Portrait Of A Young Artist

How one painter got off drugs and back to work.

The first time I met Patrick Abbey was on a Saturday in '92 or '93. It was at the Jamison/Thomas Gallery, in the just-coined "Pearl District." William Jamison had given a 21-year-old art student (Abbey) his own show—something the gallery owner had rarely done. When Abbey bopped into the gallery, he was wearing nothing but paint-covered lederhosen, jackboots and a mischievous grin. That day, Abbey's works—full of insects, animals and lots of paint—seemed to be getting less attention than Jamison's latest "discovery." The crowd was smitten.

Fast-forward some 15 years, to last week. I was at another Pearl District gallery, PDX, to see another batch of new works by Abbey. These paintings, like the early ones, carry ambiguous meanings—you're not sure whether his subjects, young men swimming, are drowning or being saved, as suggested by the title Swim Rescue.

In between the two shows I had seen Abbey grow into a mature artist, and then just sort of disappear. His large oil paintings, mainly of interaction on male-dominated playing fields, were coveted by Portland collectors. Each one showcased his strength: an uncanny ability to mix his queerness with innocence and danger. That mix worked well for him, both professionally and personally.

And then he stopped painting. And started using.

"My drug use became conspicuous," Abbey said over coffee in Northwest Portland. "I alienated my friends and family. I stopped calling myself an artist."

Abbey had become a meth addict.

"I thought meth was helping the work," he says. "My creative process and sexual identity were linked to my use. It all boiled down to me needing more meth and time."

Although Abbey had seen his share of success, he now saw his life spiraling downward. When he hit bottom, homeless and penniless, he had an impending sense that he'd end up either in jail or dead.

"I knew I had a very narrow window to take back a life that resembled what I was about," Abbey says. That's when he checked himself into rehab, in March 2005.

Just two months ago, after a scheduling change, PDX gallery owner Jane Beebe offered Abbey a new show. Abbey jumped at the chance, completing four of the eight paintings the week before the opening.

"I wasn't sure I had it in me to do another show," Abbey says. "I wasn't sure my artistic spirit had survived."

But it looks like he did, and it had.

"I had plenty of people who wanted to save me," Abbey says. "But I had to rescue myself."

Patrick Abbey's work at PDX Contemporary Art, 925 NW Flanders St. 222-0063. Ends May 27.