Amy Abts' art took her places; a rare illness brought her home
The Rochester native was making music, art, until a rare, incurable neurological illness brought her back to her hometown.
ROCHESTER — Having endured more than half a dozen surgeries, Amy Abts has learned every recovery is different. On Monday, about a week after a procedure to remove a bundle of nerve scar tissue, her right wrist was still in a cast.
“But it’s getting better,” she said. “I’m able to move my fingers.”
To create art, she needs those fingers to move.
A couple weeks off from painting or drawing is a relatively small break. Abts’ has a long history of her creativity being interrupted by illness, surgery, recovery, repeat.
“It’s like you’re starting again each time,” she said. “It’s kind of humbling but it’s also isolating.”
A native of Rochester, her music and art took her to the top of the celebrated indie rock scene in Duluth in the 1990s and later Seattle.
Her rare, chronic neurological illness, trigeminal neuralgia, brought her back to Rochester for treatment and family support. The illness is debilitating and currently has no cure.
The disease affects a major brain nerve. She has had three brain surgeries. The most recent one coming in early 2020.
As she recovered, the world outside went into lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Watching her friends deal with isolation on social media actually made her feel less alone, she said.
“I felt like the whole world was hurting and healing with me,” she said.
Abts is eager to put her fingers back to work — she has some illustration commissions to complete. Her art and disability payments are her only sources of income.
She’s also looking forward to an Artheads Emporium acrylic pour on canvas painting class.
“My art right now is kind of controlled and limited by the size of my place and my income,” Abts said. “I’d really like to throw some paint at a canvas right now.”
Abts left Rochester in the 1990s for Duluth. There, she became part of a burgeoning indie rock scene. She produced her first single and demo in 1995 with help from Low’s Al Sparhawk.
She returned to Rochester for a short stint to continue playing in and around the Twin Cities while saving money to move to Seattle.
In 2009, the chronic pain of what would be diagnosed as trigeminal neuralgia began.
Her art endeavors have been stuck in a halt-and-heal routine since.
“I just keep wondering, when am I going to get a break,” she said. “But that’s the thing about chronically ill people — there are no breaks.”
Her illness hasn’t stopped her from adding color and music to the Southeast Minnesota art scene. Despite that, Abts can’t help but think about what more she could have done.
“I haven’t been able to contribute as much as I’d like,” she said.
She’s absent from most area art shows.
“I can’t carry a table, I can’t carry a tent,” she said. “It’s a barrier for anyone with a disability, and I wish that would be addressed.”
Returning to music has been even harder. A recent procedure left her permanently deaf in her right ear. She lives in an apartment and her neighbors might not appreciate hearing her group practice at her home.
Her drummer, who does have studio and practice space, lives in the Twin Cities. Abts doesn’t drive. Nonetheless, she’s determined that her 2017 full release, “ Fifty-Fifty ” will not be her last.
She hopes her most recent brain surgery and the recent wrist procedure gives her some time and space to return to creativity.
“I’m hoping things quiet down,” she said.
Abts said she intends to create work to advocate for people who fight isolation and disability. She hopes to elicit some understanding and efforts to include people fighting chronic illness and disability.
Abts has performed with Gaelynn Lea, a Duluth violinist, singer and winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2016. Lea is also a public speaker and disability advocate.
“I find her to be an inspiration,” Abts said. “I feel we need more disabled people who are visible.”
Abts said she plans to use an art photo of her taken in 2020 shortly after brain surgery for an album cover. Other than that, she has no firm plans on how to carry her message yet.
“I’m not sure what that advocacy looks like now,” she said, adding she has a hard enough time trying to describe her goal. She hopes to engender empathy and understanding but without pity.
“There’s got to be a phrase or a way to say that,” she said.
“I guess art helps express the inexpressible,” Abts added.