Alis Olsen, Coffee Party, 1983, photograph and printed words, 21 in. X 32 in.

How would you describe the work that you do?

I work with natural materials—plant forms and tree parts. Most of my work addresses the relationship that humans have with nature. I also collect odd little pieces of plants and find ways to showcase them. . . . Instead of painting a landscape or a tree, I frame the actual tree. In other words, I choose presentation rather than representation. Some of my work is quite political and addresses, in a more direct way, caring for the environment.

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

Absolutely. It’s about taking care of the environment, but also about looking at things in a new way. . . . [With] the work that is more political, I often use humor, which is a better way of getting my message across, than being too didactic about it.

Alis Olsen, Milkweed Gall Quilt, 2015, wood, milk paint, galls, 26 in. X 28 in. (in progress)

Is there something you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about?

Yes, I’m very excited about these quilts. . . . The one that I’m making for the [Stepping Back, Looking Forward] show is really “girly” and it’s going to have plant forms attached. I found that in Victorian times, plants and flowers were assigned meanings. So, I’m picking plants that have really tough characteristics, like oak is independence, basil is wealth, etc. . . . I’ll have a sign beside the quilt to show which is which. It will look very feminine but have a tough message.  

Alis Olsen, Sampler Quilt, 2014, wood, waxed linen, plants, 48 in. X 50 in.

What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?

Not knowing how to do some things can inhibit me. I haven’t been very good at asking people for help, but I’m getting better at that. . . . [Other challenges are] overcoming my fear of creating something out of the mainstream . . . [and] convincing myself that I AM an artist, even though I am not a painter or a draw‐er. . . . Also, it is really easy to get distracted with everyday life, doing things that feel much safer than making something I may not know how to do!  

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

People tell me to be brave. . . . I participated in the Women’s Art Institute a couple of years ago and people would tell me “Do it! Get out there!”. . . I grew up as kind of a nice girl, so it was good for me to hear “Don’t be nice. Be strong. Be brave.” 

How do you know when you have been successful?

You can tell when a piece “works,” I think that’s just a feeling you have. Occasionally, when I finish a piece, it feels so right that I think somebody must have done it already . . . that I must have seen it someplace. . . . And I know a piece has gotten my message across when people smile when they look at my work.

Why did you choose to pursue the life of a professional artist?

My nature is to want to see and experience new things, things I have not seen in the world before. So, I make new things to put out there, for me, and other people to experience.

In your opinion, how is being a woman artist in 2015 different from what it might have been like one, two, three or even four decades ago?

Of course, historically women artists have been totally discounted. They weren’t represented in museums or galleries. It has gotten easier, though it’s still not that great. It’s still a battle . . . and though we’ve made strides with language, which is a good place to start, we still have a long way to go. 

Olsen in the studio

Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?

I think that it’s hard to give any specific examples about that, but with any artist who is making art with any meaning beyond the superficial, her personal history is bound to be in it.

Are there certain ways in which you identify yourself as a feminist artist?

I am totally a feminist. When I did photo‐based work I did more overtly feminist work. Now, in my sculptures, the way I use the material is very female. In other words, I’m not using the materials in an aggressive way, which I consider a masculine way. There is a more subtle, friendly attitude in my work. 

If you were to meet your younger self, would she believe you when you tell her where you are now and where you have been?

No, not my very younger self. She would say, “Are you crazy? . . . I don’t see any women artists—you can’t do that!" The journey is much different than we expect.

Alis Olsen








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