Rebis Abolar sleeps with a pencil and paper next to his bed. Through his materials, he seizes visions that appear to him in the throes of sleep paralysis, a symptom of the narcolepsy he says he was diagnosed with in high school.
He turns his sketches into chaotic, spattered black ink drawings that read like high-voltage free association: a squid on a mushroom cloud; a horned military officer; a black cloud over a burning bush. His artworks burst with symbolism, but he struggles to understand what they represent. His process involves reaching "truth," which he describes as a glowing orb submerged in tar, while he sleeps. When he wakes up, he furiously paints, but all that's left is the tar.
The 33-year-old Houston, TX-based artist works as a flight attendant and publishes his work under a pseudonym. "Rebis" refers to the alchemist's magnum opus, the philosopher's stone, and "Alobar" is the name of the main character in his favorite book, Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. He keeps his identity secret because he's not yet ready to announce his condition to his social circle.
We spoke to Alobar about how he turns his dreams into art and seeks to change the way narcolepsy is perceived in popular culture.
Creators: How long have you suffered from narcolepsy and sleep paralysis? When did you start turning it into art?
Rebis Abolar: Narcolepsy is a genetic disorder, so really, I've had it my whole life. It didn't really present itself until I was in eighth grade. I started falling asleep in class and, no matter how much I tried to stay awake, and no matter how much I slept the night before, I could't help but nod off during the day… everyday. At first I was told I was lazy, and I needed to do this or that to make me more attentive, but when nothing worked and my parents began to realize how this condition was actually torturing me, they took me to a sleep specialist. He asked if I had ever experienced anything like people calling my name when no one was around or complete paralysis while still awake accompanied by hallucinations. I remember being in complete shock thinking, How did you know? After tests were done I was given the diagnosis the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I've been dealing with it ever since.
The sleeping part of narcolepsy is kind of its hallmark, but it's all the other symptoms, ones that most people don't really know about, that affect me the most. The cataplexy, the fragmented sleep (I haven't slept for more than four consecutive hours in probably 15 years), and of course, the sleep paralysis. I remember when I was 20 I had an episode of sleep paralysis so terrifying I forced my parents to let me sleep in a sleeping bag on their floor for a week. It was humiliating but thats when I knew I had to find a way to conquer this condition or I would spend the rest of my life living in fear with it having total power over me. I had narcolepsy. I had sleep paralysis. These things were mine, I was not theirs. In order to cope and and try and give myself ownership, I turned to art. I was in my early 20s.
Why do you only paint in black?
Honestly, that's a great question. No one has ever asked me that before. There are two reasons. To understand the first, it's important to realize that these paintings are all deeply symbolic. I'm obsessed with the waking "symbolic" mind. The "conscious-self," with which we are familiar. It's amazing to think that we are ONLY capable of understanding symbols. Every letter you read, every pixel, every picture, every sound you make in a conversation… all symbols. All things representing other things.
I believe that our subconscious is capable of understanding MORE than just symbols. That we all know a deep and universal truth, but have no way of expressing it. I feel all art comes from this place. All great and emotional symphonies, paintings, operas, etc., they are all an attempt to take a fraction of that truth and make it exist in a way that our waking selves might understand it.
So, the why the black? I imagine that "truth" as a shimmering and beautiful orb that is buried inside a vat of tar. The tar is our subconscious and in order for that orb to exist it must be surrounded by the tar. But the thing is, we all want so badly to see it. I honestly feel when I'm in that strange state of being I experience during my episodes of sleep paralysis, I can see it, but when I awake it's as if I'm being pulled from the tar with the orb still in my hands. Desperate to retain some of its knowledge, I fling the orb, covered in tar, at a canvas. The orb, now out of the tar dissolves and is gone, but the tar forms a picture that our symbolic mind can comprehend.
It's a squid on an atomic blast, or an entire city inside of and in front of a light bulb, but it's something. It is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a part of a much deeper truth. So, yeah, flinging the truth orb covered in tar at a canvas. That's how I internalize what I'm doing, that's why its black and splattered.
The second reason is a bit lighter. Since these images are so symbolic and subject to so many different interpretations, it's somewhat humorous to think about how they're actually all, "pretty black and white."
Why does every painting title begin with "Something About…"?
When I wake up from any dream or nightmare I'm always still feeling the emotion that I had just been feeling in my subconscious state. I call it "emotional dream residue." When I'm still covered in this residue, this subconsciously inspired emotion, that's when I grab a notebook and sketch whatever comes to mind. I just try and let my subconscious and my emotional state take over. It's only after I look at the sketch and reflect on what I was feeling that I start to realize what the picture I'm creating has to do with. I don't want to end up giving cliche, pop-song-esque titles to my work. Instead I want to give people an insight into the emotion I was feeling and why I used the symbolism they way I did. Saying "Something About…" is another way of saying "please reflect on the following concepts as you view this piece."
Can you go into a little bit more detail about your process of preserving the deeper knowledge you collect after waking up from sleep paralysis? Is there a system you've devised start painting as quickly as possible after you wake up? Do you sleep with paint by your bedside table?
I don't sleep with paint by my bedside table, no. I'm sure I'd knock it over or drink it. I do, however, sleep with a sketchpad and pencil on my night stand. I try and hold on to the raw emotion I experience, good or bad, during my dream state and then put pencil to paper as quickly as I can. It's like I'm trying to translate the non-symbolic language of sleep into the symbolic language of awake. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to open a video file with a notepad program. I'll never play the video, but you'll still get all sorts of strange symbols and errors that might allow a smarter person to figure out at least SOME of the information from that original file.
What's next for you?
Ideally, I'd like to bring awareness to this disability and how strange a thing it is. The only time I've ever seen anyone talk about it is when it appears as a "silly character modifier" in movies like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo or Moulin Rouge. Like, "Hey, this goofball has narcolepsy and falls asleep all the time." And I get it, of all the disabilities, it does have a high amount of comedic value, and I'll defiantly poke fun at myself from time to time. But I want people to know that disabilities can often offer the sufferer a unique world view, talent, or attribute. I'm hoping I can get my art into some galleries and start making a name for myself and for narcolepsy.
See more of Rebis Abolar's work here.