CLINTON — Gabi Torres sits on the floor of her studio applying pastels to a large stretched canvas with her fingers, trying not to stain the white blouse she’s worn to have her picture taken for the local newspaper.
A white drop cloth covers the floor, and brushes, pastels and paint are within the artist’s reach.
Torres calls this her happy place.
Several pieces of art leaned against the wall in the front room of GBArt Studio and Gallery at 83 Main Ave. on a rainy Sunday morning in April.
“I have a bunch of pieces that are going overseas,” Torres said. The Monat Gallery in Spain will distribute her artwork. Two pieces will go to an art fair in Paris. The gallery will offer the other two for sale.
Torres also has pieces commissioned in Italy, Spain and the U.S.
“Basically everything you see in here is on its way out in some way, shape or form,” Torres said. “It’s exciting.”
The studio covers 1,300 square feet and gives Torres space to create larger works of art she didn’t have room for at home. “It started taking over my house,” she said.
The studio has a room in the back where Torres can conduct classes and a couple rooms she can use for gallery shows of her own work and the works of other contemporary and abstract artists.
Torres plans to show works by abstract artist Harmony Kurtz Eccles, a Clinton native now living in Berlin, in May or June. “She’ll be the first artist represented here,” Torres said.
A few weeks ago, Torres taught her first class at the studio, she said. “It’s super fun.” Her classes will focus on the basics of abstract painting. Abstract is movement, texture and color rather than something tangible, she said.
For now, Torres limits class sessions so she has time to paint. Her hours are limited, too, by her job as development and marketing director for YWCA Clinton.
One room of her studio is dedicated to storage and shipping. “It’s such a process to ship,” said Torres. She uses the United States Postal Service for stateside shipping, but she lets UPS handle the packaging and shipping for overseas orders.
Torres got the keys to the gallery in December. “I started painting here as soon as I could get in here,” she said. She loves being there.
Still, it was a leap of faith to rent commercial space. The leap paid off. “It’s kind of incredible how the universe supplies,” Torres said.
Since opening the studio, Torres has received a grant from Quad City Arts to fund Painting Pathways Towards Understanding classes that will focus on abstract art and will be the first step toward Torres’ vision of community-based art initiatives that promote engagement and dialogue and work toward creating a culturally rich, diverse, inclusive, and equitable community, according to Quad Cities.com.
Torres is also a finalist for the Iowa Arts Council Fellowship. “This space has provided a lot of magic,” Torres said.
A graduate of Clinton High School, Torres attended The New School University in New York and earned a master’s degree in fine arts in poetry.
“I wrote about birds all the time,” said Torres, and a friend dubbed her Gaby Bird. “And I love it. I think it kind of encapsulates my personality.” The name is playful and joyful, she said, and it became her artistic identity at GBArt Studio and Gallery and on her website, GabiBirdArt.
“I was always interested in the visual arts,” Torres said. She wanted to be a fashion designer when she was younger, so she drew women in various outfits.
Convinced that she wasn’t very good at art, Torres turned to writing, to poetry in particular.
“So much of our identity is wrapped up in the words we speak,” Torres said. Torres grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school and is fluent in both. Her mother is from Argentina and her father from Mexico.
Torres continued to doodle, but she didn’t take drawing seriously until she moved back to Clinton in 2016. She was working on a poetry book, and the job was laborious, she said.
Torres found relief from the intensity of writing in the act of putting paint to canvas. Painting was fun.
“I did find a lot of solace in being out in nature,” Torres said. “I love nature. And that’s where I get my inspiration from.”
Torres collects twigs and leaves and has incorporated them into her paintings. Though that’s not the type of art she’s currently creating, Torres sometimes applies paint using twigs or grasses.
GabiBird uploaded her artwork to Instagram, mostly to watch her growth, she said. She started with small works, 3-by-3 inches or 4-by-4, small watercolor pieces or notecards.
“I was scared to do anything bigger,” Torres said. She focused on “little simple things.”
But inside, Torres had more ambition. “I wanted to do something as big as a wall.”
Eventually, Torres put writing on the back burner. “I started focusing more on what brings me joy,” she said. “It is just like being connected to something larger.”
Most of her current work is acrylic and oil pastels on stretched canvas. “I love the watercolor effect,” Torres said, but she’s translated the look to oils and pastels.
Last summer, House and Garden and British Vogue found GabiBirdArt on Instagram and asked if Torres wanted to be part of their magazine. A small piece is featured next to a blue vase of pink flowers in the June 2020 issue.
“That’s when my sales really started to take off,” Torres said. “Instagram, for me, has been an incredible tool for me.”
Torres has so many commissions she wonders if she has time to complete all the projects. “It’s a great challenge to keep up.”
Some patrons in town have asked for pieces — large pieces that Torres was afraid to try a few months ago. Someone asked if she could do an 8-foot-by-10-foot piece. “Absolutely,” Torres said.
While she finishes commissions, Torres also works on pieces for herself. “I’d like to have a new collection for the fall,” she said.
Part of the reason Torres wanted physical space in the commercial district is to bring art to the community. “I love Clinton,” Torres said, and the town receives too many negative comments from too many people.
Torres wants to tell a different story about her hometown. Clinton provides opportunity and community support for entrepreneurs, she said. She’d love her studio to be the catalyst to making Clinton a destination for artists and art enthusiasts.
“And I’m very passionate about the arts,” Torres said. They heal, bring joy and build community. They create a happy place.