Olivia Guterson is living, working, and mothering in Detroit, MI where she’s constantly expanding her multifaceted art practice. A soon-to-be-mother, she is working with metal, black and white (and occasionally, red) ink and thinking about the intersections between her Black and Jewish ancestry, healing generational trauma, and recording non-linear time through her art. We talked over Zoom this week in the wake of the COVID pandemic, Pride month and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Read below to hear Olivia’s take on how artists are taking the gallery into the streets.
Emily Conklin: How has the international pandemic, as well as the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter social movement affected your art practice?
Olivia Guterson: It’s been a time of real change, especially as I’m now 8 months pregnant. I’ve carried for almost the entire length of the quarantine, and it’s been a really interesting time to reflect on what that means: what kind of a world I’m bringing a child into. It’s also been powerful to reflect on my place in the BLM movement as a mother, a Black mother and someone who would usually be out protesting in the streets, but finds herself unable to do so. I am strong in my belief, though, that art is inherently a form of protest. I am finding so many new directions for my art to go, from selling pieces and donating proceeds to various causes and nonprofits, to just finding new ways to engage with virtual communities.
EC: How have you been connecting with other artists and creatives during this time? What sorts of new communities have you found — either virtually or while socially distanced?
OG: I’m most excited right now about this virtual residency I’ve been accepted to, called Sibyl’s Shrine. It’s a collective of Black mothers, and when I discovered that this sort of group existed — and in a creative sphere — I contacted them immediately. While this residency is officially hosted in Pittsburg, the virtual aspect of this year’s program allowed me to be accepted as a full participant, no travel needed. I was so happy to discover a group so unique and catering to me and this special point of my life. I feel it will be a celebration of Black love.
EC: What have you been working on recently that’s been engaging in these new ways?
OG: My most recent project is unique in that I’m using more than just black and white: I’ve also incorporated a lot of red accent work amidst the patterns I’ve been working with for years. Since my art functions in this healing capacity, I find a lot of calm and even a good obsession with pattern- and mark-making, but these recent pieces are a bit different. I also am working to make cutouts in the white spaces of the pattern, as they’re meant to be affixed to these metal frames I’m also hand-making. My final vision is a public art intervention of sorts, where these vessels will be deployed in space, and make room for play and activation. They’re also more than six feet in diameter, so my original intent — to engage more than one person in play — will still hopefully fall within the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines.
EC: Can you tell me a bit more about how you engage with art as a healing process as well as a catalyst for action? How does your work strike both chords?
OG: Energy is a collective mindset, and I firmly believe that all human beings are called to create. It’s an innately human activity, and in that way, I know that I’ll never be an “expert” in my style. It still amazes me that these things I make with my hands, for myself and my communities, are objects that people would like to own, or exhibit, but I’m extremely grateful for that. That support allows me to continue making, and continue down my own path towards personal healing and expression. However I think that art, universally, is healing as well as protest on many levels, and that begins with art being a means with which we control the narrative. Artists are here to make the movement we’re in, for Black lives and Black love visible and recorded in history. So right there, not only is making my art healing and helping me and those around me, but I’m actively creating a part of history that will outlive myself, and hopefully keep the momentum going forward. It acts as a catalyst in a powerful way when you view the art and artist of this moment in that way.
EC: How do you think the art world is shifting and changing as a result of both the COVID shutdown and the social movement?
OG: The galleries are in the streets now, as we can see all over the country from large gatherings to art on plywood. I think that these dual pandemics have really pushed the art world further in a direction it was already going, towards great accessibility and representation, as well as more immersive experiences outside the white walls. There’s more intentionality happening, and an unraveling of professionality that leans more towards vulnerability and authenticity. This new direction works really well with a lot of my new and consistent ideas about non-linear time in my art, experiential play and the unimportance of dates and other markers of archive. The art world is changing slowly by the hand of the artists within it.
EC: Can you tell me about a favorite project of yours that was especially aligned with these ideals of yours?
OG: A while back I was a part of a collective called Artbabes, and we were a powerful group of all women-identifying artists working in and around Detroit, and the majority of us were BIPOC. We put on a one-night show that showcased all our bodies of work in this really incredible cultural space, a Jewish bathhouse. This venue was significant for several reasons, first of which is that it celebrated my background as being of both Black and Jewish ancestral traditions. However, it also shed light on how these spaces can be more inclusive: the Jewish bathhouse is traditionally thought of as being a male-dominated space, while in reality they are for everyone equally. By opening our show to this not-often seen, and much misunderstood sort of space, it aligned with our mission to highlight ancestral healing and ideas of inclusivity of underrepresented people. The result? More than 800 people showed up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.