Sisters artist has new book

Pages explore Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s nuanced, complex paintings

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Published Aug 16, 2014 at 12:11AM

“I think she’s amazing — as passionate, energetic and exciting as her paintings are,” says Darby Cardonsky, referring to Central Oregon artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri.

After coming across Olivieri’s works in the late 1980s, Cardonsky, a Connecticut-based former gallery owner, showed Olivieri’s works and now owns four herself.

For those of us not so fortunate, the Portland-based fine-art press Pomegranate has published “Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Closer to Wildness,” a 152-page book with 144 full-color reproductions of Olivieri’s vivid, complex works ($45). The book includes Olivieri’s summations of various paintings.

Her highly detailed paintings on found objects, from old doors to an antique steel headboard, incorporate text, flora and fauna to create surreal new worlds in which humans, often nude, and animals live more harmoniously. In some cases, the lines between human and nature blur, Olivieri’s figures sporting tails, spots or a tree rising from the skull.

“All of her paintings seem to be about Irene’s passionate relationships, using nature as a metaphor; and equally about her passionate relationship with nature, using humans as a metaphor,” says Cardonsky.

Olivieri grew up with her siblings, Jack and Catherine Hardwicke (the latter director of films including “Thirteen” and “Twilight”), near the Rio Grande in southern Texas, and traveled to such locales as Brazil and Mexico in her art studies. She earned her Master of Arts degree from New York University in 1985.

Today, Olivieri lives off-grid near Sisters with her husband, architectural designer Lance Olivieri. She continues finding inspiration in her Central Oregon wilderness forays, transforming small bones carefully plucked from owl pellets into “paleo reliefs” depicting female figures.

In the 2005 painting “Valentine for a cougar,” she’s pictured in repose within the belly of the cat. In her explication of the painting in “Closer to Wildness,” she writes: “If it were my time to go, I’d eagerly choose to be food for a cougar, to pay back the wild animals that have enriched my life and inspired my paintings.”

Olivieri’s work is featured in the current issue of nature publication Orion Magazine, and her paintings will be on exhibit at Oregon State University in Corvallis in the spring.

Olivieri recently conducted an email Q&A with The Bulletin about her life and work in the High Desert. For more about the artist and her work visit irenehardwickeolivieri.com. “Closer to Wildness” is available for checkout at Deschutes Public Library or for purchase at www.pomegranate.com.

Bulletin: What are some of the best things about living and painting in Central Oregon?

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: I love living here! I’m endlessly excited and inspired by the Central Oregon wilderness: volcanoes, canyons, waterfalls, rushing rivers, big skies, but most of all, the wildlife. I love living in a place where hiking offers the chance of coming face to face with coyotes, mule deer, bobcats, ravens, black-tailed jackrabbits, long-tailed weasels, pygmy-horned lizards, Jerusalem crickets, rubber boas, Steller’s jays, badgers and bushy-tailed woodrats.

B: What are some best and worst things about living off-grid?

O: We live off the grid and power our house with 18 solar panels, a battery bank, an inverter and a back-up generator. I’m fortunate to have a husband who is resourceful, creative and mechanically inclined because being off grid can be challenging, especially in winter.

Living off the grid is in some ways like being an artist; we have to become our own powerpack, our own self-generated power source.

Artists must become comfortable with the unknown. I often use the word wilderness and for me it’s like a metaphor for being an artist — trying to venture out into territory that is full of uncertainty, rejection and difficulty but also full of extraordinary discovery and excitement.

B: Have there been subjects that you want to paint about but find difficult?

O: When I want to paint about something that may be uncomfortable to me (or to others) I try to put all hesitation in the shade and just go for it. I’m currently working on a painting about the rare transformation that some hunters and trappers make where they have an experience which makes them realize — as they look into the eyes of a dying animal — that they can no longer kill. I have tremendous respect for the handful of strong men who I have met who have made this brave transition and am honoring them with this new painting.

B: Tell us about your idea for a painting with interesting ways to die?

O: A new idea I have for a painting is about adventurous alternatives to the ways we leave this earth. I feel that there is little dignity in death and as mortality concentrates my mind I am coming up with some ideas. I’d rather give my body back to the natural world in a last act of charity or some flash of inspiration that will make things go fast. The painting will have many options, like heading out into a remote wilderness where the chances of being eaten by a wild animal are high — to give my body to feed one of the creatures who has inspired me; given me a deep love and connection with what is wild. Or to make an outfit out of steel with a tall hat and go hike up a volcano during a thunderstorm, etc.

B: Tell us about the work you make out of bones.

O: Occasionally I come across an owl pellet but a few years ago while out in the wilderness I came across hundreds of them. I was so excited I loaded up my backpack and brought them home to dissect. I almost tranced out with all the bones and spent hours dissecting, cleaning, and sorting them. I make them into female figures. I love that from a distance they appear to be an alluring seductress but when you get up close you see she is made of the bones of dead rodents. Lately I’ve begun sewing the bones onto pieces of antique velvet. The contrast between the delicate little white bones and the sensuous black velvet is very appealing.

B: Is it difficult parting with your paintings?

O: Yes, but the moment of melancholy that comes with selling a painting is quickly outweighed by feelings of intense appreciation and excitement. So much of an artist’s life is solitude, so when someone connects with the work and loves it enough to buy it, the encouragement and support is tremendous.

B: What’s the best thing someone has said of your work?

O: Recently I had an exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and my painting “Mercy on the Rio Grande” sparked an outpouring of reaction and compassionate discussion. I painted this as a response to the heartbreaking situation on the border of Mexico and the United States. Growing up on the Texas/Mexico border, there was always conflict and pain on the Rio Grande, but recently things have become unbearably difficult. Mercy is what is needed in this crisis: mercy, compassion and love. The main figure symbolizes the desperation of those making the trip across the river. The small figure above is like an angel blessing the dangerous journey.

— Reporter: 541-383-0349, djasper@bendbulletin.com