Janet Olney

Janet Olney

One of the best parts of having worked on this blog for a few years now (even though I just kicked it up a notch a few months ago, it's actually been running since April 2014!) is that I get to circle back to artists whose work I posted about previously, and see how their practice has grown and transformed! One fine example is Janet Olney, who first appeared on Young Space in early 2015, so I caught up with her to talk about how things have moved along since then!

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So, I first shared your work on this platform over two years ago already! Can you introduce yourself? What's new?

Where to start – it has been a whirlwind. When we first chatted, I had just finished my MFA in painting at MICA and was starting my second semester teaching. I had just moved to a new studio with great natural light here in Baltimore (inherited from a friend), was starting a 6-month commission and planning a trip to Japan on a travel fellowship. That summer I studied shodu (calligraphy) with a master calligrapher in Tokyo. It was a phenomenal experience and I was humbled by the practice. I loved every minute in Japan and have been back twice since then. I am hooked.

You've been working on paintings, which have changed a bit since what you were doing when we first connected, in which you're still using layers, but there's perhaps a bit more depth to them now. Can you elaborate a bit on your recent work? 

The theme is the same. I am questioning perception, what is real and what is of our own construction -- how do we discern between truth and fiction as we move through the world. For me, abstraction opens up possibilities beyond what I know and see. This is an interesting and disorienting time with truth and falsehoods being given equal weight or validity. It definitely adds fuel to the fire.

As you said, I am still building the work through layers but there is a more illusionistic space. The space is familiar but then unravels the more you look. I am aware of edges or how things touch within the painting. Areas that are built-up sit or float on the surface, which breaks the illusion and emphasizes the material aspect. It creates an overlap of certainty and the indefinite. Recently, I switched to using panels. This seems like a small change but I can be a little more aggressive with the surface – sanding and scraping -- which has allowed me to explore texture in a different way. It is an additive and subtractive process, which intertwines the surface, pictorial space and characters.

What is your process like? Do you work intuitively, or plan in advance?

I usually have 5-10 surfaces going at once in various stages of completion. My process begins by sitting with the works. I have a little red mechanic’s stool that allows me to roll around and interact with work in a very physical way (getting close or zooming out). Eventually, one of the paintings will suggest an action. That may lead to a series of moves or another painting jumps in the mix.

I like to have both long and short work sessions. A limited work session forces me to be more decisive on something that has been stalled. Every painting has its own circuitous path to resolution. Even if I have just finished a painting I am happy with, the next one feels like I am back at square one. I have no idea how it will resolve. I often start intuitively with just strokes or washes of color to get beyond the newness of the surface. Most of my ideas evolve out of my sketchbook but they always change in the process. I am the same way when I cook – I cannot follow a recipe exactly, I try but there is always adjusting and tweaking based on experience.

Do you do any sort of research for your paintings? Or any preparation that gets you in the right mode to create?

I consider my sketchbook as research or kind of a depository of everything. It is an accumulation of information that gets distilled into ideas for paintings -- fragments of conversations, things I am reading, news media, visual notes, peripheral glimpses, etc. My grocery list is in there too. Ideas might start with a sort of word play or association -- a phrase or quirky grouping of words that, out of context, have a new meaning or evoke a memory or experience. Somehow, through paint, it is translated into an image.

How would you describe your studio or workspace?

My studio is in an old warehouse and has great light. New windows were installed about a year ago and it has completely changed the space. It backs up to a wooded park and patterns of light filter through the leaves on the hillside. There is a Japanese word for that, Komorebi. When I am working, the studio quickly becomes chaos. I work both on the floor and wall so as you can imagine it becomes a bit of an obstacle course. I tend not to notice until a painting stalls and then I start tripping over stuff. That is a good time to take a break, reorganize or gaze out the window.

What's the best advice you've received so far? 

Be specific about the dimensions – make sure it matches your intent.

If you could sit down with anyone and talk about anything, who would it be and what would you want to chat about? 

Brian Greene. I have read a few of his books -- he is brilliant and able to break down complex physics for the everyday person. I would not mind an in-person clarification on a couple things.

How would you describe "success?" 

Right now, success is having a disciplined studio practice where my work keeps challenging and surprising me. I, for the most part support my practice - studio rent, materials, etc. I would love to see that shift so painting supports itself and then eventually supports me.

What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?

Balancing studio time with the professional aspects of a creative career. Each week, I have set studio days and I want to be making things. It is difficult to step back from painting and work on a grant or exhibition proposal. That being said, some of my most productive studio time is after writing a proposal. The process of articulating ideas around new work clarifies what I am doing. It helps me see the relationship to previous work and offers a glimpse to what is next.

What are you working on right now? 

I have two solo shows on tap. One in a small space outside of Boston this summer and the other is in December at Visarts in Rockville, MD. 

Anything else you would like to add? 

Thank you for looping back and seeing what I am up to. I’ve enjoyed seeing how your blog has expanded over the past couple of years. 

Find more at janetolney.com and on Instagram @janet.olney!

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