5. Karyn Olivier: Social Sculptor

Karyn Olivier is the type of artist who transcends her actual work; composed of a life of complex  backgrounds, finding her artistic stronghold, and continuing to make evolving, meaningful, breathtaking ideas. When I think of those I consider to be true artists, those who have a deep seated understanding of creativity and the way is moves through not only artistic mediums but the very core of everyday existence, I think of Karyn. I am consistently amazed by those who have strong voices, strong visions of the world, and are able to express themselves without borders or boundaries to create their beliefs for others to experience. Karyn is a thinker. A sculptor of social concepts. A woman who, in this interview alone, recalls fashion, poetry and art criticism to develop her rounded understanding of what it means to be a human, creative and otherwise, in today's world. So, without further ado: Karyn Olivier, an amazing human as well as an amazing artist.

1. You didn’t discover you were an artist until you were 30, is that true? That seems crazy! Do you see it like that, that you were always an artist just manifesting it in a different way, like through a retail fashion career or as a psychology student somehow? Or did you have a stark moment of creative discovery/understanding that you feel changed who you were, what your objectives were?

I actually had a hard time claiming the title artist — even after grad school! I was in the ceramics program at Cranbrook, which was amazing, but it was strange to believe my formal art education was over, I was making what would be classified as sculpture, but had never taken a sculpture studio course. I must admit, there are times I look out at my students and ask myself —“am I a fraud?” Don’t get me wrong — at the end of the day, I do treasure my non-traditional path to a career in art, but every once in awhile I think it would be nice to know I hold that B.F.A. foundation in my back pocket.

Despite this, I’ve always been interested in art. I can recall countless afternoons spent in the Brooklyn Museum in my early years. I even won an art award in third grade (which I’m still very proud of). But I also excelled in math to my parents’ delight and was gently nudged in that direction. But by the time I entered undergrad, I had abandoned math, was intrigued by psychology and ended up majoring in that. An interest in fashion had always been there — it’s just a part of life when you grow up in New York City (and other cities I suspect,  too). So when I graduated from Dartmouth, being a retail manager seemed like a good fit— visual stimulation and engagement with a “population.”

At Urban Outfitters, and even Bloomingdale’s, I was surrounded by creative people, but it was during my tenure as wholesale director at J. Morgan Puett (an exquisite clothing line from the 80’s and 90’s) that I had my “aha” moment. I watched this designer who really was the quintessential artist — living art at every moment. It was incredible to witness. I realized through watching her every day that life didn’t have to be compartmentalized — all of it can be imbued with art. A month later I quit my job, started a little business selling infused olive oils, vinegars and homemade candles at street fairs and began taking ceramics classes with the purpose of getting enough credits to go to graduate school.

2. It seems your work keeps increasing in scale beginning with clay pots and eventually moving into gigantic sculptural playground pieces (which include an enormous two sided slide that leads to a crash in the middle, a huge, merry-go-round for one and an extended, delicate cooperative balancing act in the form of an overreaching see saw), how did you expand your physical scope? Did you/do you ever see boundaries?

When I started out, I was attracted to the ceramic vessel — its ability to engage us intimately and (dare I say) profoundly through its simple function: holding food, containing nourishment none of us can live without. We each have eating rituals with foods that enliven our senses— from our favorite dish to a comfort food or a meal that conjures up good memories. This interest in containers led to an exploration of architecture when I arrived at grad school. Take a tea bowl — it has a physical and sensorial relationship to the body. This experience shifts or maybe expands in the context of architecture. A building or a room invites not only a physical and sensory experience, but also psychological, emotional and social engagement. As I started to make more and more installations and large objects that begged for an active participant, I realized if done well, they can be quite powerful. Being confronted in a room by that huge slide or sitting on that rotating carousel for one rider demands your physical attention. But over time, the physical weight of the object is often eclipsed by the psychological weight of the piece.  A viewer has a heightened awareness of himself and his present-ness in the situation. It was really satisfying to make this kind of  work and after a few years it became “easier” to make these installations. Not the fabrication per se, but the ability for my work to achieve the “desired” result.

You asked about boundaries, and I think, perhaps foolishly, I never see boundaries. I think that comes with not having much formal training (I did take a beginning drawing class a couple of years ago). For years, and still very much to this day, whenever I come up with a great idea, I enjoy fifteen minutes of utter bliss and butterflies before the high comes down and I realize again “I have no idea how to make this thing.” But grad school taught me to be resourceful. I often bought beer for fellow grad students in exchange for showing me how to use something — a table saw, a drill press, etc. It’s often daunting to begin a new project, but at this point of my career, I’m use to feeling this way. I just work to figure it out or I find someone who can.

Some of my public work has increased in scale so that my hands don’t even touch the process — a CAD drawing gets sent to the fabricator and the object is made or photo files are sent to a billboard advertising company who print the 14 ft x 48 ft images which are then installed by their subcontractor. I’m working on a Percent for Art commission right now and too much of my time is being spent on the computer — there is almost no engagement with materials. 
And coming full circle, my most recent challenge has been to make small work again. Work that doesn’t require any experts, work that can be made with just my hands. I think I’ve been secretly afraid to try making small objects again, but I’ve been giving it a go the past few months.

(More on space, action & a library in a grocery store after the jump!)

3. In all I have read about your work the themes of space, private & public, and nostalgia always seem to reoccur. You often try to build with space, creating an intimate setting or memory or tension, usually in a public arena, whether that is a gallery, or park or even a highway billboard. You make the private public and the public private through seemingly simple spatial alterations in order to engage an audience. So much contemporary art I find distancing to a point of disengagement, to near apathy, what has made you want to engage, spatially and otherwise, your audience?

I think this might be related to the fact that I’ve spent more years of my life as a layperson rather than an artist. I’m also a bit of a pragmatist. I wasn’t this kid who sat in her room drawing imaginary worlds. It just seemed natural to work with what’s familiar. Take a coffee table. There is a list of things I can say for certain about a coffee table — its function, its origins, etc. I can also imbue a table with personal meaning while still being  aware of cultural norms associated with it. But often I question “what if?” What if my assumptions about it are outmoded, limiting? There is always something elusive, misunderstood, counter to my presumptions of this “known” entity — there’s always the  potential for a new experience. I try to start from that position.

For example, when I decided to fabricate a seesaw, instead of the standard 10-foot expanse, I decided to make mine 40 feet long. Gallery goers were invited to “play” on the seesaw, which yielded quite a different experience from their childhood memory of it. The pair of riders was asked to navigate this awkward steel plank — to find a way to make it “work.” What they couldn’t predict was how new the experience felt in the gallery: the air was quiet and the motion was a graceful, almost elegant rising up and down in the space — in stark contrast to the usual ruckus of an outdoor playground. The experience was quite public, but there was a lovely intimacy (and an inherent tension) at play between the riders.

I think no matter how many hours we each spend on our computers, we know that this machine’s number one function is to increase and broaden our ability to communicate with each other. The internet allows for more public participation, collaboration — intimacy even. But there are drawbacks — where is sensuality? Where is the noise and sweat? Where is the haptic? My works try to be small reminders or maybe just affirmations. They are humble propositions that don’t offer up concrete solutions.

And I’ve been thinking of this notion of public. I think there are many publics and part of what I do as an artist is to instigate — or incite — these publics. This can take place anywhere, at anytime, and be fleeting or “lasting,” as long as we are each willing to pay attention, be active and participate. I like one of Michael Warner’s assessments on the idea of public as an “ongoing space of encounter for discourse.” I think that’s a great start.

There's this line from a poem by Ryszard Kapuscinski that I love and can’t get out of my head: "Perhaps the greatest thing expresses itself with silence..." I want my works to be quiet, not mute, but give room for others to engage, participate, interact or simply to ponder. I want them to announce themselves as a public whisper.

4. When I was flipping through your portfolio, or should I say gazing longingly at my computer screen at page after page of awe inspiring work, there is one theme that seemed to be coherent in each piece: social responsibility, an actual concern for the well being of society. You made a library within grocery stores shelves in an under served section of CT, you artfully placed fresh fruit on barricades in Mexico daily for the taking, you made billboards on the freeways in Houston that revealed a photographic landscape of what lives behind the menacing ad spaces- how do you view your role as an artist within the context of social responsibility?

Ideas always emerge from my personal experience and history. In 2010 I was invited to be part of an exhibition at Real Art Ways on contemporary Caribbean artists. I was thrilled by the invitation, but knew right away that I didn’t want to exhibit in the gallery spaces. Hartford has the fourth largest Caribbean population in the country — it seemed like a missed opportunity not to engage this community whose heritage I share. My decision to place a library of exclusively Caribbean titles in a Caribbean food market stemmed from questioning my ties to my birthplace. My assumption has been that I am still intrinsically bound to my birthplace (Trinidad and Tobago) intellectually, spiritually and politically. This “given” was stoked by certain affinities I’ve inherited from the culture (i.e. carnival, steel pan music, Trinidadian cuisine, etc). But then I started to think of other signifiers of a culture like books and how often (or rarely) I read literature, poetry or even non-fiction from the islands. I quickly realized that my tie to this place that I still consider home was on some level a superficial one. This project allowed for a surge in my Caribbean education (though I must admit, the “to read” pile is still big).

The library was open to all patrons of the market. The books were organized by category (i.e. literature, history, children, region) and arranged on shelves alongside the customary products and provisions sold in the store. What was most exciting to me was that it was an honor library — no library card necessary, no proof of residence required, no specific date of return. Any customer could take a book out — the borrowers were only asked to return them when they were finished “digesting” them. My hope was for this library to expand what we imagine the “consumables” of a market to be — particularly when that market inadvertently traffics in nostalgia for home. I hoped for it to be a place where people from the neighborhood could really slow down, browse, and relish the sights, smells, tastes, sounds of our collective West-Indian heritage. So although I installed the library and share a common history, I recognized this library wasn’t really mine — it didn’t exist in the Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up. It belonged to these folks and the responsibility (for its upkeep or dismantling) rested with them. However the community chose to engage with the library was how it should be — a reflection, a mirror of some sort of its wishes and values. They would decide for themselves whether or not this library mattered.

This idea of mattering, mattering to each other, extends to my teaching practice. I tell my students if we don’t care about each other (and each others’ art work) in this room, why would we expect folks out there to care? Community is critical. I think my biggest responsibility as a teacher is to demand that they be engaged and active citizens in the world — to DO something. Anyone can learn how to use a table saw — that’s not where the art is. It’s in action.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.