Toronto artist Abrams paints Hitchcock mural for the Terrace

  • By Scott Elingburg Special to The Post and Courier

  • Nov 9, 2016 

"The Birds: Smoking" by John Abrams

John Abrams wants to know what the weather will be like in Charleston this week. Because it would be challenging to paint an outside mural at Charleston’s Terrace Theater with rain in the forecast.

Abrams need not worry about the weather, only about his mural, a mural that will depict that infamous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” It’s the scene with actress Tippi Hedren trapped in a phone booth surrounded by the menacing titular birds.

Abrams has tackled Hitchcock scenes before in his work and every time he does, he evokes some unseen nuance in the director’s work. In a sense, Abrams slows the quickness of film, and the quickness of life, down to a single image for viewers to focus on. The results are incredibly intimate yet universal.

Abrams attended art school as a young man and was drawn to abstract expressionism but started looking into popular culture and its different mediums for images to paint. That turn has given rise to his current style, a style that will be on display at the Terrace Theater in an exhibit, “John Abrams: Painting Movies,” from Nov. 11 to Feb. 10, and on the outer architecture of the building in mural form.

Q: What drew you to Hitchcock for your paintings?

A: Well, he is a very interesting filmmaker. The way he sets up his scenes, there is so much thought and color and composition. So that drew me to him. And Hitchcock’s films are a lot about looking and identity and that works with what I’m doing.

Everyone has experience with Hitchcock, so it becomes a common place where I can communicate ideas. People bring their own history of Hitchcock experience with them to the painting, so it becomes like a common area. It is a way to communicate.

Q: Do you pick the films that are your favorites or do you decide based on subjects?

A: It’s a lot more of a gut reaction. When I see a still, I think, “Boy that would make a great painting.” It just feels right and a lot of it is instinct at this point.

Movies are much different than when I was a kid. For example, “The Birds” would be on TV maybe once a year and we would all go over to my friends’ place for a big scene. Not like now when you can see any film you want whenever you want. The way we watch movies now has become a different thing.

And Hitchcock encompasses film as a larger media, sort of the golden age of film. Now, I don’t even know if most people watch movies as much as they watch TV series on Netflix.

Q: Have you felt like making art in response to that instant, viral culture? Your paintings seem like a way of slowing things down.

A: It would be fun but there’s sort of a pathos in the decline of film. I’ve been working on this one series, “The Misfits.” It’s a John Huston film and Marilyn Monroe’s last film. And it’s about a dying way of life, herding horses and the last days of the cowboy.

There’s a pathos about it but also a nobility at the same time. I sort of see that in the film industry. It’s romantic but it also has a sadness to it, which is part of what attracts me to it. The film industry is getting old and so are we.

Q: Tell me about how this mural and exhibit came about.

A: I work on a lot of murals along with a lot of Hitchcock films in my murals. And we were visiting (the Terrace Theater) and talking about the show and we felt like doing a mural to involve me with the Charleston community. Because when you do a mural, people come by and they have advice or opinions. And you hear it from everyone. (Laughs)

And, it’s really interesting to talk to your audience as a painter because you spend years in the studio not seeing anybody. It’s nice to take it out to the street.

Q: Do you encourage people to stop by and make it more of a community event?

A: Oh yeah, yes! And they seem to do it naturally. (Laughs) People have opinions! And when you are doing a mural in their space, then they feel involved in it.

Q: You have a sharp eye for popular culture. Were there influences that affected you or did you gravitate toward it naturally?

A: I came to pop culture naturally. But some of my favorites were (Andy) Warhol and Stuart Davis, a big American painter. Peter Hamilton is a British pop artist who I like. I just felt that people have that in common; it binds us. Whether it is what’s happening in the election or in Hollywood. It’s almost something you can talk to strangers about.

And when I go to the United States people really respond to (pop art). In Toronto it’s a little different. Americans feel they are the home of Pop Art, and pop culture in a lot of ways. Hollywood has influenced the whole world and it’s really gotten the American way of life out there.

Right down to the average Joe on the street, people have strong opinions about pop culture and feel very comfortable with it. Where in Canada, sometimes it comes across as American culture. Even though we share much of the same culture.

Q: What’s the last film you saw that really affected you or stuck with you?

A: Well, I mainly watch Netflix but ... probably “Easy Rider.” It’s a big one with me. Because it talks about freedom and that way of thinking that we all bought into in the ’60s and ’70s. The idea of freedom and a positive future. I like films that I can identify and believe in.

Reach Scott Elingburg at scott.elingburg@gmail.com.