Monday, August 27, 2007

Art Space Talk: Karin Olah

Karin Olah creates textural abstract paintings that elaborate on the heritage of American quilt making. Her work incorporates materials, aesthetics and symbols borrowed from several regions of the United States. Karin uses fabric, often antique textiles, in a way that mimics the flow of paint from a brush. Translucent layers of cottons, silks, and linens blend with opaque calligraphic brushstokes as graphite lines intersect the surface or fade into the suggestion of a grid. Geometric patterns balance organic forms; rich reds, yellows, and greens complement neutral earth tones.

('Second Little Confabulation'- Fabric, Gouache, Acrylic, Graphite on Linen- 12.0 x 12.0"- 2007)

Brian Sherwin: Karin, you majored in Fiber Art at Maryland Institute, College of Art while focusing on printmaking and color theory. Originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, your interest in Amish quilts led you to a broader study of American textile traditions. How have your academic studies and life experience united in order for you to progress as an artist?

Karin Olah: When I enrolled at MICA, I didn't initially set out to major in Fibers. I was nervous about spending my future as a starving artist and figured that I should take a lot of courses and graduate with a Masters of Art in Teaching. Luckily, during a freshman "Intro to Fibers" class, my future came into focus. Fiber Art isn't weaving, dying, and sewing fabrics while studying feminism. It's a sculptural degree that can shape-change between 2-D and 3-D, small scale or large scale, performance art or installation art, etc, etc. In other words, it was a very open field of study. My first project, Jell-O Dress, a wearable patchwork of Ziploc bags filled with Jell-O Jiggler hearts, was my initial kiss in a burgeoning relationship with Fiber Art. Although Jell-O Dress didn't survive the test of time (or the dorm fridge), the idea lived on—being featured in the 1996 MICA undergraduate prospectus. The Jell-O Museum of Leroy, NY found out about it, and word passed to Carolyn Wyman, a pop culture author, who featured the project in her coffee table book, Jell-O: A Biography, Harcourt Books, 2001. It's amusing to open the book and see myself, then 18 years old, modeling the very first piece I made in art school.

From that point, my artwork went in a decidedly pop-art direction. I used yards and yards of vinyl to build 3-D installations of cartoon computers and televisions. I spent semesters screen-printing color-field paintings on vinyl. And sewing, always sewing. My obsession with the quilt making squares fueled those compositions. Amish quilts are known for their simplistic geometric patterns and bold blocks of color. Following college, I learned about more region specific quilt making, such as the differences between African-American and European-American patterns and their influence on each other, Hawaiian-Appliqué Quilting, Underground Railroad Quilt Code, and southern textile traditions. I'm not a quilt historian, but the images and stories do shape my creativity. Now, when I go to my studio, all that history finds its way to my canvas.
('First Little Confabulation'- Fabric, Gouache, Acrylic, Graphite on Linen- 12.0 x12.0"- 2007)

BS: After art school you launched your art career in a New York City textile design studio, creating colors and patterns for couture fashion designers. How did your employment at the textile studio- the skills that you learned- influence the art that you create today?

KO: I moved to Brooklyn the day after graduation, having lined up a job in a field that (gasp!) had to do with what I studied in art school. I worked for an independent textile studio in SoHo, developing colors and patterns for many well-known designers. Clients (Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, and many others) would send a feather or lock of hair along with a bolt of cashmere or irreplaceable silk. It was my job to dye the fabric to match exactly the nuances of their selected swatch and to get it done by yesterday. I also painted costumes for TV and theater productions and screen-printed yardage for fashion and interior designers. Everything revolved around color and fabric. I really learned about the properties and possibilities of fabric at that studio. It was very intimate in the shop. I would gently bathe a small square of silk in the dye and watch it transform from white to celadon to jade and every shade of light green in-between. The job was a mix of fun, hard work, frustration, and reward (when I saw the finished product on the runway).

BS: Karin, you work has become more abstract in recent years, with less emphasis on familiar forms and more on the unusual light patterns and colors that you have found in Charleston. Why did you make this shift away from representational imagery?

KO: Abstraction is my first love and the driving force behind my work. I do like to mix in a little representational imagery. Charleston is a very idyllic setting, very picturesque; an artist can't help but be inspired by the marshes, the unique pastel colored mansions, historic churches, and an enormous "sky blue" sky. It's the kind of stuff that influences my work—albeit from a new viewpoint. I'll spend an afternoon sketching a wrought-iron church gate, then return to my studio to make it my own—by collaging fabric on top. Those shapes that I focus on in the realistic gate series will later emerge in the larger abstract collages on canvas. The region is called the Lowcountry and it's about a hundred miles from the nearest mountain. When I drive over the bridges, I can see a bird's-eye-view; where local islands, rivers, and marshes spread out in the distance. I see a very flat composition of blue, silvery aqua, green, creamy whites, khaki, and straw. That palette and perspective inspires me right now.
('Little Red Confabulation'- Fabric, Gouache, Graphite on Paper- 13.0 x 10.0"- 2007)

BS: Karin, I've read that inspiration for your paintings stem from long walks and bike rides in your home city. Can you explain this process? How do you draw inspiration from these travels?

KO: Well, cobblestones, centuries-old bricks, and crooked flagstones comprise much of Charleston's downtown streets, and as a short girl who always wears high heels, I have to pay special attention to every step. I don't mind keeping my nose to the ground because I find the arbitrary geometric pattern of stones so fascinating. On the long walks, I find metaphorical comparisons between the patchwork of a quilt and the blueprint of the town.

Consider the cracks in the brick sidewalks, the round cobblestones in the street, the grid of city blocks, and the blocks of neighborhoods all built around a square—a double entendre square. I didn't learn my way around the city by map but rather by meandering through neighborhoods on foot or by bike. Discovering delightfully unkempt brick paths inspired the Confabulation Series , where red circles (basically worn down bricks) fought for attention amidst a growth of green and blue vertical strips of fabric (blades of grass pushing through/nature regaining control). Of course, I don't always look down for inspiration. My Gate Series focuses on the wrought iron architectural details that I see in Charleston . I stand and stare at a gate, drink up its persona, snap a picture, and then create something new in the studio while working from sketches, photos, and memory. I maintain a collaborative space with the gate's designer—that's where the abstraction comes in.
('Little Blue Confabulation'- Fabric, Gouache, Graphite on Paper- 13.0 x 10.0"- 2007)

BS: Karin, it has been said that fabric flows through your hands as fluidly as paint from a brush. Do you agree with this statement? Also, what other materials have you used in your work? Do you plan to utilize any materials that you have yet to work with?

KO: I love that line. Molly Hulett at Charleston magazine wrote that. I think it describes my artwork perfectly. The way that I under-paint, layer, add texture, and work from lean to fat is like that of an oil painter. The way that I finish a collage painting with thread feels like drawing. I have a fabulous assortment of fabrics, collected over the last 15 years. Some high-end interior decorator samples, some antique table linen and clothing, some new yardage, and much of it, retrieved from a cherished Mennonite Dry Goods store in Lititz, PA. I never lack for a specific color or texture. However, I do miss dying my own fabrics and hope to get back into that soon.

I really like the way gouache works with fabric, it tints it without changing the texture or sheen. Someday, I'd like to experiment with encaustic painting. I wonder....

BS: Your form of expression is not very common. I will assume that using fabrics within the context of your work is a little bit different than simply learning how to paint. Do you view your work as a 'hierarchy of knowledge', so to speak. Meaning... do you build from one piece to the next- learning more about the materials as you go. Do you ever encounter failures combining materials in the way that you do?

KO: A decade's worth of creative disasters gradually steered me towards my current fabric collaging direction. I tried painting on fabric and stretching it like canvas. I tried painting on a couch. I tried screen-printing and flocking on fabric, vinyl, paper—you-name-it, I tried it. Stuffing canvases like pillows ended in disappointment when they resembled a soggy painting rather than a soft sculpture. Most of these attempts proved productively fruitless but creatively essential.

I started sewing again, quilting actually. I made a series of large geometric quilts—lovely time-consuming projects. It was the "piecing" that I enjoyed, simply cutting the squares and arranging the composition. I had a eureka! moment when, on a whim and with a last minute show approaching, I quickly glued a miniature quilt to paper. No sewing! I could hear bells going off. The first few "quilt studies" incorporated acrylic paint, pastels, and unusual handmade paper from India. Eventually I traded acrylic for gouache, threw the messy pastels away, and became a fan of Arches 300 lb hot press watercolor paper. Now, I'm experimenting with stretched canvas, linen, and wood panel. The changes happen gradually, but purposefully, as one finished painting dictates the direction of the next. To answer your question: yes and yes.
('Fourth Incantation'- Fabric, Gouache, Graphite on Canvas- 16.0 x 12.0"- 2007)

BS: Karin, you are represented by Corrigan Gallery. Do you have a solo exhibit planned in the near future?

KO: My next solo show will be at Corrigan Gallery, 62 Queen St, Charleston, SC, Incantations in Thread opens Nov 2nd and runs through the 30th, 2007. I'm really excited about the direction I'm taking in this new series, but I don't want to ruin the surprise. You can preview the show on my website,, in November. Also this fall, I'll have a few paintings at Eva Carter Gallery in a group exhibition that I am curating: Sunset at Wadmalaw: An Invitational Show, Sept 28 – Nov 10, 2007. I'm always searching for opportunities to share my art. So if you hear of anything, Call me!

BS: Can you name any artists from the past who have influenced you?

KO: I can name a few artists from the past: Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Hans Hoffman, William M. Halsey, Michael Tyzack, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, and Antoni Gaudi. Very influential has been the Art Nouveau Movement, early Dada collages, Amish quilts, and the quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama.

I can name more artists from the present: Robert Rauschenberg, Marcus Kenney, Ross Bleckner, Inka Essenhigh, Gary Hume, Jason Peters, Chris Ofili, Mary Edna Fraser, Fred Tomaselli, Jasper Johns, John Waters, John Liipfert, Kathleen Earthrowl, Eva Carter, Emilio Lobato, Toby Penney, Arturo Herrera, Sergej Jensen, Takashi Murakami, Matthew Ritchie, Matt Johnson, Jeff Koons, Piper Shepard, Annet Couwenberg, and Brian Rutenberg.

Can I mention my mom and dad? Two very artistic people - one is an art teacher, one is a landscape designer.
('Third Incantation'- Fabric, Gouache, Graphite on Canvas- 16.0 x 12.0"- 2007)

BS: Do you have any advice for artists who are interested in using fabric in their work? Any tips that may save them some time in learning what will work and what will not?

KO: I found a great adhesive; it's an archival rice starch (typically used in bookbinding). It's dries clear and matte with some flexibility, and it doesn't change the texture of fabric. My advice is to spend plenty of time experimenting with materials and adhesives. That way you'll find the methods that work for you. Just try it all. Art is not precious. Make a hundred pieces, then throw away 90 of them. Edit and simplify. When sewing, quilting, and weaving, one has a tendency to work very closely and not see the big picture. Half of the creative process is standing back, just looking at your art, determining its future, and deleting the wrong turns. Do not save time. Savor it.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the art world?

KO: I love making art. It's so enjoyable to meet a collector and listen to his or her reaction to my piece. The gratification of sharing that visual connection with another individual is why I do what I do. I am very lucky to be an artist.

I have a great circle of artist friends. We share exhibition and grant opportunities, critique each other, arrange group shows together, and lend support (whether mental, moral, or by adjusting lights and tending bar) at openings. Charleston is a social town—especially for artists. It's so important for an artist to get out of the studio—to see and listen to more of the world happening around him or her, to visit galleries, museums, and unlikely art venues, to look, linger, and share ideas, and to make many, many friends. I love that is a way to do all these things.
You can learn more about Karin Olah and her art by visiting her website: Remember, you can read other interviews by visiting the interviews page:
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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