Being Suspended Somewhere Between Cultures - 10 Questions with Multi Discipline Artist and Model Elena Øhlander
Elena Øhlander was born in Minnesota but was raised in Florida. She is a Jacksonville based model and artist who explores several mediums, including photography, illustration, and painting. Øhlander's work will be on exhibit in 1st Things 1st, which opens on Friday, January 12 at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Springfield. This group show features artwork by 30 different First Coast artists and serves as a commentary on the freedoms outlined within the United States of America's First Amendment. Øhlander will also be one of four artists included in the upcoming exhibition Sum + Substance, which opens at The Space Gallery on Friday, February 16. Her work will be featured alongside artists Christie Chandler, Dustin Harewood, and Hiromi Moneyhun.
In connection with the Sum + Substance, Arts Evolution will host a ticketed event on Thursday, February 15 and invites individuals interested in starting or growing their personal and corporate art collections to meet with the artists during an intimately curated experience. The evening will feature artist discussions and a presentation on contemporary art led by Curator and Art Advisor Aaron Levi Garvey. A selection of boutique wines and culinary delectables will be paired with the work of each artist to more fully engage the audience's senses. To maintain intimacy, capacity will be limited to 50 attendees.
In her current series, I Think I'm Going Japanese, Øhlander examines how Japanese society is absorbed in modern technology and lifestyle while also managing to preserve traditions; juxtaposing heritage against contemporary trends. The series of illustrated girls is a commentary on the male gaze. Øhlander uses traditional Japanese foods and snacks as metaphors for how females are all too often objectified or viewed as something to be consumed. While the series has a Japanese context, it is relative to the female perspective on a universal level.
Øhlander will release a 12-month calendar featuring work from the series in early January. The calendar will be available for purchase through her web store, but only a limited number will be produced. However, images from the series are also available as prints through the web store.
10 Questions with Elena Øhlander
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
When it comes to my work, I have realized and accept that I work in waves. At the peak, I am working non-stop in my studio; pushing out piece-after-piece of new work. When the curl comes, I begin to feel creatively and emotionally spent, which brings on the trough. During the trough period, I find myself really just experiencing life and becoming inspired by those experiences. These wavelengths are usually short and their frequency is high. It took me a long time to accept that fact - that I need the time to reflect and refresh and when inspiration comes, I should seize it.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
Over the years, I have learned so much about myself when it comes to my process and vernacular. Those two things work in tandem to inform my work.
I understand that I work well under pressure; whether that is a fast-approaching deadline or if that is some challenge I face in my personal life or even in the work itself. I have learned to really let my guard down when it comes to the visual representation of all my inner thoughts and past experiences, both negative and positive. I have come to accept who I am as a person as I constantly reinvent and discover what that means.
How do you define success in what you do?
Success comes in many forms, not just in an end result. I consider myself a life-long learner and mindful of life outside of my work. Having a young daughter and trying to manage my time can be challenging, but being able to find a balance is already a success for me. When it comes to my work, be it illustrations, paintings, or photographs, the success is showing up and creating every single day. Al Letson once said, "People say that when you do the thing you love, you'll never work a day in your life. That's not true, you will work harder." He hit the nail on the head and that is the approach I take with my own work.
You've used a limited color palette to create past series but have expanded that palette in your current series, I Think I'm Going Japanese. What did you want to capture in this series that drove you to explore beyond the constraints of blacks and reds?
When I first embraced illustration, it was a slow process. 4-5 years ago I was working and attending college full-time with a then-toddler. Making time for my work was few and far between. I would attend back-to-back classes from 8:00AM-4:00PM, pick up my daughter and drop her off in the care of my mother, and then go to work at a bar. Sometimes I wouldn't get off work until 3:00AM. But, I would come home, set up, and just work; often without rest.
The illustrations were these girls, without constraints growing organically. In hindsight, they were some kind of self-portraits. Black, white, and red were a natural aesthetic choice for me, as well as one of convenience. Those girls remind me of that time. The loose nature in which they were painted is reflective of the sporadic and hectic life I led.
In May 2017, I felt compelled to explore and share my deep connection with Japanese culture and I opened my world to more color. It was both frightening and exciting to take, what I felt, was a risk! I felt it was time to open up my world again. I wanted to represent the work and the girls in a Japanese context that I experience and visualize - with more color!
You are exhibiting new work in 1st Things 1st, a show that explores the Constitution's 1st Amendment. The pieces you entered into this group show are the largest pieces that you have created to date. Did working on a larger scale challenge you in any unexpected ways?
Working on a larger scale definitely presents challenges, physically and mentally. I have dedicated more time to them than any one piece and they are much more layered when compared to the smaller illustrations. The details do not become easier just because the surface area presents more room to play.
I was making oil paintings on this scale around 15 years ago. I hadn't done it again up until now. So, with such a long break, that was a challenge. It was not like riding a bike, where I pick it back up and it just feels right. I continued to feel like something was missing through the whole process.
Working in watercolor and ink is definitely more of my strong suit. Changing to mixed media and oil paint for the work in this show reconfirmed that for me.
As a visual artist, you create primarily through two mediums - paint and photography. Do you identify more as a painter or a photographer? Additionally, working between more than one medium, do you ever find your interest waxing or waning between the two disciplines?
It is true that I work in two wholly different mediums. My education is in photography, but I have been a painter most of my life. For certain, I most strongly identify with painting. It took about a four-year hiatus from painting for me to come full circle and realize that.
When I focused more on photography, I struggled internally and in execution to find a way to blend the two mediums in a way that felt right. At this point, photography sits on the back burner as I move forward in my illustrative career.
Your work predominantly focuses on cultural identity and the female perspective. As a multi-cultural female artist living in the south, how do you define the relevance of your work, especially in light of the systemic problems of racial inequality and sexual assault that are present throughout all levels of society?
I think of my work being relevant on a broader scale as part of the human condition. To ask and seek the answer to the existential question (if you have the luxury of doing so) of "who am I?"
Identity and individuality have always fascinated me. Even as a young child I would pose questions pertaining to those concepts. However, my most recent illustrative work has allowed me to be more specific - probably this develops over time as an artist - where I can hold a mirror to what might be going on politically and socially, revealing more about who I am.
The work to be in First Things First is politically driven from my unique perspective being suspended somewhere between cultures. Spending the earlier portion of my childhood up North and the latter half in the South, my eyes opened to racism beyond what I had experienced. Small town America's lack of diversity left me ignorant to other minorities experiencing harsher forms of racism than I had been exposed to, until I moved to Jacksonville. I didn't realize the oppression and divide that existed and how racism and prejudice was reciprocated on many levels between communities.
In your artist statement, you touch on how the male gaze can affect both the public and private domains of the female. As someone who participates in Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch, how do you find a balance between the public persona of Elena the artist and the private life of Elena the individual.
Social media, in general, is so fascinating to me. We can choose to share with people what we want and in a way that we prefer. This is some how a facade and therefore I take very little time and interaction on those platforms on a personal level. To be honest, I am a relatively private person. Anything I post on social media alludes to an opinion I have on something specific or it is focused on what I do professionally.
My life exists in face-to-face interactions, conversations and experiences - as it always had prior to social media. I will say, however, that social media is a great tool to expose your work to an international audience. And, sometimes opportunities arise from said connections.
The balance between my own public and private life is on a scale that teeters toward the private which shapes the public persona.
Being that you're our first 10 Questions Interview of 2018, do you have any resolutions or goals for the new year?
Well, the new year isn't a determining factor in my goal making process. However, current goals would include a solo exhibition, a book of my work, and perhaps making some connections in Los Angeles, as I feel a stronger market exists for me there.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
I would love to see more involvement and participation from the local non-profit organizations that pertain to the arts on an individual level. How can you possibly support what's going on or even truly fathom the efforts if you're not attending, experiencing, and promoting the artists and their respective events?
I encourage people to get out of their cubicle or office and be the change they want to see in their community, instead of talking about it and allocating funds in the wrong place. Please, take the time to get to know our community and what it really needs.
I also hope Jacksonville artists can come together to help bring experiential and participatory art to Jacksonville. Experiences that will connect those who have been considered disparate to the arts.
When I go to the bank, the grocery store, out to dinner, or any other routine stops, I am always sure to hand out my card and information about any upcoming exhibitions. I tell people how fun it is just to see what's going on in Jacksonville and if time permits, to stop by. 9/10 times, people show up.
We'd like to thank Elena Øhlander for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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