Don’t be afraid of the dark. ALEXIS E MABRY’s simultaneously saccharine and unsettling artwork, painted on vintage fabrics, is inspired by opposites: children’s books, horror movies and the church
Portrait by Jackie Lee Young Text by Julia Hobbs
Fate had a hand in the early life of 33-year-old artist and BMX rider Alexis E Mabry. “My parents were considering sending me to a traditional church school,” she says via Facetime from her studio in Austin, Texas, “which would have meant I learnt under the tutelage of three old ladies in Dallas, where I grew up.” Instead, her education came from a less conservative source – George A Romero’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Creepshow and the Mary Lambert- directed Pet Sematary, also from King’s kitsch 1980s heyday. Both were recommendations from her mother’s collection of fantasy and horror films; while her sister was prepping for a career as a special effects make-up artist, Mabry’s preoccupation with the Hammer horror genre roused a childhood air for drawing. “My dad is an artist, so every Christmas I would receive a paint set. He kept his sketchbook in the garage and I would take it and try to copy it. That’s how I started out.”
After-school programmes, frequent weekend visits to the Dallas Museum of Art (“There’s a huge landscape painting of an iceberg that was so mesmerising it blew my mind”) and teenage shopping trips to thrift stores for back-to-school clothes paved the way for a practice that uses paint and a mix of thrifted materials (particularly children’s books and second-hand fabric) to project her ideas through collage and assemblage.
“In thrift stores I would always find stuff I liked, and I will still spend hours in a second-hand shop to track down things that pop out,” she says. “It’s a fun exercise and now a major part of the process.”
The result is a body of work that blends nostalgia with dark humour and graphic, cartoonish horror, incorporating other people’s intimate life histories and converting them into something new, subject to an olfactory test.
“Some fabrics I find will smell of perfume or pot-pourri. The tablecloth I just finished painting probably used to have a bunch of people eating family meals off it. I will often smell things to decide if they’re right – especially fabrics like men’s plaid shirts or bedsheets.” The bedsheets serve a distinctly practical purpose in their new iteration, replacing traditional canvas as the basis of a series of larger-scale collage works. These allow Mabry to go big “but still be able to roll them up” – so long as they are thick enough to hold paint.
What about the opportunity to exhibit? Mabry’s plans to show her work are reflective of Austin’s DIY art scene; the edgling nature of the city’s independent gallery network mean that a lot of artists choose to do backyard exhibitions rather than conventional shows. For her, this offers an opportunity to reflect her community’s skate culture and take a less expected route: “I don’t really have a lot of friends in the art world. My friends are mostly skaters and BMXers, and I would love to show people who don’t ride what it means.”
If a “ramp exhibition” sounds offbeat, it is. But fittingly so. “My friend has a massive ramp in her backyard, and I want to make tapestry pieces to hang from it, alongside some soft sculptures,” she says, shortly before we hang up. I’m left wondering about the missing link between Stephen King and skating, and how the mini-quilt I’m about to add to basket on her website (tictail.com/aemabry) will smell when it arrives in London.