Cabinet of Curiosities

James Abbott has an art studio in his home — or is it the other way around?

By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Irvin Serrano
From our March 2016 issue

Every surface in James Abbott’s house — every tabletop, every shelf, every wall —holds wondrous and strange objects, most of them made by Abbott himself. To enter this space, however, is not to submerse yourself in a carnival midway of art, where each piece clamors for your attention. Rather, you walk into a cabinet of curiosities, where the sculptures, mobiles, and oddities seem to fade into view one at a time, taking turns holding your gaze. Soon, you’re lost in dreamy exploration, as you visually dissect an assemblage (“Is that glass ornament really resting on a pair of antique ice tongs?”) or peer into a box whose dimly illuminated scene reveals something new every time you move.

Located on a quiet side street in Rockland’s south end, the house has a similarly fluid identity. Built in 1855, it has been a lobster trap mill, a school, and for 60 years, a Seventh-day Adventist church. Abbott, a retired lawyer whose longtime interest in photography has branched into three-dimensional art forms, bought the place in 2010, when it was destined to be a teardown, and converted it into a two-bedroom home and art studio, where he works regularly and resides occasionally (he has another home with fine art photographer Joyce Tenneson).

The open floor plan fosters the seamlessness of Abbott’s life and work. At one end of the house, a stage where ministers preached is now a raised living room, furnished with antique and thrift store finds — really just large examples of the kinds of found objects Abbott uses to make art. At the other end is Abbott’s workbench, crowned by a zigzag wooden apron created from a staircase stringer that has been flipped points down and threaded with tiny lights. Even the tools hang in an attractive arrangement.

In between is the dining table, surrounded by glammy vintage crushed-velvet chairs and illuminated by bare-bulb pendant lights, and a sitting area whose boundaries are loosely defined by an area rug. The playful interplay of art and the everyday spills into the kitchen, where a smooth, speckled beach stone rests comfortably in the hopper of an old hand-cranked meat grinder. Some walls are paneled in boards that Abbott rescued from a dilapidated stockade fence, cut into pieces, and arranged in a textured design. Other walls have been stripped of drywall, and their exposed framing holds books, art, antiques, and curios.

Objects that are old, neglected, or discarded find new life in James Abbott’s hands. He brings them home, turns them on their heads, and makes them into something new. That same can be said for his old building. “This house is the biggest art piece I’ve ever done,” he says.