Kathryn Oliver - A combination of wild spirit and sacred yearning

Kathryn Oliver is a fine art photographer that naturally integrates storytelling into her photography. She captures the childlike wild and underlying desirous nature of humanity in dream like narrative images. Merging real with unreal, nature, poetry and stories, she manages to expose otherworldly moments that speak to the viewer in metaphor and myth. With a professional arts background in painting, theater and dance, her photographic practice is influenced by a rich melding of these disciplines that results in timeless black and white imagery.

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You’ve previously mentioned that you “discovered a love for making pictures as a small child”. Can you tell us a little bit about how you were introduced to photography and how you nurtured this initial love?

My parents tell me, that as a young child, I was forming pictures before I could speak or walk across the room. Crawling around and gathering things I’d find in our back yard and making stories out of them seems to have been my most natural instinct to communicate. Eventually it became crayon, chalk, markers, paint, whatever was available.

I’d cover my walls, furniture, even my Mickey Mouse turntable fell victim to my urge to create. The dream world was very close and always wanting to come in.

I took photography in high school for science credit at a very free, innovative public school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was instantly captivated. At the same time I discovered a love for oil painting as well and the two I worked on simultaneously. I set up a dark room in my house and continued to paint canvases in my room. My mother worked for a book company at the time and brought me home books about Diane Arbus, Man Ray and Brassai. They all carried a deep psychological power that I resonated with. Another huge inspiration was the Ann Arbor film festival. I was exposed to a wide array of avant garde filmmaking such as Nosferatu, Metropolis, Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, Eraserhead, 8 1/2, Repulsion and so many more. It was a very rich cultural environment for a 15-17 year old.

You can really see a merging of your background in oil painting with your photography in your photo encaustic works. Can you tell us a little about the process you engage in to create these beautifully soft cross disciplinary art works?

As I began my self portraits I felt they would work well as encaustics. Using beeswax to create a veil across the image and increasing a sense of  mystery to them. I pour hot beeswax over the photograph and then scrape away large areas of it until I feel satisfied with what remains. I then add very small amounts of oil pigment mixed with galkyd painting medium.

Your “Wild Garden of Childhood” series manifests a surreal sense of childhood, a dream world, an enchanted place. Can you elaborate on how the Keats line "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter" relates to this series?

This series began when two major forces constellated for me. One was my son leaving his childhood and entering the young adult world and the other is reconnecting with my mother.

Impressions welled up in me and I realized that in childhood the dream world is still so close. Introspective and fertile, it is vast, full of wild imaginings, calling each of us with a unique voice. Our other foot is in the world of time and space, full of limitations and rules, determined by family, society, and all the dos and don’ts that accompany that, including the challenges of our own ineptitude. An inherent tension arises from this split and it is that which really intrigues me.

I learned “Ode On A Grecian Urn” by John Keats when I was 16 and have never forgotten it. For me, the “unheard melodies” echo that dream world of our own hearts, driving us with a yearning that can never be satisfied. Martha Graham calls it a “divine dissatisfaction” a “blessed unrest.” How do we reconcile with a world which may never deliver what we long for? I think it is simply in the reaching for it that meaning comes, the impetus for the creative act itself, and through it, as the artist well knows, new worlds are born. So these are the pictures I try to capture with the children. That combination of wild spirit and sacred yearning that we all share.

This tension you mention fascinates me Kathryn. The ‘dream’ world versus the ‘real’ world and our place in this. Your “Wild Garden of Childhood” series demonstrates artistic success in response to the tension you describe. Have you ever experienced tension that has disabled your creative process? And the yearning...yes, a “divine dissatisfaction” or a “blessed unrest” as Graham describes it. Can you provide us with another example of when you reconciled unrealised desire or an unattainable yearning via the act of creation?

As a child I created the way a flower blooms. As an adult it’s a dance between the dream and a dissatisfaction for the world. And sometimes inspiration dries up and you wonder if it will ever return. I often go to nature, poetry and myths and stumble upon an energy releasing directing force. But there is no formula, perhaps it’s more an act of faith and to just begin whether inspired or not. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

I began my self portraits two years ago. At the time I was struggling with personal events which I couldn’t control but I kept trying to. My creative life was in drought. A friend suggested self portraiture and lent me his camera and tripod. My inner world became very rich and intuitively directed. Sorrow became a foreground for wonder. A line from a Rumi poem flowed through me... “What was said to the rose to make it open was said to me here in my chest.

I don’t think life is about controlling nature or saving nature but what if we put ourselves in accord with the wisdom of our own nature instinct? Like the child plays, the flower blooms, the artist creates. All arise from the same source and carry the seed of a yearning towards a dream.

Your Nature Forces series contains a beautiful selection of self portraits. Most of them appear to be situated in the natural world, influenced by nature, the elements and animals. And none of them feature your face. Can you tell us about your approach to this series and the omission of your face?

I didn’t plan to not include my face but this portfolio arose very organically and what emerged was weaving my body with elements of nature. The pictures which excited me the most had an anonymous aspect and those are the ones I included. What I wanted to explore is of an interior nature and it suits it to be metaphorical and universal, not factual. What I mean by that is, they are not literal self portraits of me but fictional narratives which evoke a sense of connection between my interior emotional self and the natural world.

So my figure represents a symbol: woman, intuition, sorrow, compassion.

You also have a very moving selection of Portraits on your website Kathryn. They contain and express a dream like quality to them. Are most of your portraits organised prior to shutter depression, or are they spontaneous?

It’s usually a combination of considerations. I might have an idea in my head and then search for a way to form it with a model. So I bring a prop or suggest something to wear, a place to shoot, etc but I thrive on the stimulation of new situations and love spontaneously coming up with an arrangement for a picture so I don’t over plan. Several images are just me stopping and asking to take a picture of someone I meet on the street and find interesting. I’d liken it to bumping your foot into something and saying, “that’s exactly what I need.” Nothing is shot in a studio.

Except for your Photo Encaustic work, most of your work that I’ve viewed appears in Black & White. Can you tell us what draws you toward black and white imagery?  

Black and White is timeless and has a metaphysical hue. As a painter I work in strong colors, as a photographer I am exploring a more introspective aspect of myself and I can’t imagine doing that in color.

Can you tell us a little about your physical working environment - where you paint and create?

I love painting in my house and  being close to my paintings as they evolve. They are like my good friends that I like to say goodnight and goodmorning to! My portfolio of the children, “Wild Garden Of Childhood” is all shot in about a 10 mile radius of my home, Midcoast Maine is also my muse.

Earlier in the interview, you mentioned early art based influences. Are you inspired by any contemporary artists?

I can’t say I’m too keen on much that I’ve seen in formal exhibitions lately. Way too much tendency in the contemporary art world to take a superior and cold pointing at what is wrong with the world. For me, the unique miracle of art and art alone is that it can compassionately affirm the mystery of existence, both creation and destruction and yet point to the beauty in the shadows.

I recently read Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth Of Tragedy and came across this passage ... “The artist unveils the truth garment by garment but remains with a fixed gaze on what is still hidden. The critic takes delight in the cast garments and finds the highest satisfaction in the unveiling process itself, proving to him his own power.” I’d say most contemporary curated art falls in the critic category with a drive to negate life.

To mention just a few contemporary artists that I am inspired by I would say that in photography: Susan Burnstine, Keith Carter, Debbie Fleming Cafferty, Sally Mann, Cig Harvey, Todd Hido, Arno Minkkinen and Joyce Tenneson. I have also seen some beautiful work lately from fellow photographers that are not as well known. I am energized and deeply touched by the poetry of Mary Oliver. As far as music goes I often find myself listening lately to the pandora stations of Gillian Welch and Lhasa de Sela.

On the topic of quotes, would you agree with D.W. Winnicott when he says that the artist is “...driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”?

I wasn’t familiar with this statement but sure ... “tension,” “communicate,” “hide” and “desire” that all sounds right!

I think creating art is always less about the outside world and more about the artist’s own inner psyche -- which is chock full of the great unknown ... there is WAY more hidden there than not!  

For myself, making art has been a mysterious and necessary alchemy, driving me to present a “universe” or a “lie” through which the mystery feels present. Like the great myths, revelation through concealment. Whether conscious of it or not the artist is the modern myth maker.

What are you currently working on? And do you have any projects planned for the future?

I am continuing to work on both my kids portfolio and my self portraits. I am also exploring putting “Wild Garden Of Childhood” into a book format with writing and poetry. I have another project I am beginning but let’s just say it is in the “hidden” stage still.

For more on Kathryn Oliver and her work, please visit her website.