of local artists is finding its way into the business, and gaining some notoriety in Gainesville and the county, without passing through the classroom. You’re more likely to see this work in Atlas Pizza, Avocados restaurant or on Instagram than the traditional spots around town.

Art as hobby, pastime, even therapy — they’re taking an untrained approach and embracing rough, improvised, emotional creation by trading oil paints for resin, alcohol inks, spray paint and the desktop.

Abby Rhodes lives in the gray area that’s south Gainesville or Oakwood depending on the day of the week. She cuts food at Publix, a job she started almost four years ago as an undergraduate at the University of North Georgia.

She now has a degree in health and physical education and is looking for something in her field while she pulls shift work.

The 28-year-old came to art while she was losing her grandmother, Sue Martin, to liver cancer in 2018.

She started with acrylic pouring — a method creating art from accidents and a popular entry point for the art-curious in the county — and has since moved on to graphic design and freeform stencil art, her most recent project.

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Abby Rhodes started with acrylic pouring — a method creating art from accidents and a popular entry point for the art-curious in the county — and has since moved on to graphic design and free-hand stencil art, her most recent project. - photo by Nick Bowman

Laying painter’s tape, stencils and small objects on a blank canvas, Rhodes uses color combinations to create graffiti-esque designs. She’s discovering that, given the physical, fast-paced nature of the work, her art is becoming not just an outlet for her own anxieties, but a reflection of them.

“I made a picture the other day. I had so much on my mind, and it’s just so busy,” Rhodes said. “It’s layers and layers and layers, and by the end I feel like I just took a deep breath. Everything that was in my head that was all jumbled up was all smoothed out because it was transferred to the canvas.”

That act of relief has not only made her art better, it helped her get through her grandmother’s death.

“I was into sports as a kid. This is just something that I picked up that really saved me through ... her cancer coming back,” Rhodes said. “I couldn’t really leave the house, so it was something I could do here and it was kind of an escape.”

Suffering also brought Dustin Morris to art. The former machine operator was diagnosed with an unusual illness that affects his stomach in 2008. Requiring frequent, prolonged stays in Georgia hospitals, Morris, 39, had to leave his job and now lives on Social Security.

It was 11 years ago that Morris left work. He came to art in the few years afterward and by 2012 was hooked — thanks to his mother.

“When I got put at home, I had no hobbies. I had always been a machine operator, so I had never painted, drawn anything,” Morris said. “My mom bought me some paints and said, ‘Here, this is what retired people do.’”

Attempting landscapes and rural scenes wasn’t working for Morris, but a happy accident put him on the path to a sizeable Facebook and Instagram following for his art accounts, Truly Gone Abstract.

He spilled his paints.

“I was trying to paint barns and do what other people did, and I just couldn’t stand it,” Morris said. “One night I stood up, and when I did the paint spilled. It was like four colors that spilled together, and I took a toothpick and just starting messing with it and fell in love with abstract.”

He’s now an accomplished artist specializing in large pieces made with resin and alcohol inks — the end result being layered art resembling the astrological and molecular.

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Gainesville artist Dustin Morris and his psychedelic acrylic pieces are part of a low-key community of artists are producing Gainesville's next generation of art. - photo by Scott Rogers

He can spend months on a particular piece at his home in Gainesville, and Morris has his work hanging in restaurants like Avocados and Atlas in addition to appearing in shows at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center in Gainesville.

“Painting for me is like my medicine,” Morris said. “It’s my way of escaping the fact of my stomach not working, being in the hospital all the time — it just takes all of that away.”

Painting has also brought him into a circle of people in Gainesville with a similar approach to art. Morris said he’s good friends with local street artist and designer Kareem Abdul Salam, with whom he’s discussed opening a gallery space for local modern artists. He’s gotten to know hobbyist Denise Hogan, a restaurant server in town who in turn introduced him to Rhodes.

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Detail of a Dustin Morris resin piece. - photo by Scott Rogers

All told, there’s a network of about 15 people in their group who share ideas and collaborate on abstract and modern art in Hall County.

“No one really has the same thing going on, which makes it kind of nice; we can work off of each other and have ideas from each other,” Morris said.

He and Rhodes have struck up a friendship around their art — but it being 2019, they’ve never actually met and instead keep in touch online.

“I like the way she does the spray paint with the taping and the layering,” Morris said. “I think she could really go far.”

From pastime to a tidy side business, Rhodes has now produced dozens of canvases, and more graphic designs, and a few skateboards that have been selling through Facebook and Instagram.

One of her skateboard designs now hangs in the California shop of Stacy Peralta, a skateboarder, filmmaker and one of the old-school Z-Boys who paved the way for skateboarding mega-star Tony Hawk.

“My very first stencil abstract piece is even to-date the best one I’ve produced, and somebody told me I should put it on a skateboard — so just by chance I was able to get in touch with Stacy Peralta,” Rhodes said.

The design was inspired by galaxy spray paint designs, a genre of often-viral street art that entails artists — often as quickly as possible — using spray paint to create planetary scenes using cast-off tools like old bowls, cans and cups.

He liked the board, so she shipped it to him. The board hangs in Powell-Peralta in California, Peralta’s skateboard shop.

And from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Rhodes will have almost her entire collection of work in a room at the Gainesville Civic Center on Green Street.

Abby’s Art Show

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 9

Where: Gainesville Civic Center, 830 Green St. NE

How much: Free to enter

More info:

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Dotting is another form of art used by Gainesville artist Abby Rhodes. - photo by Nick Bowman

The art show isn’t part of an organized exhibit and is instead her own initiative, a project she hopes to do more in the future.

“It’s hard for local artists. And I have a lot of friends — a lot of them are better than I am — just not having any luck selling their art locally,” Rhodes said. “All of my friends, we just kind of go through Facebook.”

Hogan, who works at Scott’s Downtown and The Inked Pig, who got to know Rhodes while they were both working at Books-A-Million years ago, is with her on that score.

A jellyfish design by Denise Hogan. Photo courtesy of Denise Hogan.
The hobby artist describes her own style as “trash to treasure,” using found or cast-off objects to make art (think old guitar strings woven into wall art and fallen sticks woven into dreamcatchers).

She’s been watching the interest in midtown Gainesville hoping that the circle of artists in the community can move beyond social media and find some space to collaborate face-to-face in town.

“I really think it’s just about strengthening the roots,” Hogan said, adding that the industrial feel of the area, and the cheaper property, would work well for a studio. “It just feels more like we would fit in over there.”

Denise Hogan sits next to the design she painted on the floor of Avocados restaurant in Gainesville. A longtime Gainesville hobby artist, Hogan introduced Abby Rhodes and Dustin Morris and has high hopes for the Gainesville young art community. Photo courtesy of Hogan.

But in the meantime, Rhodes is building her online presence and getting seen through pop-up shops like her event on Saturday, and Morris will keep plugging away at Truly Gone Abstract knowing that, whether a space turns up or his circle gets more notoriety — the art is what’s important.

“I honestly don’t care if I ever sell my stuff,” Morris said. “To me, the joy is doing it ... If someone loves it, that right there is what hits you more than cash — to know someone loved your art, that smile, that means more than any amount.”

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Detail of a Dustin Morris acrylic piece. - photo by Scott Rogers
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