Heather Oelklaus: The States Project: Colorado
It is hard to remember which of Heather Oelklaus’ various projects I first encountered. Was it the image grids from her pinhole camera truck, Little Miss Sunshine? The shadow puppet cyanotypes on Braille paper? Maybe the large scale, complex photograms of her series Tittle? Her work is richly diverse, delightfully whimsical, and each series surprises the viewer with her innovative exploration of process and subject matter. I interviewed Heather about her work and creative practice.
Colorado Springs-based artist Heather Oelklaus (born 1972) explores her subjects through historic photographic processes and concepts. Although Oelklaus employs vintage techniques, many of which date back to the beginnings of photography itself, her compositions frequently speak the language of abstract painting or motion pictures. But it is Oelklaus’ combination of these extremely difficult technical processes with contemporary subjects and objects that is truly one of a kind.
Oelklaus studied sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute in the early 90’s. Soon after, she relocated to Colorado Springs and focused her artistic attention toward the importance of balancing contemporary concepts and iconic imagery with early photographic techniques such as photopolymer plate, Daguerreotype, wet plate collodion, lumen prints, pinhole photography, chemigrams, instant film, various cameraless photography, and traditional silver printing. She currently supervises the darkroom and printmaking studios at Colorado College.
Recent exhibitions include One Of A Kind at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Taking Time, Pinhole Photography at the Sangre de Christo in Pueblo, CO, and Chemical: Abstract Photography in New Orleans, LA.
In the series O.P.P. (Other People’s Photography), hand woven silver gelatin and inkjet prints survey stereotypical and nostalgic notions. Found photographs from US Army wives’ gatherings and Hollywood film stills are woven together to reconstruct new narratives. The expressive gaze within these staged photographs breaks through the picture’s surface as if to confront the viewer. These sophisticated slices of history illustrate an era of inclusion and exclusion while leaving the viewer to compare present day relationships.
What is the origin of the images and process in O.P.P?
In 2014 I started working on the O.P.P. series (Other People’s Photography) in preparation for my solo exhibition “One of a Kind” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. My friend and fellow artist, Carol Dass, gave me a stack of old silver gelatin prints from 1962. These high gloss prints were of Army wives during Rotary club type meetings and events. Even though each image was different, I could see similarities within their faces, their gaze, and their body language. I set out to combine the images that were similar. The women in the photos appeared to be housewives so weaving, a traditionally woman’s art, seemed like the perfect way to combine the two prints. As I wove the two separate prints together I discovered the decisions I made, to weave under or over or to skip sections, produced a new narrative within the work. The simple act of dismantling these mid-century stereotypes in order to reconstruct them in a distorted manner is the driving inspiration for this series.
Currently, I’m working on 30” x 40” woven inkjet prints depicting cowboys and Indians from old Hollywood film stills. Through these woven prints you can see how cultural biases have been promoted and celebrated. I create these images with the current political and social atmosphere in mind. For example, “In Line” was made during the injustices surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Native Americans woven together with a line of striped criminals blur the reality between how we perceive a culture and how we treat that culture. With “Embrace” I discovered two images taken on the same movie set during the same scene. In one print the man is kissing the woman and in the other print he is holding his hand over the woman’s mouth. This contradiction expresses how I feel in this political environment. To be desired and to be dismissed in such an aggressive manner parallels many women’s experiences.
In your day-to-day, you work with a lot of different students and instructors. How does being in an academic setting influence your practice?
My job as the print shop supervisor at Colorado College has exposed me to a variety of opportunities for expanding my image making techniques. I have learned so much and have enjoyed the relationships with the students and my colleagues. Although I will always cherish this time in my life, I do feel that academia has sanded down my edginess. When I look at my older work I feel as if I took more chances. It is hard to tell if time did this or being in a place where I know I have influence on younger minds. Maybe I took more chances when I was younger because I had less to lose and less impact. I think of this often and do not have any regrets.
What are three things inspiring you in the studio right now?
The three things that are inspiring me in my studio right now are my typewriter, my friend Jeanne Steiner, and an empty nest. The antique Underwood typewriter sits on a tall stand with a 15’ piece of white cotton loaded in it. This is my therapy. You know when you just want to scream at people but you just can’t? This is where the typewriter fits in. I bang out all my aggression on this sturdy machine. Words that I am not supposed to utter get typed on to this cotton fabric and I walk away unburdened.
My friend Jeanne Steiner is a weaver. (http://jeannesteiner.blogspot.com) She is the director of the arts and crafts area at Colorado College and an inspired fiber artist. Each day we meet at 4 pm and only talk about our art. We are not allowed to discuss the students or any job related things. We talk about what we are working on in our studios and how we feel about what we are making. This daily practice has allowed me a freedom to explore and discuss new ideas. I am certain this series of work would not be what it is without Jeanne’s expertise and influence.
The empty nest…I hate the phrase, but that is where I’m at right now. I’m in a transition point in my life. My daughter, Cyan, is away at college for the first time and I find myself at home by myself. The open arms of my studio greets me more and more. It is the place where I go to be fully engaged. I would be wrong to think that this time in my life will not inspire new work. I welcome the work that will come out of this time in my life.
What other projects are you working on?
When I’m not weaving photographs I am working on multiple series. Tittle is an ongoing body of work that incorporates any circular element. The dot above the letter “i” is called a tittle. A tittle indicates the necessity to take a second look and to fix our mistakes. The work incorporates various mediums including cyanotype, lumen printing, photogram silver prints, and chemigrams. From embossed Braille words to cereal bowls, the works in Tittle have a circular common theme. The phrase “to dot your I’s and cross your T’s” inspired the name for this series.
In these examples, the circular element refers to a family’s dinner table. They are 46”x 46” silver gelatin photograms. The items on the tables represent discussions that should take place within a family. “Follow the Leader” speaks to the issue of mass shootings. The guns depicted are toy squirt guns, which further the examination surrounding gun control. “Bills and Pills” is an opportunity for dialogue around healthcare and medical issues. With the pieces being large scale circles, the viewer can perceive these works as macro or micro. It forces the question; Are we looking under a microscope or through a telescope at these topics?
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Laura Shill: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 24th, 2017
Abbey Hepner: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 23rd, 2017
Teri Fullerton: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 22nd, 2017
Heather Oelklaus: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 21st, 2017
Ashlae Shepler: The States Project: ColoradoDecember 20th, 2017