Smile Politely

Seeing florals in a new light with painter Faith Gabel

Faith Gabel sits in front of her 6 of her small square floral painting. Faith is a young white woman with long dark hair. She is wearing jeans, a white cardigan and red top, sitting on a tufted bench.
Faith Gabel

In my short term as Arts Editor so far, I have already mentioned Faith Gabel’s paintings on a number of occasions. I first encountered her work at Boneyard Arts Festival, and I recently saw one of her newer pieces at Art Around the Block. Gabel paints truly beautiful modern florals that I often find myself returning to at shows, just to take in one more time. As part of my new series highlighting local artists, I recently corresponded with Gabel to learn more about her process, what draws her to florals, and more.

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your connection to Champaign-Urbana — are you originally from the area?

Faith Gabel: I actually was born in Danville — not too far away! I have a lot of family that still lives there and in the surrounding area. When I was a kid I moved around a lot, mostly in the South. I came back to the area when I was in high school and after college settled in Mahomet with my husband. We now have three kids and a dog (all girls!). I am actually a nurse by training and worked in Champaign for a long time doing that. I currently work from home now doing work in clinical research — and of course I paint! I started painting in 2016.

2 large square floral and landscapes hang on a wall with six smaller square florals displayed below
Faith Gabel

SP: Your florals are absolutely stunning; I went back to them several times at Boneyard this year. Have you always painted primarily florals?

Gabel: Thanks! I really did start with painting mostly florals and never looked back because I connect with it so much. I was drawn to that because I love being in nature and I find it inspiring, and also a bit because of Alice in Wonderland. When I was a kid, I literally watched that movie so much, I wore out the VHS tape we had of it. There is a song in that movie where flowers are singing, and they all have personalities. I always tend to see flowers like this now, and almost personify them in my mind. I do that with the flowers in my paintings too. Each piece is almost a little story to me. I have always been inspired by the old master’s dutch floral paintings too, so I started initially trying to emulate them, but I also love modern, bold, contemporary art as well. So those were things that really influenced me. Over the years, however, I do feel like I have found my own style by just experimenting. I try new variations of my style all the time so it does tend to evolve over time. I keep the bits I like and discard the things that don’t work. 

A large rectangular canvas. The background is plum, there are flowers of varying height taking up almost the entire canvas.
Faith Gabel

SP: When you are starting a new piece or a new project, can you walk us through your process? Do you have a clear idea of how you want it to turn out before you begin, or is there a lot of experimentation or improvising along the way?

Gabel: When I start something new, I don’t always have a plan. Sometimes I see something I’m inspired by, but I usually just begin by using black to outline shapes and an overall composition. It kind of takes off from there, the black gives a nice contrast against the background. Most of the time though that is half the fun, finding out what the painting wants to be. I just play off of the marks I make as I go, and it kind of tells me what it needs. I use a lot of layers. The nice thing about how I paint is it’s not about being technical really. Its more about an impression of what the vision is for the painting, how I am feeling — it all gets put into the piece. It’s a lot like therapy for me vs. trying to make something really detailed or technically good.

Three square canvases on an easel. The left canvas is primarily yellow, the middle is primarily red, the right primarily orange. All have black silhouettes of florals.
Faith Gabel

SP: How was your experience at Boneyard? Have you participated in the past?

Gabel: I absolutely love Boneyard. There is a certain vibe about it — everyone is just so excited to share their work, and for a lot of people it is their first time showing their art in public. It was for me! I can’t remember which year I started, but I showed at Pekara Bakery when it was downtown and I was so nervous/excited but it really got me involved in the art scene. I was so afraid to show my work before this! Then in 2019 I was a part of the Rogards pop-up which was one of the first larger group shows. It was so fun! This year was the first year I participated since the pandemic started, and I was so energized and inspired. I had a lot of work there that I had done over that time but also some brand-new things.

SP: I noticed you had a lot of very large canvases displayed right next to small canvases — is there any connection between the two? Do you ever paint on a smaller canvas, and it inspires a larger piece or vis-versa? 

Gabel: Sometimes I do work on multiple pieces at once, so yes. A lot of the time I am working on a larger piece and will use my leftover paint for some smaller paintings. They often are in a similar vein because I am working on them together.

Faith Gabel's display at Boneyard arts festival. Her floral paintings, mostly square canvases, are hanging on the wall. In front is a yellow velvet arm chair and tufted velvet bench with pillows.
Faith Gabel

SP: After I looked at your Instagram, I realized the chair in front of your art at Boneyard is actually your chair is there any special significance to the chair?

Gabel: I really like to display my art so that people can imagine what it would look like in their home. The chair usually sits in my studio — my “thinking chair” is what I call it. Sometimes I get a bit stuck, or I need to decide where to go next and I just sit, stare, and think for a long time in it. I also really enjoy interior design, so I enjoy getting to create booth displays as well.

SP: What are you currently working on?

Gabel: I am currently working on some mixed media pieces. I love bold patterns and have been playing around with different ways to incorporate them into my work. 

a small yellow square canvas with blue flowers
Faith Gabel

SP: What media do you prefer to work with? Is there a medium that you find frustrating?

Gabel: I love using heavy body acrylics, they are so easy to use and dry fast. Also acrylic ink is a favorite for more fluid applications. I have tried using oil paint — it takes way too long to dry, especially because I tend to paint thickly. I just can’t do it!

SP: What have been the most rewarding and most challenging projects you’ve completed to date?

Gabel: Most rewarding — I would say pulling everything together for Boneyard this year. I had taken a long break from showing work during Covid, and it was so great to get back to it and to see people actually enjoying my work in person. I had almost forgotten how much work it is though!

Most challenging — Commissions with specific requests. I have a really hard time with these. My process is very fluid and depends on how I feel in the moment, and a lot of randomness coming together to make it work. It’s hard when people want me to paint something in particular like a certain flower or something. I just really have to paint what I want to paint for it to turn out, or I get too much in my head about it and it feels too contrived. I’ve recently just decided I’m not going to take these on anymore — it just causes too much stress.

Vertical painting; bright red, blue, and white flowers take up most of the canvas with a black and white check background.
© Faith Gabel, Checkmate, Mixed media on canvas, 2023; photo by Serenity Stanton Orengo

SP: What’s next for you? 

Gabel: Hopefully a lot more art shows and new work! 

You can check out Gabel’s work on her Instagram and Facebook, as well as on her website. She also currently has a piece at Art Around the Block, which will be on display through July 26th.

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