Nine years ago, artist Gwen Bigham moved from Charlotte to Asheville.
Psychologists note that moving is one of the most stressful events a person can experience, because it has the potential to trigger a sense of disorder and disorientation. In Bigham’s case, it caused a rather seismic shift in her artwork.
In Charlotte, she spent years making a name for herself as an installation artist. But upon moving to Asheville, she reinvented herself as an abstract painter. Part of the reason was that she loves to paint, and missed doing that. But there was also a more practical impetus to dust off the easel. Paintings take up a lot less real estate.
“I love painting,” Bigham says, “because I love to push juicy color around. But I was doing large installations, and it takes a lot of material. For one installation I used about 1,600 pounds of thread and 18 wax vessels.”
Bigham’s installations have been displayed in prominent venues including the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, the Mint Museum, and the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.
“When I do an installation,” Bigham explains, “my focus is to have the viewer step into a moment of childlike wonder, and release whatever they left behind. But that kind of installation takes a lot of space. When I moved here, my house was in one truck and my studio was in another one.”
One of her installations occupied a cavernous space inside an abandoned textile mill. Another, called “Nest,” covered approximately 200 square feet. Her piece titled “Release” stands about six feet tall and four feet wide — and resembles a funeral pyre.
Bigham describes that piece as being about her personal confrontation with existence and death. And confronted with the challenge of moving into new digs, she experienced a palpable grieving process. “It was heartbreaking for me to decide to put my installation materials away. I spent three months flipping my studio and making it into a painting studio.”
That precipitated yet another change.
“I have a very academic and figurative painting background,” Bigham says. “That’s helpful to understand how you get where you’re going when you make the jump to more abstract work. But I don’t want to map it out too much. I want to keep it loose. I think of my paintings now as a continual mapping of the mind. Or sometimes as a battle. I will paint and draw with both hands. I love the physicality of working on a piece. I imagine that later I’ll attempt to paint from up in the loft down to the floor of the studio.”
Dripping paint from the rafters sounds suspiciously close to installation art. But that makes perfect sense for someone with Bigham’s talents. Whatever the future holds, she’s grateful for the opportunity. “Being able to create art is a luxury. I come into the studio and say to it, ‘I love you.’”
Gwen Bigham, Ashevillle, gwenbigham.com and on Instagram (@gwenbighamstudio). The artist will participate in the 2nd Annual Beaverdam Studio Tour in North Asheville, an event of American Craft Week. All stops are off Beaverdam Road; Bigham’s studio is 350 Webb Cove Road. The tour happens Saturday, Oct. 27 (10am-5pm) and Sunday, Oct. 28 (12-5pm). See beaverdamstudiotour.com for more information. The artist also arranges studio visits by appointment: call 704-516-7217 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.