Debra Olin, interviewed by Tori Weston
Please tell us about your background and how you came to Somerville.
After graduating from high school in Atlantic City, New Jersey, I attended the University of Cincinnati and received a BA in Sociology. I had actually wanted to go to art school. I learned that Mass College of Art was a state run art school that was affordable for residents.I decided to move to Boston and work for a year so I could attend MCA paying in-state tuition. It worked out eventually, but it took me 8 years to apply. Let’s just say that life got in the way! I received an MFA from Mass Art in 1980 in ceramics. For the next 7 years, I moved either my living space or my studio 5 times. It was exhausting and disruptive. The luckiest thing that ever happened to me was to join up with a group of artists who were organizing and eventually developing the Brickbottom Artist Building. In 1987, I moved to Somerville.
At what age did your creative journey begin?
I always liked making things, designing, building, crafts. Probably my favorite thing about art, was that I could do it alone. I did not like sports, teams, rules. When I was in high school, I got a job at Louis Artist Village on the Boardwalk. There were about 15 artists there and they would sketch your portrait in 3 minutes. I was the cashier. I wouldn’t say that this is where I fell in love with art, rather that I fell in love with the artists and their lifestyle. Most of them worked at Louis from the end of May through September, then went back to Philly or NYC to work on their art. They were all so interesting, diverse and a little crazy!
Who or what inspires your work?
When I studied Art History, it was as if Europe was the only place where art was made. When I visit a museum, I love to look at Oceanic Art, art from Asia, Africa, Latin America. I enjoy artists who have a narrative – Jacob Lawrence, Belkis Ayón, Leonard Baskin. I love artists who work three dimensionally and also make prints. Artists like Louise Bourgeois, Whitfield Lovell, Alison Saar, and William Kentridge. Since I used to work in clay and am now a printmaker, I understand the connection, the process of building up and incorporating different materials, whether for process or structure.
I noticed the body appears a lot in your work. Are there any topics or themes that continue to appear in your work?
Yes, the body is important. I started in printmaking, using garments as a metaphor for the body. A slip representing vulnerability while a coat provides protection. The series I am currently involved in, makes connections between the organs in the body and botanical imagery, both real and imagined. I enjoy the references that encompass both the human and the tree form – the trunk and the limbs. I have also worked on series with connections to language, folklore and superstition, making links between seemingly disparate cultures.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
I feel very fortunate to be an artist right now. Having a studio has been a life saver. I have continued using the body and it won’t be a surprise to hear that my focus has been on the lungs. COVID is a respiratory disease and that was part of the connection, but there were other circumstances as well. There was the Black Lives Matter Movement, speaking out about police brutality and the killing of George Floyd and his “I can’t breathe” pleas. And there was a renewed urgency about the environment and polluted air in our cities, leading to asthma and poor health. All these issues collided and weighed on my chest.
How does one find your work?
Some of my work is on my website, www.debraolin.com.
During SOS, I will be included in a pop up gallery (up for the month of May) in Powder House Circle, The Art House. On my SOS website page, there is a link to a short video that explores a little about my process. And at some point, a solo exhibition that was scheduled for Spring 2020 at The Museum at Eldridge, NYC, will open. I’ll keep you posted.