We are pleased to display Michelle O'Patick-Ollis' work in this month's installment of Arthoughts. Many of her pieces were originally created for her MFA exhibition at Arizona State University in Tempe, in 1999. In addition to her intaglios, she also displayed several very large charcoal drawings. Her work utilizes figurative realism with a convincing sense of space and form. I find these works particularly compelling and for this reason, felt they should be revisited. We are also including some prints that did not appear in her graduate show, but were consistent with her theme. We are using her title, "Limbo," for this article, because it is an excellent description of the narratives presented in her work. (Michelle's Gallery >>)
Background and Processes
I first became acquainted with Michelle in the early 90s, while she pursued her B.F.A. degree at East Tennessee State University. I was honored to have her as a student and later as a colleague, when she taught several of our foundation courses as adjunct professor. Beyond her degree from E.T.S.U., she also pursued advanced studies at Arizona State University, in Tempe, where she further developed her skills in the field of printmaking.
Michelle’s artworks utilize a beautiful range of values, energetic textures, and phenomenal drawing skills. I would describe them as intense, both in message and imagery, masterfully exploring contemporary icons with traditional techniques. She worked meticulously in developing her images, spending many hours in the shop. She usually began her plates with detailed contours, often creating elaborate outlines for how she planned her etches. Her prints generally used line sparingly, except for the initial drawing. Her images relied heavily on aquatints to carry her form and space. She worked from both additive and subtractive processes, fully manipulating the plate surface. As a result, she was able to achieve some stunning effects, and was quite masterful in blending tones and creating unusual textures. This is not an easy task in printmaking, particularly for the intaglio process.
Shop Techniques and Media
A word should be mentioned about the methods used in our printmaking shop at that time Michelle was enrolled at ETSU. We worked mainly with Zinc plates and etched them in a flat tray of Nitric Acid. Zinc is a fairly soft metal and would allow for good value gradations through scraping, sanding and burnishing. The difficult problem was to create plates that held up to strong pressures. Often the plate surface would breakdown, long before the full edition was printed. For delicate aquatints, proofing had to be held at a minimum, since the wear created by excessive printing and wiping often limited numbers in the final edition. The plates were also problematic in that processes had to be carefully planned. Aquatints would often deteriorate if additional aquatints were etched over them.
Imagine for a moment venturing into a surreal landscape of desert sands, cactus, parched earth, glowing horizons, very sharp thorns, and stinging scorpion tails. Many of Michelle's pieces set a beautiful mood or ambiance. These narratives were further punctuated with symbols of home, maps, lights, doves, and arrows that probably pointed us to familiar destinations or unknown futures. This is certainly suggestive of a state of discovery, a state of transformation or transition, a state of limbo.
Aside from the religious connotations, limbo is an imaginary place for lost, forgotten, or unwanted persons or things, an unknown intermediate place or condition between two extremes, a prison or confinement. To further elaborate on this picture, the artist has placed herself into this world, largely using nude, figurative, self-portraits. The artist is depicted in her most vulnerable state; softness of skin was placed in stark contrast to the hostile environment. This picture obviously has an element of discomfort, yet many of the figures are floating, suggesting a dreamlike state. Often in dreams, one is aloof to the troubling situations; this allows the subconscious to analyze the situation in a safe and objective place. One thing is clear; Michelle's images were undoubtedly influenced by her new experiences in Arizona, new friends encountered, and the looming unknown of the future.
In the image below, "Embrace of the Poison People," we see a nude portrait of the artist, positioned in a characteristically Baroque pose. She confronts the viewer, both in gaze and also by the extension of her arms. She engages us with her eyes; we are invited into her hostile space. She establishes excellent psychological and visual contrasts between the vulnerability of the flesh and the prickly, poisonous textures of the environment. As the title suggests, she is embracing a handful of scorpions. However, the image may hold an unintentional double meaning. Could she be presenting the viewer with a gift? Her gesture calmly enters our space; her fingers embrace or offer their mysterious bouquet. Only the artist can truly explain the meaning of her title. One can appreciate Michelle's work on many levels, if not for the sheer masterful ways she manipulates the printmaking plate, then for its rich use of symbols, place, people, and self.
Artist's Statement by Michelle O'Patick-Ollis
My artwork may fit into the category of portraiture. My drawings and prints, like most portraits, are visual depictions of a figure in an environment. They capture a person's outward appearance. Symbols and the environment surrounding the figure, mood created through values used, and marking vocabulary all combine to give insight into the subject's inner self. A psychological portrait emerges.
My work reflects an interest in change and all that it encompasses: new directions, waiting, feelings of being in limbo and being uprooted, lack of comfort, the passage of time, and a sequence of coincidences. The work contains various visual elements representative of change.
Map imagery symbolizes new direction. Falling, floating figures are human representations of the state of limbo. The harsh, desert landscape easily lends itself to being a menacing, uncomfortable environment in which to place the figures. Scorpions and cactus with reaching talons and sharp needles appear to be painful, frightening elements in some instances and yet at other times seem to be a support system on which the figure rests. The works take on a dreamlike quality. The figure is surrounded by images that may be interpreted as daydreams. There is a sense of reminiscence as if the figure isn't really in that environment, but is remembering; imagining, or inventing her own reality. From night terrors to angels, the images embody the characteristics of fear, discomfort, and acceptance: feelings that are autobiographical in nature and yet are universal reactions to change.
Arthoughts.org was launched by Professor Ralph Slatton in the fall of 2011. Its primary mission was to give our art students and alumni of East Tennessee State University a forum to express their creative views. From its inception, Arthoughts was created for all levels of participation, spanning the disciplines of visual artists to art researchers, from conceptual artists to the traditionalist. We try to be all inclusive for the learning experience.
I have just introduced a new site. It is not a large site, but shares a few ideas about the role of the art museum, in contemporary times, where it has become fashionable to create installations and performance, where documentation has replaced the precious object. Please see the very beginnings of my Art Museum & Slatton Career Site.
The exhibit is curated by ETSU Department of Art & Design Printmaking Program Director, Prof. Ralph Slatton, he states “works included in the exhibition all share a strong commonality of humor, irony, or sense of the surreal” reminiscent of Moody’s creative philosophy.
I am influenced by the fairy tales and stories that I grew up with and the sinister and peculiar aspects involved with them. I use imagery and symbolism that is connected with these stories to engage the viewer with their already accumulated knowledge of the subject..
I created the term Neo-Raconteur to convey my interest in medium theory to support the artistic custom of revealing cultural conventions for allocation into artistic genres. The term evolved from the French word "Raconteur," meaning: somebody who tells stories or anecdotes in an interesting or entertaining way.
Each of us holds a special memory from childhood. Sometimes it's an image from a movie, or perhaps a special children's book character; for me, it is an age stained picture on a zigsaw puzzle. (more >>)
I approached the assignment with the idea of using opaque color swatches to give the illusion of transparency rather than thinning out the paint. (go to gallery >>)