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An Interview with Philana Oliphant


Haley Laningham



Adjust to Reality

 

See more of Philana Oliphant’s work in Vol. 41.2 here.


 

Philana Oliphant is the winner of the 2022 Southeast Review Art Contest, judged by internationally acclaimed artist Nneka Jones. The suite of her work that we display heavily features forms of birds as well as more non-objective pieces. In talking with her, we find an artist seeking to speak to the value of every being in the face of the Anthropocene and its concurrent precipitation of climate change.


The pieces in this suite are stark and tender with both the subject matter and the onlooker. Done largely in graphite, the greyscale birds are depicted in flight. Seemingly slowed, but not stopped, they are suspended between the borders of the canvas for our observation and our pondering. The abstract pieces, on the other hand, cause the eye to search their internal movement. Of her own work, Oliphant says: 


"I maintain a sense of wholeness by making drawings, sculpture, and prints. The practice evens out the rough edges of living and celebrates my awe of living. My intent is to communicate with generosity. My recent work in drawing reflects on the loss of diversity on this planet. My aim is to conjure inspiration in people to celebrate and protect what is left. Every being counts. Every effort counts."


In the course of this interview, I ask Philana to explain her artistic choices and otherwise share her rationale behind these stunning works. 

 Haley Laningham


 

Swallow's Bone

Haley Laningham: Describe your artistic lineage. Who first inspired you or who inspires you most?


Philana Oliphant: Many people in my family were artistic in various ways. From an early age, I was surrounded by the appreciation of art and music and the making of it. The watercolor paintings of my great-grandmother, Lucille Schweitzer, inspired me as a teenager. I had a fabulous art teacher in high school, Delores McCullough. Her classes gave me the confidence to continue studying in college and establish a strong work ethic. Now working in the studio inspires me to work in the studio more. Making work informs my life. It evens out the rough edges of living and celebrates my awe of living.


HL: To which artists do you feel in relation? 


PO: There are so many artists’ work that have made an impression on my work over the years. Early in my life, the work of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore informed my aesthetic. I also admired the work of Constantin Brancusi, such as the sculpture Bird in Space. More recently, while in New York City, I visited the Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition of Mira Schendel and Leon Ferrari was open. Seeing that show was like finding a close friend. The works of Cy Twombly and Shirazeh Houshiary are among many other influential artists whose work I relate to.


HL: The most central subject of your work seems to be birds. How would you describe your fixation with birds? 


PO: I use dogs, birds, circles, and moons as symbols, and I work with many mediums, including graphite and charcoal, ink, porcelain, and hand-cut Yupo paper.


Using the bird as a recurring symbol began about twenty years ago. It stems from family lore and personal experiences. Many birds such as swallows and swifts spend their lives flying most of the time. I see the bird, literally and symbolically, as a being that can gain perspective of the whole and use that information while living their life on the ground. Having a flexible perspective is how I try to live my life. Sometimes life requires being aware of the whole and focusing on the small. Sometimes it is the reverse. 


HL: Is there an investigative or environmental mission behind your work with the theme of birds? 


PO: When using the bird form, I am referring to the life of birds in general and also how that parallels with the life of human beings. I use the bird as symbol for the human spirit. Yes, recently much of my work has been focused on the loss of diversity on our planet. There is so much loss on so many fronts that honestly at times I feel helpless about what I can do. I am hopeful that work such as Dead Bird List will offer a different perspective about the Anthropocene epoch and conjure inspiration in people to do what they can to help save life on our planet. 


HL: You focus on an aerial view of the form of a bird the most. How would you describe your relationship not only to the subject of birds, but this specific visual form? 


PO: The aerial view invites me and the viewer to feel a part of the flight, the search, the quest. The form is strong and elegant.


HL: I’m a huge fan of work done in greyscale, and you seem comfortable with it. You’re able to make your work so visually complex without color. Is your use of greyscale more of an inherent factor of your preferred graphite and charcoal, and/or is there something about greyscale in which you feel helpfully constrained or freed?


PO: Using greyscale is documentary in style, which suits the content of my work and my aesthetics. It clarifies things for me. Also, most of the mediums I enjoy the most are tactile. However, there are times that I use color. It is important to me that color does not override the form or composition. It seems that about every ten years color comes into my work again. My work this past year reintroduced color and the female form—and I haven’t used the female form in thirty years—in a relief printmaking suite, and both are working into the sculpture. While I have used color with in my drawings in the past, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. 


Straight Seems Crooked

HL: Some of your pieces like Swallow’s Bone and Straight Seems Crooked are noteworthy departures into more abstract work. Are they actually abstract, or are they close-ups of some kind of natural material? Where are they coming from artistically?


PO: I work on several pieces at the same time. If I am in a predominately drawing cycle, I will have three to five drawings going, and they may vary in medium with a sculpture in the works. I may have a bird drawing going at the same time as a non-objective drawing. This allows them to mature together and connects them formally. I may discover something in one drawing that will inform another. Likewise, something that happens in paper cutting or ceramics can transfer into drawing somehow. If one were to see them together, the relationship would be more obvious. Sometimes I think about what a sound, feeling, or situation might “look” like. For example, Straight Seems Crooked refers to the idea that life brings many challenges. How does one navigate? In this drawing, I was thinking of moving forward with flexibility. Hopefully with some grace. I do think these drawings could easily expand into larger compositions so in that regard they could be considered close-up views.


Dead Bird List (cropped)

HL: A viewer who could see your piece Dead Bird List in person would realize it’s much larger than can be accommodated online or in small print. It has a cataloging feel to it in a good way. Why the departure into the theme of death? 


PO: Dead Bird List began as part of my need to respond to climate change and its effects. For example, light pollution is one of several problems for birds migrating. In the news, many of us have seen the results of thousands of birds dying by striking buildings or by being off course. This drawing reflects on the more literal destruction of their lives; however, I am using the bird form as symbol for all life forms as well. 


HL: Is each bird in Dead Bird List different, and does each correlate to a real kind of bird? Or are they imagined? 


Yes, every bird is different, and they are all imagined. There are roughly three hundred birds on the list. I have started Dead Bird List 2. It will be interesting to see how they differ!


HL: How does this piece fit into your larger body of work in your eyes? What made you feel the need to use such a large piece of paper for it?


PO: Dead Bird List is sixteen feet long and four feet wide. No two birds are alike. The drawing had to be bigger than a human to have conceptual impact. The scale helps the viewer understand humans are part of the whole. I have started a second “list” and plan to make a third as well. In contrast to these drawings, I have new work investigating the possibilities of salvaging what is left. This work is not romantic, but offers a positive outlook for the future. Every being counts, every effort counts.


Phase Out—Delete

HL: Pieces such as Phase Out—Delete and Adjust to Reality are done with extreme detail inside of the wings of the birds. How long does a piece like this take to finish


PO: Partly because I work on more than one drawing at a time, I have no idea how long it takes! Also, a seemingly less detailed drawing could take just as long.


HL: What is your relationship to graphite and charcoal? Why are they part of your preferred medium? 


PO: While I did say a few things about this earlier, I will add that drawing—using a pen or pencil—is so basically human. It is such a beautiful extension of the hand. Drawing is one of my favorite things to do and I think my strongest form of communication. I like to think I will always be drawing.


HL: Is there anything to which you’d like to direct our readers’ attention? New work? A show? Your website? 


PO: I have work in a beautiful group show at the Irving Arts Center in Irving, Texas. I am working on proposals for future solo exhibitions and keeping my fingers crossed! I will apply to juried shows as well. Having my work published in the Southeast Review means a great deal to me. I deeply appreciate it. My website is philanaoliphant.com. I hope your readers will take a look at it. I think it will visually clarify my studio practice. I am also on Instagram: @philana.oliphant. 


 

HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD student in Poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA from the University of Oregon. She acts as the Art Editor for Southeast Review.






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