We had the good fortune of connecting with Abigail E. Penner and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Abigail, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska. It was a bitter, bitter place. Growing up, my family and I would often take road trips to Los Angeles–where my parents lived before moving us to Nebraska–and Omaha, where my grandparents and cousins live. I remember these cities so fondly; I think because of the cold hand of the town I grew up in. Looking back, Los Angeles and Omaha in all their grit still hold a gentleness.

Neligh is a city of people who aren’t very kind. My whole family sticks out like a sore thumb. My dad, an illustrator and storyboard artist, passed on his artistic passion to my siblings and me. My mom, a poetic beam of light, passed on her boldness and resilience. Together, they raised my two brothers, my sister, and me to be exactly who we are.

The four of us, my siblings and I, were thick as thieves. None of us had a lot of friends in Neligh, so we depended on each other. My older brother got on alright, but my little sister, my little brother and I were bullied relentlessly. For the way we dressed, the way we acted, the way we chose to move in this world. Much of my adolescence was spent in a sad kind of silence.

When I turned 13, I had an arthritic flare (it’s called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, something I’ve had since I was small, but was was in remission from the age of 4). I could barely walk, I couldn’t participate in most school sports, I wasn’t part of anything. At 16, I began to feel as though nothing would ever come around. Dramatic, I know, but I was 16 and pain at that age is real, no matter how temporary. Eventually, I stopped eating, grasping at straws to be in control of something…anything. I became a ghost. I was too thin, and too sad. Some days I skipped school just escape the hushed tones of my peers mocking and snickering. At this time, I started leaning into my art. I spent four out of eight periods either in the band room or the art studio. My band teacher and my art teacher were the only solid rocks I had in that school. Other teachers mocked me along side the kids in my class.

When I graduated high school, I moved to Omaha. I started with a major in music, playing cello for the Omaha College Orchestra. I only got to play for a year before my hands slowly succumbed to severe tendinitis, thus switching focus over to illustration and painting, where several of my paintings were done by holding a paintbrush in my mouth. In Omaha, I struggled to make friends and again only surrounded myself with family, spending most nights with my cousins and grandma. I opted to transfer to Lincoln so that I could move in with my older brother, who had been living in Lincoln for two years already. With this switch came a profound recognition of what I wanted to be. I just didn’t know how to get there.

After several bouts of deep depression and anorexia relapses, I decided it was time to go to therapy. My therapist planted beautiful seeds that he then taught me how to water and grow. He talked to me about my art a lot. He wanted to know what it meant, and at the time I really wasn’t sure what it meant. I understood value, and color theory, and composition. And I was good at it. But there wasn’t much more to it. I started to feel like my art could mean something. Up until this point, it was just something that I was good at. It didn’t have the depth that I wanted it to. The more we talked about my art and my mental health, the more I understood that my circumstances weren’t walls, they were windows. As I breathed in my eating disorder, abandonment schema, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression, I breathed out art. I breathed out poetry. I breathed out compositions that held space. I began to see myself as a person with multitudes, not as a person with limitations; and thus, it began to show in my work.

I dropped out of college in 2016, as the pain in my hands became too much. And if I’m being honest, I just didn’t like school. I was still drawing all the time, but in simpler ways, in that there was no pressure to get a perfect score. In 2019, I officially started my small business, Abigail E. P. I am an independent illustrator, still living in Lincoln, Nebraska, which has become a beautiful home for me. I showcase my work across the country and sell my drawings online, ensuring that anyone who has struggled the way I have, can have a friend in their home, and know that they are never ever alone.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I started by watching my dad draw when I was a toddler. He taught me technical drawing skills at a very early age that I carried with me through my life. As a child and a teenager, I was always drawing. I went through so many sketchbooks in high school (I didn’t take notes, it’s a miracle I graduated).

Drawing has always come easy to me, but making art that meant something to me came much later. I was making realistic portraits for the longest time, and I loved it. As I grew into adulthood, I developed a chronic pain in my hands. It was debilitating for a long time, and doing realism was just too hard. At this time, I started oil painting, which was a much looser kind of medium for me. I enjoyed the process and feeling of oil painting, but I felt like I wasn’t good at it. I wasn’t used to not being good at artistic endeavors. I’ve since found ways to make paints work for me, but I’m a leo and I’m very impatient. The moment I decided “I’M BAD AT OILS” I immediately quit and tried to find something else.

I picked up pens and started doing hatching and crosshatching, which proved to be the best route. They were simple line drawings at first, but it allowed me to explore a brand new style, completely the opposite to my realism. Instead of drawing self portraits, I drew what I imagined my anxiety and chronic pain and eating disorder to look like. They were cute, scary little monsters that all lived inside me. It was like a self portrait of my brain. After the first monster drawing, something clicked and kept clicking all the way to right now.

I don’t think I knew I was going to own a business and be what I am. It kind of just happened. I fell into wanting it because I didn’t know what else to want. It turns out it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s really beautiful to see the way my illustrations of complete vulnerability mean so much to so many people. There’s not much else I think about, if I’m being honest. I like to feel things very deeply and I like to put it into the world. I think it goes to show that sharing experiences and difficulties is important. It’s important to connect to people who know what you’re going through, because a lot of the time it can feel like you’re on an island all alone. My business is what it is. It’s a business. But that’s not what matters to me; seeing which prints people buy and which drawings mean the most remind ME that I’M not alone. I think that’s what matters most. Knowing we’re not alone.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
It’s interesting that this is a question because this is actually how I met one of my best friends. A random girl messaged me on Instagram asking this exact question saying, ” Hi! I followed you awhile back after I stumbled upon your illustrations and then just noticed that you live in Lincoln, NE! I’m looking into a grad program and UNL and visiting in March, do you have any recommendations? I’m coming from California, so it’s completely foreign to me!” So allow me to recite to you exactly the message that gave me one of my very best friends:

Sights: if you’re coming before June, bring layers. Nebraska is wildly unpredictable and it could snow it April/May. Be prepared! I recommend taking a trip to the Holy Family Shrine between Lincoln and Omaha, it’s an all glass church nestled between two state parks and the best river in the state (the mighty Platte River). It’s about half way between Lincoln and Omaha, so you could even visit the Omaha Old Market since it’s the right direction! Pioneers Park in Lincoln is a sweet little place to have picnic and ride your bike if you like parks. I also recommend going to the top floor of the Nebraska Capitol building. It gives a great view of the city; it’s not much, but it still makes you feel small in all the right ways. There’s not too much for sight-seeing, but there’s certainly ways to make the mot of it. The backroads heading north, literally 20 minutes outside Lincoln, will take you to the perfect spot where you feel like you can see every single star. That’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about Nebraska: the stars.

Food: We actually have decent food in Lincoln. Which is great. One of my favorite places is called Blue Orchid, it’s where my husband and I go if we’re celebrating. It’s an amazing Thai restaurant with the most authentic food I’ve found in the Midwest, including Omaha and Kansas City. Sushi in a landlocked state is…a choice. But if you must get it, I recommend driving to Omaha to Yoshitomo. Trust me. My favorite Lincoln restaurants other than fancy tasty Blue Orchid are Lan House (authentic Chinese with HAND PULLED noodles), Bahnwich (Vietnamese Bahn Mis), Pho Nguyenn, and Muchachos tacos. If you’re looking for brunch there’s one place that takes the cake: The Hub.

My husband and I love craft beer. Like a lot. Lincoln has some DANG. GOOD. BEER. If it’s your thing: Zipline is kind of the pride of us all. It’s so good. We also frequent Code Beer Co., White Elm, Cosmic Eye, and Saro Cider. We actually had our engagement party at Code. So if that tells you anything about us…

We’re also madly in love with coffee. I was a barista for four years, so I’m also really snobby about it. The best place in town is called The Meadowlark, which admittedly, is where I worked. But it’s so good I SWEAR. I am quite passionate about a well pulled shot of espresso so I wouldn’t lie. Cultiva is one of the more popular coffee shops in town, rightfully so. It is also top notch.

Adding on to this since I sent this message to my friend in March 2019 and 2019 was long ago, there’s a museum on campus called the Sheldon which is lovely. There’s also The South of Downtown non-profit which hosts art shows and markets regularly. Before the pandemic, my friends and I liked to go to the Hot Mess, a little dive bar on 11th street. Or Jakes, a cigar bar that had the best damn gin and tonic you’ve ever had. The best of times were spent in The 1867 Bar or Duffy’s, both bars that hosted loud, live, local music. I look forward to the day I can take Jacqueline, to whom this message was sent and to whom has become the best friend I never knew I needed to Jakes, The Hot Mess, The 1867 Bar, Duffy’s, and more.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Everything good that I’ve ever done in my life is owed to my mom. When I say this woman is resilient, I mean it. The way she handled having four kids under 5 years (1994, 1995, 1996, 1998) to the way she handled four teenagers, to the way she handled everyone leaving at the same time. This woman is the backbone to my family, who thank GOD I had when I was going through it. My siblings are my best friends, and she gave that to me.

She and my dad have supported every decision I’ve made, even when they didn’t agree. Without her trust and guidance, I don’t know who or what I would be, but I certainly wouldn’t be half of what I am. Jennifer Ervin is, without a doubt, the most badass woman alive. Can I say that?

Website: abigailep.com

Instagram: instagram.com/abigailepenner

Twitter: twitter.com/abigailepenner

Other: Tik Tok: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMeuYJBHN/

Image Credits
Excited Coffee Girl, photo by Pha Nguyen Mercat Tulip glass, photo by Pha Nguyen

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