The gorgeous hues and movement in Dana Oldfather's atmospheric paintings are so gorgeous -- I love that sometimes they appear to be floating on top of parts of themselves as she experiments with a sense of the "weight" of the paint. We chat about family and the influence of motherhood on her work, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of criticism and advice.
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First, tell me a little about yourself! Where are you based? What first interested you in art?
I'm a painter living in Cleveland, Ohio with my husband Randall, and young son, Arlo. I make paintings, read, and spend more time preparing food than I care to admit.
I come from a family of painters and sculptors who often talked together about art. Paintings filled the walls of our home as well as the homes of our extended family. When we gathered for holidays, studio visits were as much a part of the occasion as the meal. My father encouraged me to paint in watercolor as early as two and I made my first oil painting when I was five.
What has your art education been like, whether formally or informally?
I'm an avid reader. I have read and continue to read theoretical texts as well as artist biographies and profiles. I frequent museum and gallery exhibitions nationally and biannually visit art fairs in New York during Armory week. I regularly attend artist and curatorial lectures at The Cleveland Museum of Art, MOCA Cleveland, and the Cleveland Institute of Art. I happily consider my art education a lifelong pursuit. I have no formal training beyond high school.
Tell me a bit about your work -- I love your method of moving paint around on a surface. What first attracted you to that method?
Thank you, Kate! It's been fifteen years in the making; each painting informing the next. In searching for my own mark I got in the habit of studying what my brush does on the palette (a moment significant as a time when I'm not trying to make a mark). This continues to push me forward. I'm fond of marks of varying weight within a painting. Finding flat, wide brushes was key to the body of work I've created over the last five years. The sweeping, skipping marks are dependent on that particular brush shape. Over the last year or two I've noticed other artists using the same large brushes, not in the exact same way, but in ways that are a little too close for comfort. Currently, I'm trying to learn how I can continue use these tools and remain idiosyncratic. It's coming along. :)
You're a new mom, and that has influenced your practice -- how has it changed things?
For me, pregnancy, labor and mothering an infant was difficult and unenjoyable. I was surprised by the hardship and frankly, felt a bit duped by society. (If you don't have kids, and think you may someday want them, please don't let this put you off motherhood. This has not been the case for all women and parents I know closely!) My desperation to work and exercise my identity as an artist pushed my mark making into a new realm – I took some risks and things started to click. The day to day experience of caring for a helpless, squishy, little human influenced the content of my work immensely. Shocked by the mortality and dependence of my infant son, I made abstractions resembling knotted or propped up, meaty, visceral, object/landscapes. Motherhood and my son continue to drive the content of the pictures. Now that Arlo is three and a half, I'm often explaining and breaking down abstract concepts, social rules, and exceptions to those rules and concepts. Our dialogue is helping to change the way I make pictures. The paintings are beginning to have narrative rather than being completely abstract.
What is your process like? Do you work intuitively, or plan in advance?
For the years leading up to 2017 I worked in a purely intuitive manner. This year, I have started using pictures taken on my phone of family, friends and television to develop composition and narrative. If I'm using more than one photo for a painting, I'll make drawings first. Otherwise, I use acrylic to block figures in over ink bleeds on the linen. I decide the overall color I want the painting to be at the end and build up the painting underneath with contrasting and complimenting color layers and marks in acrylic, aerosol and oil paint. Abstraction blows out the representational underpainting and dials it back in again in broken parts. A narrative develops as I intuitively apply the paint and I hint at it through the title of the work.
How would you describe your studio or workspace?
Two small, fairly tidy but dusty, white walled, first floor “bedrooms” separated by the only full bathroom in the house. (Otherwise I'd knock freakin walls down.)
If you could go back in time and bit to when you were first exploring possibilities as an artist, what advice would you offer your younger self?
Work in the studio as long and as hard as you can. Get personal in your paintings sooner than later. Don't be so precious about it. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what your work actually is so you can be clear and honest about it with others. Be humble and generous toward all people.
Have you ever received any advice that you're glad you decided not to take?
What a good question. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Criticism comes frequently to artists and most of it translates as artistic advice. At least I think we're encouraged to treat it that way. In many ways it's a valuable learning tool and can really propel one forward, but I wonder at how often it derails an artist. When I say derail, I don't mean leading an artist to quit making work (although it has the power to do that too), I mean leading the artist’s work in a direction that they wouldn't have gone and that may not be better for the artist or their practice. I hear some of the criticism my artist friends get and I say to them “That's ridiculous, what a terrible idea.” Or “that person has no idea what you’re doing, don't worry about that.” But it's much harder to say that to yourself, and to trust yourself and your journey, especially when the criticism comes from a prominent curator or artist. I think leaving some criticism behind can be as difficult as taking it to heart.
How would you describe "success?"
Success is having the means and ability to work often and in a manner that is challenging and fulfilling to the artist.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?
Maintaining one's artistic identity amidst the sea of rejection and praise that comes with exhibiting artwork.
What are you working on right now?
Chewing on something glowy-funky for a solo show in Cleveland in the fall and stretching linen for new paintings to send to my galleries going to art fairs this year. I've been developing a process for working on carbon fiber which I am currently infatuated with as well! Carbon fiber is a light weight woven metal fiber that is non reactive and won't break down over time. It most commonly used in sports cars and airplanes. I am fortunate and happy to be painting freely and often.
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