CREATE! Micro-Grant Project Explores Themes of Existence and Time Through Painting

Abbey Behan fell in love with painting as a 7-year-old, following Bob Ross tutorials in the basement with her dad. These small, early paintings opened her eyes to a more sophisticated form of painting and taught her valuable lessons about the creative process.

“Ever since I was little, I have been making artwork. There has just always been a strong urge to make things,” Behan said. “Growing up, I’ve always loved spending time by myself, so most of my summers I would be making all kinds of projects in my room. Whether it was painting, sewing, editing videos, it didn’t matter. The process of creation was so fulfilling and exciting to me. I never stopped.”

Abbey Behan

Now, a senior at Michigan State University majoring in Studio Art and Packaging, Behan received a $500 CREATE! Micro-Grant to make a large-scale oil painting depicting the 2020 COVID pandemic lockdown. More specifically, her project explores the relationship between the human body and physical space and how perceptions of this relationship change based on current events.

Passion and Inspiration

Oil painting is Behan’s passion. The feel of paint on the brush and the endless options that it creates inspires and excites her. Oil painting also works well with the large-scale paintings she enjoys most. A painting the size created for the CREATE! Micro-Grant would normally be a financial challenge as the cost of large canvases and the amount of paint it takes to cover them can add up quickly. However, the CREATE! Mirco-Grant allowed Behan to explore the art she wanted without any financial concerns.

“The ability to have complete freedom from any financial burden for this work was really helpful,” she said. “It allowed me to take risks I wouldn’t have before.”

Abbey Behan’s CREATE! Micro-Grant Project.

Behan’s inspiration for her work comes from a series of personal philosophies and questions she often thinks about. For example, what it means to exist within a space and the interpretations of that space as well as the relationship between the passing of time and perceptions of existence. To explore these themes within the context of the pandemic and 2020 lockdowns, Behan transported herself back to the early days of the pandemic, dredging up old memories and emotions tied to the strangeness of that time.

“It was wonky and weird,” she said. “Every day seemed different as we had new information come out about the virus. Our landscape was in constant turbulence. I found it hard to feel at home in a house I lived in for most of my life. The familiar became unfamiliar for a lot of people. That was the main takeaway that I wanted to come forward with this work. I wanted things to feel recognizable at first glance, but slowly change into something uncomfortable after further inspection.”

Painting Process

To explore these memories and themes within a painting, Behan started with stream-of-consciousness writing to clear her mind and translate all her ideas and memories to paper. Next, she gathered imagery and put together a collage as a rough composition of the painting she had begun to visualize.

“I try to find ways for there to be a push and a pull with the viewer and make connections between things in the image,” Behan said.

A black and white picture of a woman with a tall painting in the background.
Abbey Behan with a painting she made this past spring.

Then, she began painting and expressing these connections on canvas.

“This is usually a reactionary process and less pre-planned,” she said. “I love to let the brush take control at times. Listening to music while I work is also very influential. It helps me find a good rhythm with mark-making. I look at painting very similarly to dancing. They are both very gestural, and I am drawn to the emotional rawness that it adds.”

Two of her artistic influences embody this raw look. Behan loves Matisse and Picasso, both famous for their impulsive brushwork and unpolished style. She also admires Robert Rauchenberg, Rene Magritte, Jasper Johns, Katharina Grosse, Marcel Duchamp, Christina Quarles, and Andre Kertesz.

“I find it really influential to look at artists who are doing things differently than I am,” she said. “There is something that I can always learn and pull from. It breaks me out of repetition and pushes me to try new things with my work.”

A Look to the Future

While working on her CREATE! Micro-Grant project, Behan experienced a profound moment of insight that opened the door to new creative possibilities for future projects. She was about to add the final marks to the painting, but something still didn’t feel right.

“I decided to take a risk and put down some large flat areas of paint, which I never do,” she said. “It definitely paid off in the end and opened my mind to experimenting with different languages of painting in my future works. It was a really cool moment. Risk-taking is so important in creative endeavors. It’s so easy to get complacent with what you make. Always fun to shake things up sometimes.”

“Whether they [the audience] take something about the philosophy of the painting away or something completely different, it doesn’t really matter to me. As long as it sparks conversation, inspiration, and reflection, it was successful.”

Abbey Behan

Behan hopes her CREATE! Micro-Grant project inspires people to find deeper connections within themselves. Her work comes from a strong understanding of who she is and what she is interested in. Her work expresses deep philosophies and thoughts that can only be expressed through a visual outlet.

“In a way, I think that is true for every work of art created,” she said. “So, whether they [the audience] take something about the philosophy of the painting away or something completely different, it doen’t really matter to me. As long as it sparks conversation, inspiration, and reflection, it was successful.”