Complex imagery

Local artist depicts entire stories in her artwork

Eleanor Pierce / The Bulletin /

Published Oct 30, 2009 at 05:00AM

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri makes paintings that invite lingering — to study the imagery, to read the tiny hand-lettering and to soak up the visual cornucopia.

Several of the local painter's original oils and a few limited edition prints of her work will be on display at “A Show of Words,” an art exhibition honoring The Nature of Words literary festival (see “If you go”) at Central Oregon Community College's Gallery at the Pinckney Center, though Dec. 4.

In one piece, “Devil's Trumpet,” the central figure is a seated nude woman with large, clear eyes. She looks off into the distance while a Tasmanian devil stands on her lap, resting his paw on her hand and looking serenely at the viewer. A dark figure with horns and a pointed tail leans over the woman. In his mouth is a trumpet that hovers over her ear.

Layered among the central figures in the painting are many smaller scenes: A woman lies on her side, thumb in her mouth. A small devil with an animal's snout climbs up the hair of the woman at center. Seductive-looking horned women with tails, wearing nothing but boots, prance around a devil's food cake that stands almost as tall as they. Vegetation is rendered in nimble detail, and all over the images, in tiny, meticulous print, Olivieri has painted words — from meditations on worry to botanical descriptions of plants.

“Years ago, I was going through a bad divorce and feeling overwhelmed. I was leaving a man who had a temper and a gun,” she said in an e-mail interview. “I was scared and worried.”

She said her cousin, a Baptist minister, sent her a recording of one of his sermons, and one line from the sermon caught her attention: “When you worry, it's like having the devil's trumpet in your ear.”

Olivieri began researching both worry and writings on the devil, and her research made its way into the painting.

If the imagery isn't recognizable, the words clue you in. The plants are named and described; Devil's trumpet, devil's claw and devil's shoestring all wind through the painting. A hickory horned devil caterpillar is identified, and Olivieri even included a recipe for devil's food cake.

“I like my paintings to be layered with images and meaning,” she said.

Many of her paintings are windows into personal stories, in large and small ways. The devil's coach horse beetle in “Devil's Trumpet” was one of her favorites when she raised beetles as pets. Her painting “Beloved and bewildered” is about her niece, Alex Hardwicke, who has dealt with some personal troubles.

“I depict various things that happened to her in this painting. Her head is still above water, and her family and friends are in tiny boats on the surface of the water, surrounding her with love.”

Many of her paintings carry stories in this way, but some are simply born of Olivieri's interest in the world around her, such as her interest in pack rats.

This show is Olivieri's first in Central Oregon, though she's lived in Bend with her current husband, Lance Olivieri, for seven years.

The 50-year-old painter grew up in south Texas, near the Mexican border. After earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she moved to New York to attend NYU for her master's degree.

In New York, she worked many jobs, including drawing neotropical palms and the insects that pollinate them for a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden and working as a gardener and lecturer at the Cloisters, the Medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I lived as cheaply as possible so that I could spend more time painting and less time working,” she said. In her early 30s, she began selling enough paintings to make her living as a painter.

Now, living with her husband in their off-the-grid home between Bend and Sisters, she wakes early and, after a hike or a swim, makes a pitcher of fresh vegetable juice and heads upstairs to her home studio to paint every weekday.

“I work best on a schedule, a creative habit,” she said.

Olivieri said she decided to move to Bend after visiting her parents here. Johnnie and Jamee Hardwicke moved to Central Oregon 25 years ago, and though Olivieri's father died two years ago, her mother still lives in Bend.

Family has clearly been influential in developing Olivieri's creativity. Her sister Catherine Hardwicke is a film director (she notably directed “Twilight” and “Lords of Dogtown”), and Olivieri's brother, Jack Hardwicke, works with film and commercials.

When asked about her upbringing, and how her parents produced three such creative kids, Olivieri gave numerous examples of how the family made their own fun with ingenuity.

Growing up, her mother was a school teacher and her father a farmer. “One Christmas, Dad had a truckload of carrot dirt from the farm delivered to our backyard.” She said the gift was perfect for the three kids.

“My sister, brother and I went for it, using sticks, flowers and chinaberries, building tiny villages, making strange little landscapes, creating winding roads, rivers and lakes,” she said.

“My mother would go to the local newspaper office and get giant rolls of newsprint, and my sister and I would roll it out on the floor and spend hours drawing, painting, writing and illustrating stories while lying there on the floor.”

Now, creativity comes naturally.

“My work and my life are exactly the same thing,” Olivieri said. “I get inspired all the time by almost anything.”

If you go

What: Irene Hardwicke Olivieri's paintings and prints at “A Show of Words”

When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Dec. 4

Where: Gallery at the Pinckney Center, Pence Hall, Central Oregon Community College, 2600 N.W. College Way, Bend.

Cost: Free to browse. Olivieri's original paintings in the show are not for sale; framed, limited edition prints start at $450.

Contact: 541-383-7510