Stepping into Sara Abalan’s Naples studio is like stepping into an illuminated curio cabinet. Studies and sketches hang in rows on the walls, with plant cuttings perched in diminutive vases, and books tumbling off shelves, interspersed with artwork.
Her dark eyes flash with enthusiasm as she speaks. “My obsession is with organic shapes in nature,” Sara says, gesturing with hands adorned in sculptural rings. She makes artwork about the vegetation in her subtropical surroundings, capturing the dramatic silhouettes and translucent colors of leaves, trees and lizards. Her drawings and paintings range from small frames to large works that nearly span the height of her studio walls. The artist moves seamlessly from tight, realistic renderings to fluid abstractions, where every movement of her hand is recorded. And, though she’s always been inspired by organic materials and objects, she started illustrating food before foliage.
Born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut, Sara enrolled in Paier College of Art in New Haven (now relocated to Bridgeport and rebranded as Paier College) to study fine art. But college wasn’t in the cards: Economic circumstances forced her to drop out after one year to find full-time work. She landed a job at 19 as an art director for a direct-mail company run by editor and publisher Christopher Kimball. Driven by her tireless work ethic and plenty of encouragement from her boss, she blossomed in the role. Four years later, she left to take a job at Cook’s Magazine, a serious culinary publication focused on natural ingredients. “It was both fantastic and difficult,” she confesses. By the time her former classmates were graduating, Sara was illustrating each month’s cover and overseeing big photoshoots in Manhattan.
After eight fast-paced years, she stepped away from the magazine and began working as a freelance prop stylist for cookbooks. She frequented drawing classes in her spare time and, by 1994, had moved from Connecticut to New York City to enroll full-time in the New York Studio School in Greenwich Village. Sara was thrilled with the school’s focus on drawing, painting and sculpting with live models as references. Though the human figure doesn’t play a conspicuous role in her artwork, the observational skills she honed were pivotal. “I always focused on the result as an illustrator,” she explains. “But at the Studio School, I had to focus on the process, which was drawing what I was seeing right in front of me, and it was always an evolution.”
Sara opens two pocket-sized sketchbooks to reveal abstract drawings she made during various subway rides. She lays them next to a copy of Cook’s; the magazine’s faded pages show mounds of beans in rich colors arranged like peaks in a small mountain range. It’s easy to see how the undulating, circular doodles in her sketchbooks mirror the legumes’ repeating, round shapes.
Sara arrived in Naples in 2018 to be closer to her partner’s family, and Southwest Florida’s lush environment proved a welcome reprieve from the concrete jungle she’d lived in for more than two decades. She was instantly smitten with the local flora and fauna. “It was an explosion of inspiration, from the vast array of leaf shapes and the plethora of climbing vines to the decaying organic matter,” she says. “As I move around the Everglades and spend time in Naples Botanical Garden, the ongoing growth and changes offer up endless ideas.”
Sara’s artwork is as varied as the greenery that surrounds her. She often begins by casting pieces of palm fiber with an overhead projector before going in with a paintbrush and paint. The artist loves to work in layers. In Sabal Palm & Strangler Fig, a charcoal drawing from 2021, she realistically depicts the view when you look up into a towering palm, with contrasting jagged, scratchy fronds with the strangler fig’s thick, concentric rings wrapped around the captive tree. In between her larger pieces, she paints delicate botanical studies in watercolor, recalling the magazine covers she used to illustrate with the same medium.
Charcoal Landscape, a drawing made in New York in 2015, is an apt precursor to her work in Naples. Measuring more than 7 feet long, the drawing is an exercise in repeating lines and applying physical pressure to create a natural horizon and variation in light. Sara drew each line by hand—she moved from a 2B pencil used for the background to compressed charcoal in the foreground, giving a sense of gentle movement like grasses tickled by a breeze. “It looks more like black rush,” she says, referring to the grass that’s ubiquitous in Gulf Coast marshes. “I look at it now, and I realize it has more to do with the landscape here. It’s somewhat prophetic.”
Though Charcoal Landscape was born of the repetitive task of drawing lines, it also holds up a mirror to her current home—and she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. “I have always been drawn to the beautiful imperfection of organic matter,” she says. “Florida has given me an endless supply of inspiration and subjects.”