Lincoln artist embraces inner demons, draws them

Lincoln artist Abigail Ervin often includes poems with her drawings of monsters and other creatures.

Once upon a time, there was a lonely little monster named Almond with branches for horns and a terrible pet cat. Sick of having a terrible cat as his only friend, Almond searched mountains, streams and treetops for friends but still he was alone. All he could find were lilies, eagles, billowing clouds and a bright blue sky. As Almond felt the warm wind kiss his face and heard the roaring river fill his ears, he realized that is all he needs.

This monster resides in the mind of 22-year-old Lincoln artist Abigail Ervin. Fueled by matcha lattes, green hair dye and too many Micron pens to count, Ervin embraces her inner demons by drawing them.

Like most children, Ervin’s first memory of drawing was stomping around the driveway of her Glendale, Calif. home with sidewalk chalk making flowers that looked more like lumpy radishes. But unlike most children, her father worked for Rough Draft Studios, illustrating for TV shows like Futurama and The Simpsons.

“It’s hard to not get better at art when you’re constantly surrounded by it,” Ervin said. “While my dad would be in his studio drawing Bart Simpson, I’d be drawing disproportionate heads but he’d always come over and help me.”

Ervin, her parents and her three siblings moved to her mother’s hometown of Neligh, Neb. in 2001. Her father continued working for Rough Draft Studios by mailing illustrations back to California and Ervin continued to draw. However, in a rural Nebraska town of 1,527 people, she found herself much less surrounded by art than before.

“There’s not a whole lot to do in Neligh,” Ervin said. “There’s no art, there’s no music. There’s a Subway. Neligh-Oakdale high school was not a good time or place to try to become an artist.”

According to Ervin, teachers disregarded her skill with pen, pencil and paper and told her to be a graphic designer instead because it was more marketable. Her peers taunted her for her talents, accusing her of thinking she was better than everyone else. On top of that, students labeled her as “the anorexic” because she lost weight due to a thyroid disorder. With constant threats from people telling her to “starve herself,” she soon developed an eating disorder and anxiety that still linger today.

During her senior year, three of Ervin’s closest friends moved far away. Then by some twist of fate, a little lonely monster with branches for horns and a terrible pet cat came to her mind looking for a friend.

“There are these inner monsters, these anxieties and depressions that everyone has and that everyone’s afraid of,” Ervin said. “But they’re actually aiding us and making us grow. They’re very scary, but they’re also very gentle and almost comforting because they’re helping us.”

The monsters developed into characters that embody anxiety while simultaneously counteracting it. Each character subtly references people that she is influenced by, but she says people can interpret them in any way they want.

“I know how the monsters act and feel because I made them,” Ervin said. “There’s one character whose whole organs are showing and that one’s my mom because it’s super vulnerable. It’s not really apparent that it’s specifically my mom, so I hope people can see that monster and think of their own mother or their friend or their sister or even themselves.”

After graduating from Neligh-Oakdale High School in 2013, Ervin first attended the University of Nebraska-Omaha for a year before transferring to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to pursue a bachelor or fine arts. She quickly met and became friends with Pha Nguyen, 21, in her beginning painting class who she says has been her biggest supporter.

“I remember just crying during critique when we looked at her work. Everyone already moved on to the next student’s work and I’m still sitting there with tears streaming,” Nguyen laughed. “It was very raw and very vulnerable about herself as an artist. There are other times I’ve cried over Abby’s work because they open my heart and they make me feel something very vulnerable.”

Ervin usually accompanies her illustrations with short poems. Nguyen says that vulnerability and rawness is exactly what she’s trying to portray in her drawings and poems and she does it in a way that people can sympathize with her pain.

Soon the pain also became physical. Constantly drawing and painting became hard on her hands and by the time she was enrolled in a ceramics class her second year of college, she physically could not do the work. Her hands were progressively getting worse and physically taxing classes like ceramics and printmaking were speeding up the process. She decided to drop out of college.

After many doctor’s visits and tests, they diagnosed her with “chronic pain.”

“It’s a bullshit diagnosis,” Ervin said. “Carpel tunnel would make sense, arthritis would make sense, weak bones would make sense, but nothing has shown up in any tests. It just means they don’t know.”

According to Ervin, it’s almost exactly 9:30 every night when she loses dexterity in her hands. She says she’s terrified of the idea that she might not be able to make art one day, but until then she’ll draw every day until 9:30 at night.

Since leaving school, Ervin has only gotten more successful. Nguyen thinks it’s because she has the freedom to express things she might have been holding back in class. In the past year, she has done over 40 commissions, painted a mural in Turbine Flats and in many homes, illustrated coffee shop menus, designed t-shirts and album covers for musicians and completed 2 and a half children’s books all of which feature her monsters.

“She has so much about her past that she wants to share to help people, but she also wants to keep it to herself because she’s an introverted person,” Nguyen said. “But slowly she’s fighting that through her work.”

Her favorite piece she’s created shows an innocent cartoon version of herself surrounded by towering monsters. It reads: “Sometimes I am afraid of how big my monsters are. But then I remember that everything that is big was once very small and right now I am small, but one day I will be very big and I will no longer have to be afraid of my monsters.”

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