interviewed by Mary Brody | Visual Processes | Fall 2020
Four housemates reflect on their art-filled home.
When studio art majors decide to have a casual dinner party, what they are really doing is constructing a performance. Classic table settings have been jetissoned and in their place are hand-made clay figurines. Absolutely no utensils can be found, and meticulously picked out rocks from Chance Creek stand in for plates. The candle wax is to be poured and manipulated while eating, and please, consider saving the bones from your meat for some artistic repurposing. I, as an English major, am privy to this knowledge as the housemate of three senior studio art majors. I’ve been best friends with my two housemates Olivia and Stella since freshman year and have just gotten to know Zoe, our third housemate, this semester. I’ve watched them all grow and struggle as artists during this strange school year, but mostly I have been paying attention to how their artistry has taken up space in our off-campus house. I sat down with my roommates to chat about who they are as artists and to reconcile the ways in which their processes have taken on our home as their vessel during our fall semester.
Mary Brody: So, I think I know you’re going to hate this first question but, what would you say your artist statement is at the moment if you have one?
Olivia Berke: No, no, I will answer questions if that is what you want. It’s not going to be perfect though?
MB: Yes, of course.
OB: Right now I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can. I’ve been trying to find and explore those moments through trying to create something that exists only in these very specific times and spaces. I’m also just very interested in the idea of collapse when things are placed in such precarious positions, so it’s a lot of accumulation and balancing and stacking for me right now.
Beyond that, I think just as an artist, a general through line in my work would be making things that are kind of two things and nothing at once—basically I’m just always very interested in hybridity. I frequently use found materials and recognizable objects and then, either in a repetitive way or in some small altercation I force, try to change how you think about them.
When we arrived at our house in early August, Olivia immediately started building a wire sculpture in the backyard. It was four tall ladders made of and connected by thin wire, and no one could understand how it balanced like it did. Olivia spent weeks in the field across from our house standing on one foot, then the other, trying to understand the thing she created.
As the COVID-19 school year approached, it seemed like the precariously positioned sculpture in our backyard might be one of the only constants in our lives. The wire sculpture withstood high winds and heavy rains. Our landlord would recklessly mow the lawn all around the sculpture, getting extremely close but never disturbing it. Then one day, a friend came over and tapped the side of one of the ladders lightly, causing it to immediately crumble over. Olivia said this was a sign, but I’m not fully sure what she meant by that.
MB: I love the balancing stuff you’ve been working on and I also think it’s, yes, definitely a relatively new focus for you.
OB: Definitely, and also organized chaos. Oh! One thing I think I should mention that is just very core to everything is thinking about ways of using, or really maybe forcing, materials and discovering these relationships where you’re pushing it to do something and it’s pushing back at you to do something else. I’m also always listening and trying to work with and against the materials I use.
MB: I think that kind of give and take and communication is really visible in your work and just connects nicely to your concerns with hybridity and balance. I thought of how I’ve definitely noticed in my witnessing of your artistic evolution over the years that rummaging and scavenging have become pretty huge for your practice. Could you talk about that process and what you’re looking for?
OB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in objects that would be considered not noticeable or are typically overlooked like, you know, trash or just discarded extra material. Let’s say that something falls off of a bike—then there is not only the story that that instance holds but the whole history of the object and I just see a lot of beauty in that. And, you know, I think other people see that beauty too. It’s just I’m talking about objects that we are typically conditioned not to look at.
In my work it’s about finding these objects that have feelings and emotions, taking them out of their context, off the side of the street, and then using them as a jumping-off point. Usually if I find something I can say, “Okay, well this object needs this to make it something that tells a story or expresses something important.” But also it’s not that the work starts around an object.
Sometimes I will be working on something and I’ll be struggling to finish it, and I can’t figure out what it needs and then I’ll walk down the street and see the perfect thing to complete it! You know? That’s it! And you take it to the studio, it’s some tree branch or something, and then you paint it and that is it! And now that we have a house I can just retrieve and collect so many massive things I couldn’t before.
The first floor of our house has served largely as a collection ground for Olivia’s strange found materials. I wake up one morning and go into the foyer, and there are scraps of roofing and tiles and other remnants of a house that was demolished nearby. (When Olivia finds out there is a house being demolished nearby she is like a kid on Christmas.) These scraps already somehow look like both art and garbage to me, but Olivia describes the whole new life she plans to bring to them once she gets them into the studio. Often, as soon as the materials arrive in the living room or foyer, they are taken away to be worked on, leaving the house feeling empty until Olivia goes rummaging again and refills the space. The garbage really makes our house feel like a home.
MB: So, shifting to the now: How has quarantine and the strange state of the world been impeding or accelerating your process?
OB: It’s been hard. It feels like nothing is important but everything is important at this time. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what making art means right now and how my practice fits into that. What I’m thinking about right now is that the opportunity for community building is so at the center of art, but it’s so often that that is not the case. There were definitely times over quarantine when I was too sad or angry to work, but now, having the space to do it, creating and thinking about it as a means for connection, is really what keeps me going. And to connect this back to what I was saying about my interest in balance, I think that it is informed largely by the kind of emotional pendulum we’ve been living in, and looking for that stability, maybe just for my own sanity.
MB: In terms of Senior Studio, do you have any mission or specific approach for this year?
OB: If I’m being perfectly honest, what I want out of Senior Studio is just to feel confident enough that I can do this as a career. The stakes are lower than in the real world so I want to really be pushed and told when something is bad and why. This is the only thing that I want to do so it needs to be what I do, but it sucks because it’s such a hard thing to do or make money off of. So yes, I’d just like confidence. But I also am enjoying building an understanding of a studio practice and how to self-motivate to be constantly creating and be more introspective.
MB: Can you speak about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?
OB: Yes! My first piece is called Point/Counterpoint and it was the only piece that I had made weeks ago. Everything else was made specifically for this show. That piece had actually started as a floor piece, but we moved it to the wall for the show which was exciting. I’ll admit I was against the wall at first, I guess. Or I didn’t want the wall to feel like too much support for the piece, but I really think it held its own.
Then I had Plank and Hoop, which was really about the themes I was talking about earlier—gravity, balance, and things pushing back or supporting things. The plank in that piece was really just such a great chunk of found wood. I also liked that it was next to my drawing, An Impossible Stability, to contextualize it a bit. That drawing came together sort of last-minute, but I do think it tied the pieces together nicely.
My last piece, Forced Attraction, was truly a puzzle to put together. The tubing I used to make the structure just did not want to mold, but I think that helped with communicating what I wanted to about an uncomfortable or awkward connection and instability. I was happy with it as my only freestanding piece in the show.
MB: What is your hope for postgrad?
OB: Oh my God, just write down, “Shrieks.” But really, all I could hope for in the future is being able to create and work toward making art more accessible. It’s just such a valuable tool and if you don’t like it that’s fine, but at least you know how to make something with your hands, you know?
I think it’s an interesting time and a real moment of reconciliation for the art community about the future of art and all of the current issues embedded in the art world as we know it. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get a studio and hopefully, way down the line, I could make some money off of my work. I don’t know, I want to be an artist!
MB: If you have one, what would you say your artist statement is?
Stella Mulroney: I’d say it’s more of a vibe than a statement.
MB: Sure, an artist vibe.
SM: Well, I think a lot about dreams, you know, the dreamscape. I have really intense dreams where I am frequently visited by entities that are honestly beyond my comprehension. I also find that I have a lot of dreams where I’m experiencing a very real feeling of pain, like, I frequently have violent car-crash dreams that are almost sensory or somatic. So I’ve been focusing a lot on trying to make the things that are in my dreams represented in reality and representing bodily pain that I maybe haven’t actually felt physically—while lucid—but that I feel in my brain while sleeping.
On a separate note, I also use a lot of writing in my work. Writing won’t necessarily appear in the final piece, but I do a lot of writing, trying to articulate what I am making as I make it. To get it out of my brain I need to write it out first, I guess. Sometimes I feature recordings or videos of spoken word in installations, too. Songs I write too, sometimes.
On any given day in our house you can hear Stella singing a tune and strumming her guitar in her room. Her soft voice fills the taut silence of a home full of artists who quietly sculpt or paint, and in my case write. My room in the house is directly under Stella’s. Most nights, I hear her take breaks from working on her pieces for Senior Studio to sing a little song. I never fully recognize any of them, they aren’t popular or well-known, but they feel safe and familiar because they are something Stella crafted.
MB: Similarly to Olivia, when I first met you, I would have probably only described you as a photographer, but in your time at Oberlin it’s been nice to see you experiment with sculpture and, like you mentioned, video. Could you talk about that evolution?
SM: I don’t think I came to college knowing I would definitely be an art major, but I loved photography in high school. When I got to Oberlin I just decided to take a photography class because I figured I’d be good at it, and I ended up loving it so much and falling in love with the whole department.
I truly never thought I would sculpt in all my days, but then I took a sculpture class with Nannette Yannuzzi and it changed the way I looked at what I could do. Like, everything opened up. I got very excited about different dimensions and movement in art. I also don’t really think I necessarily want to primarily be a visual artist in life, but I have loved it here and it informs everything else I do. But I will never draw in my whole life.
MB: The strength of your emotions around drawing brings me to my next question: a lot of the work you’ve made here is very powerful in how personal it feels, could you talk about that level of intimacy and how much of “you” is in your work?
SM: A lot of artists, in a way I really respect, are in their work but in a very removed way; the work is still their heart but it’s not easy to identify the artist in the art. I bring a lot of personal narrative into my work. I find using personal issues in my work really cathartic and also I am a chronic oversharer so it works for me to a certain degree. I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work. Also, for myself as a viewer, I really enjoy when I see that candidness in other work because I feel such a deep connection to that.
MB: How has working in these unprecedented times been? How has it affected your approach to your last year?
SM: There is a good amount of un-motivation. I feel, as we all do, pretty emotionally drained already, and creating art is kind of an emotionally draining activity. I’m glad to have deadlines again to get me into creative motivation. But I feel disconnected from the studio, too; I do most of my work from home because there is more space…
Stella does have a lot of space in our house, and when she is not filling it with art, she is amassing a large army of reptiles upstairs. Close to 30 animals live in Stella’s room/studio with her: one leopard gecko, one lizard, two frogs, a few snails, and 20-some-odd exotic fish. These animals likely have a better idea of Stella’s artistic process than anyone else. Some days, Stella will move a piece she’s working on about her dream entities out of her room and into the living room. And most days, a new box of crickets or tank-cleaning snails arrives on our doorstep. Stella’s space is in constant flux—living creatures coming in and creatures of artistic imagination being pumped out.
SM: … I also have never been into a very regimented studio practice. It’s weird—I don’t want to make art about the unprecedented times, but it also feels weird to present art about my dreams. I guess it’s a nice escape but there is some pressure to respond to this moment through art, and then maybe my art could be an escape for the viewer, too.
MB: Can you speak a little bit about the piece you have in the senior halftime show?
SM: Yes! I did a video installation titled Osmosis. I was thinking about subconscious entities or things that can weigh down on your physical form, and trying to balance fighting that off and letting it happen. It was a pretty personal and reflective piece.
I was thinking a lot about my past life and the idea that for a lot of people, in order to grow, there has to be some kind of shedding of the past or getting rid of older parts of you that may no longer be useful, even if that’s painful. Along with that, the audio is a song I wrote in high school and the bass recording is from high school, but I sang over it again now just to think about peeling away and piling on.
MB: What would you say you envision your future as an artist looking like?
SM: This is maybe funny for this interview, but for me personally, I think being a studio art major in college has made me realize that I don’t want to be a visual artist in life. I’ve loved studying here, but I think it’s great that I learned that it maybe can’t be the main thing I’m doing. I’ll certainly be working in a creative field and everything I learned as an art major here will impact anything I do, so I am very glad I got to explore myself here.
MB: What would you say your working artist statement is at the moment?
Zoe Iatridis: I mostly paint portraits, mostly self-portraits. I’ve always found it pretty difficult to say what they’re about because I generally don’t know when I start. I feel like the work kind of emerges from some intuitive place in me, and only after does it make sense, sometimes many months later.
I would say, though, that I’m concerned with trying to capture some truth about the way that I experience the world and the things that have impacted me in my life, kind of knowing that that is futile. No matter how good my work is or how evocative a painting is, nothing will truly allow me to instill in someone what I’m feeling or thinking. We’re all always feeling some impossible combinations of emotions all the time, and it’s very difficult to make sense of ourselves and impossible to communicate to others in a totally true way. So that is kind of what my art is concerned with broadly.
More specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about home and family and one’s place, or the relationships we use to root ourselves and find some sense of selfhood through. I’m always pretty focused on ephemerality, too.
MB: I only know you as a painter, and you’ve mentioned to me that painting has always been your medium. Can you talk about discovering that?
ZI: I was always a creative and quirky kid, but I never really had an outlet for it, and would just draw on my own time, so I never considered myself an artist. I started painting during my first year of high school and just kind of never stopped. It wasn’t really a decision, either—I didn’t think about it, I just began to paint. I’ve experimented with other mediums, photography in particular, but none have felt as authentic to me.
MB: And have portraits always been an area of interest?
ZI: I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes. So it’s just been forever. My dad will sometimes say I need to find something else to paint, but I can’t! There’s nothing else for me. Only recently, I would say in junior studio last fall, is when I started really explicitly making self-portraits. Prior to that, I would paint a lot of people that looked a lot like me but weren’t meant to exactly “be” me. I love the exercise of repetition in repainting the same face, my face, over and over in this kind of compulsive way, and I think that that connects back to my concerns of trying to communicate and be known. It’s kind of like looking at yourself and trying to understand and repeat it while also allowing yourself to be vulnerable and portray whatever version of yourself needs to exist in that moment.
One day, while moving furniture into the attic, I discovered Zoe’s collection of self-portraits. What seemed like over 20 large rolled canvases were spread out around the floor. Out of curiosity, I began to unroll them, not understanding who they were or who could have made them, but recognizing some feeling of familiarity in the eyes of each portrait’s face. I moved them near the window, allowing the light to wash over them, and I finally saw Zoe. It felt kind of like I was looking at something I shouldn’t be, that maybe I was invading the privacy of my new roommate just by happening upon these canvases. Now, I think that that intense vulnerability is just inherent in Zoe’s practice of portraiture, and the way I felt in the attic was a possible moment of artistic success for my new friend.
MB: What has your evolution as a painter been like at Oberlin?
ZI: I came to college knowing I loved art and knowing I wanted to be an art major, but I had no idea what I cared about—I just felt like I had to do it. I actually didn’t take a painting class here until the spring of my sophomore year. I think most of my first two years were about exploring other mediums and techniques, which I think did end up making me a better painter. I was so focused on learning something new in those two years though, rather than learning a specific concept, so I just kind of felt like someone who was taking art classes but couldn’t fully connect. Then, when I got into that painting class, I started to feel the shift to actually feeling like an artist.
MB: What is painting and finishing up your college career under these circumstances like?
ZI: I think it’s really affected my work. I’m still broadly concerned with the same thing, but I’ve gone down a narrow path of focusing on loss. I think this time has forced everyone to confront the fact that every important thing and relationship in your life is fleeting. In my work, I’ve been trying to reconcile the sadness of that fact with the happiness of having those things when you do. In quarantine I was feeling so stuck, but now I think that I was just digesting everything and I’m ready to make art about it.
MB: Something very cool about you is that you are actually a double major with art history and you have a curatorial job at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Could you speak about how studying art history has impacted your process?
ZI: It never occurred to me that I might want to be an art history major as well, and then I fell in love with the department. I think studying art history has informed my work in really interesting ways, and making work has informed the ways I think about art history. I really do think all artists should have some knowledge of art history; it just seems silly that you wouldn’t know the context of what you’re creating.
Also, yes, my curatorial job at the Allen—I’ve been doing a lot of research on paintings that we have acquired from like 1900 to 1980, and it’s my job to go through the curatorial file and go through all the auction records and places that the pieces have been before. It’s really interesting to be intimate with a piece of art in that way and track its history, so I’m enjoying it. I think just being with art in many different ways as an artist can be really important.
MB: Can you speak a little bit about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?
ZI: I am showing a portrait of me as a child—painted from a photograph my grandmother gave me—a painting of me and my mother on the couch, and a large painting of me lying on a lily pad, like a frog.
The image of me and my mother on the couch has been something I wanted to paint for a while. I’ve been thinking about the craving of my mom’s comfort and the limitations of that as I get older. It was hard to paint sometimes because I love my mom so much and I really wanted to do it justice. It was definitely tricky and it was my first time working with mixed media, with the textures, which was actually sort of an accident.
The portrait of me as a child is just special because it’s a moment I now know was one that I spent with my grandmother. It sort of feels like something kind of separate from the timeline of my life, so it’s a nice connection to my grandmother, whom I love so much, even though it’s not part of my memory with her.
The lily pad painting just came from my strange dreams about frogs over the past few months. I don’t really believe that dreams are symbolic, but I truly dream about frogs in a way that is serious and… sad? Maybe melancholy? This sounds crazy. I don’t know, it’s just become a thing that serves as a marker for where I’m at in my life right now. I think maybe just seeing my paintings in the show, without an artist statement or anything, they may not seem like they’re in conversation.
Of course, to me they are related or in conversation, and I’m excited about it because it’s like three divergent paths off of the same theme. I also think I want to continue to work on them next semester, and then one day maybe they’ll make more sense to the viewer in conversation.
MB: What is a hope for postgrad?
ZI: I don’t know. All I know is I have to be making art and prioritizing that in my life because it makes me so happy. But I don’t really know. I want a life where I can make work, and hopefully show it to some people, and hopefully some of those people like it. There are so many uncertainties in the coming years but I know art has to be at the center of my life, so that is really just the driving force for me.
The halftime show opened on November 13th. When I spoke to Zoe on the Saturday after the show about how she thought it went, we were less than a week away from Thanksgiving break, and Zoe would be the first of all of us to leave the house and head home for over a month. That Saturday night, we all sat in our living room, which was filled with Stella’s sculptures and Olivia’s masks and a painting that Zoe had made of the outside of our house the very first week we moved in. It was sad to think about the art, which really felt like its own life force in our house, being left alone in the dead of an Ohio winter. After a wave of silence, Zoe looked up at all of us and said, “You know, it’s really dawning on me, how much I’ll miss you guys and the house and my tea on the porch in the mornings and the backyard at night and just, you know, our space.”