I had a studio visit* and photo shoot with Brooklyn-based artist Emilia Olsen last month for Cheap & Plastique #11. Emilia was nice enough to give me a quick tour of her space, pose for some photos, and answer some questions about her work and the neighborhood via an email interview after the studio visit. See more of Emilia’s work here.
*One of 3 studio visits with artists working in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the current issue of
Cheap & Plastique.
C & P: Where are you from?
Emilia: I’m a peace corps baby, so I was born in South Africa, but I grew up in Madison, WI.
C & P: You currently keep a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and used to work as an artist’s assistant in the neighborhood as well. How long have you been doing art-y things here?
Emilia: I’d been working my day job in Greenpoint for almost three years, but I only moved into this studio myself about a month ago.
C & P: What do you like most about Greenpoint?
Emilia: It reminds me a lot of when I used to live in Italy. It has this subtle old world charm that hasn’t been completely eaten up yet.
C & P: What is your favorite spot in Greenpoint?
Emilia: I like Broken Land on Franklin.
C & P:For music?
Emilia: My friends will gasp, but I’m not really a big music person. I only really go to shows unless I know someone in the band. I’m more of a talk radio person.
C & P:For food?
Emilia: Salted chocolate chip cookies at Ovenly! And salami sandwiches and rose tea cookies at Cookie Road.
C & P:For artistic inspiration?
Emilia: Local studio visits! And I wish Beginnings was still over on Meserole… That was such a fun little space.
C & P: You studied at the Corcoran School of Art and then moved to NYC to pursue a career in the arts. How different do you find living in D.C. versus NYC?
Emilia: DC is a weird place to live, especially when you’re not interested in a government job or politics. It was really interesting being so close to the White House (the Corcoran is located just steps away). I attended Barack Obama’s Inauguration, and I was able to do a teaching artist project with Michelle Obama on a local army base. I painted a bench with her and a little girl and we talked about Katy Perry.
I think that there’s more space for artists to spread out in DC. It’s not as cutthroat as here, but it’s not really less expensive. I do miss the free museums a lot. I think anywhere you live is what you make of it, but it just wasn’t the right place for me. The metro isn’t good enough.
C & P: Was there an art scene in D.C.?
Emilia: There IS an art scene in DC! DC doesn’t get enough credit for its contemporary art scene—there’s a lot of people doing interesting things down there. I have a particular soft spot for Transformer Gallery. I’ve shown there in the past and I’m part of their flat file program.
C & P: Did you always know that you would be involved in a creative field as an adult when you were young?
Emilia: Yes, pretty much.
C & P: What is your process like when creating artwork in your studio? Do you work on multiple pieces at once?
Emilia: Yes, I do tend to have multiple canvases going. I usually have one canvas that I’m using as a paint palette, and I do that until I feel like there’s enough paint built up or I’m waiting for another painting to dry, then I’ll start working on the palette canvas so it can become a real painting.
C & P: What medium do you most frequently use in your paintings? Oil? Acrylic? Is there ever an element of collage in your work?
Emilia: I used to only work in acrylic, but I switched over to oils completely a few years ago. I just love the texture and richness of color that oil paint produces.
I don’t really do collage very often, other than occasional googly eyes.
C & P: I noticed a lot of your new paintings had small multiple eyeballs painted on them or in some cases had google-y eyes stuck to them. Why have all of these eyes worked their way into your canvases as of late?
Emilia: More then anything it was intuitive. A lot of that work is kind of a manifestation of me applying little personalities to plants, and how funny it would be if they were watching us all the time from their habitats. Rolling their eyes when we do embarrassing things because they can’t look away.
C & P: I also some some older canvases that you painted of females and in your new work you have been mostly focusing on plants as the subject matter. Is there any reason for this shift or did you just want to try something new? Do you think you will ever go back to painting figuratively?
Emilia: I was mostly just really bored. I’d been out of art school for about a year and still making similar work as I had when I graduated, like paintings and drawings of sad girls with long hair. It’s really as simple as thinking, wow I am so bored, I need to change it up. And I’d been getting really into plants and gardening and was like, well I really like plants so I’m going to paint them.
I don’t know if I’ll go back to figurative works—I’m strictly on this experimental, light hearted work trajectory and I’m just going to stick with that for awhile and see what happens.
C & P: Do you keep a sketchbook?
Emilia: I used to keep them pretty habitually, but I don’t really anymore. I still draw a lot but I just work on individual drawings. So I guess those are kind of like my sketchbook now.
C & P: Who would you say are your biggest artistic influences?
Emilia: Jonas Wood, Yayoi Kusama, Erik Parker, Allison Schulnik, Daniel Heidkamp, Guy Yunai, Ellen Altfest and Mat Brinkman are a few favorites.
C & P: Is there a time/place that you would rather live in than the current?
Or one where you could be transported back via time machine to spend a few weeks hanging out and spying…
I think I’d rather see the future than the past! Unless it’s bad. Then maybe I’d skip it.
C & P: Do you feel that NYC is still the best place on the planet to pursue a career in the arts?
Emilia: Again, I think everything is what you make of it, but it’s hard to beat the amount of galleries, artists, and museums that are at your fingertips here all the time. But it’s not for everybody. You have to hustle to pay rent and also keep making your own work a priority.
C & P: Would you consider moving elsewhere?
Emilia: I think I’ll be staying put for awhile. I can’t really think of any place I would really rather live right now. I do miss traveling though. I would really like to go back to Africa.
C & P: What would you do if you did not make art?
Emilia: If I was going to do a complete 180, I’d probably go to med school. Really.