Artist of The Week: Olivia Wendel

With the recent debut of her second collection, “Collection II: Flora & Fauna”, Olivia Wendel has our attention. Based in New York City, Wendel taps into the beauty of humanity and nature, this time with a splash of color. Inspired by her 2017 honeymoon in Costa Rica, “Flora & Fauna” focuses on the foliage and wildlife she was immersed in. Her artwork comes in many forms: from small drawings, to 50 x 50 paintings, to silk prints, Wendel dabbles in many different forms of media while staying true to an indisputable focus: womanhood. We visited Wendel in her Brooklyn studio to dive deep into her process, her portrayal of femininity, and the importance of narrative within art.

Can you tell me a little brief background of your experience as an artist?

So, I’m an artist and textile designer and basically my work takes on a lot of different forms. I’m creating work using painting, textiles and printmaking, but to me, I really see them all as a form of choreography. I am creating a narrative and I’m kind of living a dream that I exist in as I work. I’ve been developing this kind of visual language for more than a decade now. I have been using the female form as my main motif ever since I started drawing. I guess it started as really exploring movement and the body, but I basically use it as a way to explore vulnerability and the way that our bodies express emotion. The use of repetition in my work is what led me to textiles, because I would create these really intricate drawings and ink and people would look at them and say, “Wow, that looks almost like a fabric,” because they were so kind of repetitive; to me that’s what makes drawing cathartic; to draw the same thing over and over again in different iterations. And then I was also drawn to textiles because it was a way to really bring my drawings to life by putting them on fabric which has movement rather than a still a piece of paper.

Even your choice of words, like “choreography” and “movement”;  It’s so connected to the actual body itself. Obviously you’re using your hand to draw it. Did you have any background in dance?

Yes, actually. I started taking ballet classes when I was five and I was never very good at it. I never really thought of being a serious artist until I was in high school, but I did start drawing when I was really, really little, like maybe three or four years old. My mom is an artist and my grandpa was a sculptor, so I sort of always had this curiosity about the body because actually their work has always been about the body too. Ballet classes and even circus camp which went to when I was older… to me it was always a way of understanding movement and I would draw to explore if something was possible. I guess a part of my curiosity for my entire life has been the way that we move. Even now, it’s an important thing to me. It’s very meditative and my work is sort of a way of choreographing narratives and dances and creating habitats.

I am creating a narrative and I’m kind of living a dream that I exist in as I work.

So it sounds like a lot of inspiration comes from the actual body itself. Is there anything else that you  see, whether it’s events or situations in your life that have affected your art?

Yes, I would say that when I first started really seriously pursuing drawing, I was going through a darker time and there is no way for me to separate my emotions from my work. And so everything that I do is very much autobiographical, not literally, but it’s a cathartic way of coping with things that I’ve been through.  I’ve used a lot of different imagery, but the figure is what I always return to and a lot of times people come to me and say, “Are they supposed to be you?,” And they’re not really supposed to be me, but I know that that is a part of it; even if I’m not consciously trying to depict things that I’ve been through, it happens. Drawing has always been my way of coping with things.

Can you explain a bit about your process?

I never plan things out. It’s a little bit crazy and it sometimes backfires. Even if I’m going to do a really large 50″ x 50″ drawing, occasionally in my mind I’ll have a specific idea, but I never sketch things first. The reason for that is that spontaneity and chance are really, really important to me, even failure. To me, that’s what gives the drawing life. And so my process is really intuitive. I just start working and see where it leads me. I do a lot of sketching on the side, but I’m kind of bold in the way that I will start a painting and I’m not very careful about thinking it through necessarily.

Is there a particular environment that you would thrive in? Do you have to be in a studio?

It’s funny that you should ask because solitude used to be a really important part of my work. I felt that I couldn’t make my work unless I was alone. A few years ago when I went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] for grad school to study textiles, it was a really communal space and I found that I actually really, really thrived and enjoyed that. So I guess that I don’t necessarily need that specific of a space, but mostly just a wall, and paper, and my supplies.  I like to listen to music while I work, and I suppose I do like to be alone when I can. For the pieces that become my actual work, I usually just start on the wall on a piece of paper.

Earlier you said that people were asking you if the female bodies you were drawing were yourself. A because a lot of your work does portray the female body, in what ways do you think femininity is portrayed? Do you think this helps you express your femininity?

I was thinking about this question a lot before; it was really good for me to think about femininity and my work. It’s interesting because although my work is very much about the female experience, I’m not necessarily interested in depicting femininity itself. I try to depict figures that aren’t conventionally “feminine”- I like to draw bodies that are precariously dancing, or ungraceful. I have always experienced the feeling of being very vulnerable as a woman, which is why I find it so empowering to create these landscapes and narratives where women can be wild yet safe; primal but not erotic.  I’m using the body, but I’m not really interested in conventional depictions of femininity. And so to me it’s this rebellious way of depicting women in this environment where they can do whatever they want.

It’s almost about just a person in their body.

Yeah, I mean I think that the female experience is so much more complex than the ways that it’s conventionally depicted. And so in my work I kind of try to show that and show this vulnerability but also strength. I like to show strangeness. To me what’s feminine is our compassion and the way that we support each other and that’s probably part of why I like to create these scenes where there are only women, but I wouldn’t necessarily want someone to look at my work and just see it as about femininity because I’m kind of trying to redefine what femininity it is.

It was really a nice question for me to think through because it’s like, there are these women repeated over and over. But lately, with everything happening politically, I see a lot of very simplistic depictions of women, whether it’s pink hats or boobs used as imagery in products. And not that I have any problem with that, but I would never want someone to look at my work and see it as a commodification of the female form. I’m trying to depict our uniqueness and the way that we express ourselves through our bodies.

It’s this rebellious way of depicting women in this environment where they can do whatever they want.

What’s your favorite material to work with?

Definitely watercolor. I’m obsessed with watercolor and I also love ink, just black India ink. Most of the work that I’ve created for years now is using a specific type of watercolor. It’s Winsor & Newton and it comes in little tubes, but sometimes I use it in a way where it becomes really opaque and so people will ask me if it’s gouache or acrylic. But it’s always watercolor.

I noticed that your actual textiles are hand-painted in Brooklyn, but then they’re produced in Italy. Do you have any connection with Italy?

I do, my mom grew up in Rome. It’s not necessarily because she grew up there that I wanted to do my scarves in Italy, it was more that I wanted to be really specific about my production. I wanted to make sure that I was working with a factory where people are treated well and its high quality. I actually went and visited several factories and it was really amazing to see.  It was like the size of an airport facility where they have screen-printing tables and a lot more technology in textiles in than they have here. It’s kind of incredible. The level of printing there is just the best, that was really why I chose Italy. Also, as an artist I really wanted the craftsmanship and the quality to be a part of the product. It was very important that my textiles didn’t lose any detail or clarity from the original paintings. And that’s what’s so amazing is that these scarves, if you look closely, it’s really as if you’re looking at the actual piece of paper. You can see every little mark and the bleeding of the watercolor. That kind of detail and quality is really rare in digital printing and hard to find. So that was what made me choose Italy specifically.

Can you describe that process? Is it a file that you send to them and then they screen-print it onto the piece of silk?

It’s kind of crazy. I have a small scanner and I scan in these large paintings that I make. I put together the file digitally and I basically try to do as little as possible, so sometimes I’ll do a little bit of cleaning up the file, but I really try to keep it authentic to the original artwork. That’s my intention; to show the precariousness of painting because to me that’s what makes it beautiful. Whereas digital prints are often so cleaned up that you can’t see the human hand in the work. Then I send them the file and it’s digitally printed onto wool and silk. So it’s literally like a printer that prints fabric. They also do screen printing there. I’ve done a lot of screen-printing in my work, but with screen-printing, I wouldn’t be able to get the level of detail and complexity that my scarves have. I would need to simplify the designs and reduce the amount of colors, but it’s a beautiful process and I hope at some point to produce some scarves that are screen-printed. But the approach now is digital and it makes it possible to translate my artworks directly onto fabric.

So your series “Flaura & Fauna” was inspired by when you went to Costa Rica, can you tell me a little bit about that?

My husband is from Nicaragua and we have been there but he wanted to go to Costa Rica this time. We sort of went specifically to see sloths and parrots and the jungle itself. And I think that because my first collection was without color, when I went there I just couldn’t believe all the colors; colors that I didn’t think existed in nature. And when I came back I just really wanted to translate that into my work. That was why in “Animal Kingdom” there’s all these like crazy species of animals that actually could never exist in one environment. I kind of wanted it to just have this life force and lushness of the rainforest.

It definitely translates. It’s such beautiful coloring.

Thank you. To me it’s almost too much color now when I look at it.  I’m sort of used to black and white in my work and so it was a little bit of a departure, but I felt like it was a good break to focus on color for a while.

Do you think travel is important to expanding your reference system as an artist and to opening your eyes to see differences in what you create?

I definitely do. I’m kind of a creature of habit so I can’t say that I’m one of those people that always wants to be traveling, but whenever I do, I feel that it’s really important, mostly just for shifting my perspective and getting out of my comfort zone. Sometimes, I’m really inspired by a particular experience, whether it’s travel or a dream or going to see a show at a museum.  I feel like it’s really important to sometimes get out of my studio.

I loved your point about the fact that there is kind of more of this narrative and this emotion with certain works. Why do you think people will resonate with your work?

Now more than ever we are seeing a lot of the female form because of the relevance to this political disaster, or whatever I should call it. Last November, I happened to have just launched my collection and everyone thought I was making these really empowering images of women specifically because of what was happening, but it’s always been my work, I’m always creating those narratives. Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March and I think people are really seeking out images of strength and empowerment. I think people are drawn to my work because it’s very honest and vulnerable. It’s basically a diary in a way and I think that kind of intimacy is something that people crave in an Instagram world. I feel like we’re so oversaturated with these like perfect images. I don’t feel like there’s very much authenticity or honesty. That’s the only guess I have for why people might be drawn to my work.

What’s your favorite moment in your career so far?

I still feel like I’m at the very beginning of my career, so it’s a little bit hard for me to say. When I launched my first collection of scarves it was really, really exciting to me because, it just felt like such a concise expression of a fusion of textiles and art. It hasn’t always been easy navigating that journey between both mediums because it’s complicated and I wasn’t sure necessarily how to translate my work into a collection of scarves. But when that collection launched I felt very empowered and I felt like people were really understanding my work.

I think people are drawn to my work because it’s very honest and vulnerable.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m really excited about this painting that I’ve started that came from a dream. I had this really crazy dream about all these women laying down with their feet touching in the middle and they’re sort of spread out, almost in a circle. Lately in my work I’ve been trying to create figures that are more dynamic and less stationary and kind of more upside down and chaotic.  I’m experimenting with creating forms out of all of these figures that I’ve never made before. That’s kind of always my intention; although I’ve been using the same imagery over and over I try to reinvent it and do something totally new.

You’ve mentioned dreams quite a lot, and your work definitely does have a dreamy aspect to it. When you see these images, are they actual humans or is it kind of more abstract? How would you describe it?

I go through phases and months when I won’t have any dreams, but lately I’ve been having lots of bizarre dreams. Other times, I feel like I’m trying to dream as I paint. It sounds crazy, but I’m sort of disassociating and tapping into my inner soul in some way; like what happens when we dream, that feeling like you’re floating.

Do you practice meditation?

I’m actually really bad at meditation. I have tried. To me, movement is meditation. I definitely love movement. I love yoga and running and I find that that quiets my mind far more than trying to sit still and meditate. I do think I should get better at meditating.  One of my goals for the for the year is to be able to do that, but drawing and running and other forms of movement are very meditative. To me, stillness is torture.

Stay tuned to Milk for more art stuff.

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