Toronto artist John Abrams paints movies. He captures a moment in time — a facial expression, a raised hand, a fluttering page of a newspaper — and paints it as it is, and how he imagines that it could be. For the past five years Abrams has been creating oil paintings of film stills, mainly those produced by the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. And this week Abrams is presenting 24 of his paintings at The Terrace Theater, along with a brand spankin’ new mural on the building’s entrance.
So how did a Canadian artist find his way to Charleston? Paul Brown, owner of the Terrace, is originally from Canada, and Abrams is Brown’s stepfather’s son-in-law. But nepotism this is not — Abrams is a talented painter in his own right, with past shows held in art galleries in Denmark, Australia, England, New York, and all over Ontario.
“The idea always in owning a theater was to multi-purpose the place,” says Brown. “I have this space, I have all these people coming into it, so I wanted to take advantage of the idea of diversifying what the space is and offering lecture series, art, furniture shows.” Brown and writer Stephanie Burt had worked together to hold art shows at the Terrace in the past, including an event called Buzzworthy, which featured up-and-coming artists. But they figured it was high time for the theater to install a semi-permanent exhibition (Abrams’ paintings will be on display and for sale in the theater until next February), and to celebrate the artist behind it.
“I wanted to do something international. There’s enough local representation of art by local artists,” says Brown. So when he saw Abrams’ work in Toronto a few years ago, he started thinking about ways to collaborate with the artist.
“Paul has been working in film for years and with my approach, it’s a wonderful crossover,” says Abrams.
“I enjoy the translation from one medium to another,” says Abrams. “When a book turns into a play or a movie, certain changes happen, but they all have common cultural references.” Abrams is interested in this kind of communication, both between himself and his work, and his work and viewers. “I started as an abstract expressionist painter, and I just felt that working with images gives it more depth and meaning,” he says.
Abrams isn’t just painting movies — he’s also creating his own. Abrams captures his creative process in short films and combines these images with actual footage from movies like Dial M for Murder and The Birds. The coolest part? Abrams puts his images back into these short movies: Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) drives past billboards of Abrams’ paintings in his recreation of The Birds.
In addition to paintings and short flicks, Abrams has a history of painting murals — he’s been switching up the facade of Toronto bar and music venue, The Cameron House, for years now. “The Cameron House was a center of arts in Toronto 25 years ago,” says Abrams. “It’s a place for artists and they wanted something to mark it as an art spot.” Abrams estimates that he’s painted 15 different murals on The Cameron House, and he’ll start on a new one in a few months.
“When you’re doing murals, people walk by and interact with you. It’s very interesting to talk and paint at the same time,” says Abrams.
Brown and Burt are hoping the Terrace’s mural will lead to even more interaction with the surrounding community. “The James Island community has been so supportive of this theater,” says Brown. “So James Island, here is some public art for you to enjoy.”
It’s not just any art either, it’s a scene from a Hitchcock film (and no we won’t tell you which one — where’s the fun in that?), something both classic and universally recognizable. “Hitchcock resonates with people,” says Brown. “Art can be intimidating to some, but this is so accessible.”
“I was brought up on film,” says Abrams. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and film was a whole different animal then. It was a special event. Cowboy films and stuff influenced me. They help us find our identities.”
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