How does a drawing translate into music? And what exactly does a song look like? Abigail Portner is a visual artist who has designed album artwork for Animal Collective and skateboard decks for Alien Workshop. She is also a musician, performing solo as Drawlings and with two of her friends in the band Rings. And now she can add music video director to her résumé. Portner is living proof that visual aesthetics and sonics inform one another.
I haven’t heard any recordings from Drawlings since “Wolfie’s Christmas” last year. You’ve been playing new songs though–should we expect a release anytime soon?
Yeah, I have been so busy this year with Animal Collective–working on so many more visual art related projects that I haven’t had time to record. But I have been playing a lot of shows and have many new songs. I plan on recording with my brother this winter upstate and having a record come out on Paw Tracks some time following. It’s funny, I have a name for the record and the album art already realized. I just need to get the songs down. I want to try and work on getting the record, both sonically and the packaging, feeling as visual as possible so it closely relates to the drawings I make.
What about Rings? What’s going on with Kate and Nina?
All of us Rings had a really busy year. Kate is in acupuncture school for a couple years, which is amazing. And Nina spent the summer in Mexico working on swine flu, so we all have been pretty tied up on our other projects.
I think we all feel like this is an okay thing right now to be taking a Rings break. Both Nina and Kate play in Drawlings sometimes. They both have played shows with me. So it’s not like we don’t play music together anymore. We’re just not working on Rings right now. We’re like sisters, so sometimes you gotta take a break from family or you will kill each other.
Do you find that your music ever informs your visual work or vice versa?
Oh, of course. It works both ways for sure. I make music for Drawlings to have almost a soundtrack to accompany my visual art. That’s kind of why I started playing solo–to be able to have an art installation and have background music that would work with the drawings or art. I also get a lot of my visual ideas from songs or lyrics and always listen to music while working on visual art.
I have made songs, then think, “Oh, I have to make that into a drawing.” I think they are one in the same. It’s like how I can’t draw a child without it looking scary. I can’t make a song that doesn’t sound like a haunted house. Whether it’s a song or a drawing, it’s coming from the same place inside.
There sometimes tends to be a sort of playful aesthetic to your illustrations. Where do you typically find inspiration for this kind of work?
I get my inspiration from lots of things. Lots of old photos of my brothers and sisters and I when we were growing up. Children’s magazines. I went to Disney World this summer. I hadn’t been since I was little kid and it kind of blew my mind. I got a lot out of it. I have always really been into the same things, and I keep drawing those things.
Animals, horses, Halloween, Christmas. Anything that makes me happy really. It’s all about play and playfulness. People play a lot when they’re young and then forget how to when they’re older. You can’t forget how to play. I feel you need it to survive.
People are now getting your work tattooed on themselves. Is it crazy to think that something you made will be permanently on someone’s body?
Yeah, it’s super cool. It kind of freaked me out at first, but now that a bunch of people have them, I’m kind of into it. I just hope people continue to be into them in years to come. Like I hope one day someone doesn’t wake up and be all, “Why do I have this girl’s drawing of a kid and a skeleton on my arm? What was I thinking?” I did a whole sleeve for someone already and I’m working on a full chest piece for someone.
They look super cool when they’re done, like paintings. The really large ones fascinate me since I would probably not get a huge tattoo like that. I like to have the person take a photo of it for me once it’s done so I have a record. I hope I can do enough at some point to do a book of them.
What was it like to design the recent backdrops for the live Animal Collective sets? Did you face any new challenges in a design of that scale?Designing the sets was amazing. Definitely the highlight of my year and something I’m super proud of. It was the most intense month this summer building that set [for two Prospect Park shows] and then turning right around and making a new AC backdrop for ATP. I have never done anything that grand of scale before. Brian [of Animal Collective] has talked to me about being on stage, performing at huge places and thinking, “Whoa, I used to stand down in the audience and get super psyched and now we’re up here.” I definitely had that feeling. It felt super epic.
It was totally a challenge to make what was in my head appear on stage. I made these funny drawings of jellyfish, tiki men, moving sharks, and shooting water and showed it to Dave while we were on a family vacation shortly before. He was just like, “Sure, if you can do all that, go for it.” I had amazing people help me–AC’s technical designer Devin, Kate from Rings, and my boyfriend Joey. The four of us built the whole thing. It was a new experience working with people, kind of being the boss, trying to explain what was in my head to other people. We worked in this tiny space in Bushwick that had a 4 foot tall entranceway, so everything we made had to fit in and out of that door. It was crazy. We had to make everything in parts. There were some late nights of spending hours trying to get jellyfish hair to stay on top of a tiki man’s head. It was super serial.
It’s crazy to make something so big. I wanted to make it all look like drawings and that was the hardest part. A lot of trial and error. I wanted to make everything by hand so it took a while. It’s a lot more math when you make large objects like that. You have to get more technical whether you like to or not. It was amazing though. I have known them my whole life so making something that epic for them to play in was really incredible. We all have been working towards these goals. I think it was a really good end to the summer and all the touring they have been doing. Keeping it in the family.
You’re also a director now. What was the process like putting together the music video for “In the Flowers”?
It was a lot of work. I have never made a video before, so it took a lot more time than I thought it would. Post production was a lot crazier than I thought it would be. I didn’t want to do it like every other video out there right now and have one day of shooting on HD and then edit and then you’re done. I wanted it to look more like an art piece than a music video. I wanted it to seem old and also much more handmade to continue with my style of working. If I had made a crazy flashy video, it would not make much sense. Also, since I make most of the art for AC, I wanted to make a video for them that showed the same style. I had all these ideas in my head. Jason Dill skated to the same song in Mind Field, the new Alien Workshop film, so I thought it would be cool to tie it all together to put him in the video. It was a lot of fun, definitely a learning experience of how to make drawings come to life. It was kind of the same feeling as Prospect Park–learning how to collaborate with people to get your ideas across even though there are other hands involved.
I noticed that certain images in that video were from your previous work. Did you feel a certain connection with “In the Flowers” in particular that made you want to do the video?
“In the Flowers” has been my favorite song since even before it was recorded, so I had all these ideas of escaping into flowers and missing home and traveling elsewhere, even when you’re stuck in the city. All the things you feel living in New York. The only thing that was from a previous work was the skeleton during the fast part of the song. It was the skeleton I made for their live shows a couple years back. He is about nine feet tall and made out of wood. I wanted to make him come to life in the video. He has just been sitting in the AC practice space. It’s funny, in the video he looks like a drawing or small, but it was actually insane to make him do that dance. It took days of stop animation to get like 20 seconds. I like that about my video–I wanted to take past imagery someone would recognize and make it come to life.
I said this before but it’s my favorite song. That and Street Flash, and now maybe Graze I feel super strongly about. It’s funny, when it’s family, it has this other layer of emotion to it. People always say to me, “Do you mind hearing Animal Collective all the time and hearing your brother sing?” It’s like, “What? Why would I mind?” If you are traveling or away from family for a while, it’s so sweet. I can always listen to Animal Collective and hear a voice I have heard since I was a baby. “In the Flowers” has this vibe for me. I listened to a live version a lot traveling. So I felt really strongly about making a video for it that had kind of a nostalgic, homesick, yet escaping vibe.
What was it like to design a skateboard for Alien Workshop? I’m assuming Jason Dill helped to arrange this.
I feel pretty lucky to get to work for them. My bro has always skateboarded and I have been aware of the art and design they use for their decks, shirts, and videos. It’s pretty incredible. Dill is a friend of mine. He used “In the Flowers” for his Mind Field part, so he wanted me to design a deck that went along with the same vibe. An AC vibe, I guess. So I got to make one as part of the KTC series. I also did a drawing for Dill’s part in Mind Field, which is a stop animation puzzle being put together. They are so nice to work for. Really rad people. I hope I get to continue working for them.
Have you taken up a career in skateboarding yet?
[laughs] Actually, no not really, but I am really into it now. I have a bunch of completes that Alien sent me. I use the Habitat cork cruiser boards. They’re smaller, so they are easy for me to get around on. It’s super fun. I read skate blogs and stuff now. It’s super weird, I feel like I kind of know way too much about it. [laughs] I’m really into figuring it all out. I feel like if you’re going to make decks or do something like that, you should know about what you are doing. Maybe if I started making like tennis rackets or something, I would get super into tennis.
What have you been working on lately and what can we expect to see next?
I have been working on a bunch of things. I am designing a store window design in Los Angeles in January, so that has been my focus right now. More large sculpture stuff. I have also just been trying to work in my studio on new paintings and new puppets like the clay ones I did for “In the Flowers.” Both the video and Prospect Park gave me a lot of ideas on how to push my work further. Making new jams too. Hopefully a Drawlings record by the spring. Fingers crossed.