by RENEE PATRICK Cascade A&E Editor
A casual glance at one of Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s paintings is almost impossible. Her works are a feast of details which often approach raw or painful experiences with a delicate beauty and a reverence for the natural world. The nationally-known artist is one of Central Oregon’s best kept secrets.
Olivieri’s paintings contain elements of her travels, adventures and relationships spanning her childhood growing up along the Rio Grande River, traveling up the Amazon River on a cargo boat and living off-the-grid in Central Oregon. The painter received a Masters in Arts from NYU and worked as a gardener/lecturer at the Cloisters and at the New York Botanical Garden…all of which helped to create a foundation rich in the organic nature of life.
“My favorite part of being an artist is the challenge of how to take an experience, an emotion or a deep primitive feeling and turn it into a painting,” Olivieri said. “What I love is taking something that is not visual and making it come alive.
Animals often help form the narrative in her work, and she draws inspiration from the many creatures that reside on the land near her home. “I am interested in cycles of nature, the symbiotic relationships in the plant/animal world and the parallels between human relationships,” she said. “We have packrats who are like nature’s little folk artists living under our deck and their constant desire to collect and arrange and preserve their collection is very exciting to observe.”
Another element close observers of her work will notice is the extensive use of text. “I do a lot of research for most of my paintings and put it into my own words and then paint that into my paintings,” she said. “The words become part of the image, but if someone is inclined to read them, they offer useful information or ideas, depending on the painting.”
Making emotions and experiences come alive is central to Olivieri’s life purpose. When her niece came to live with the artist during a difficult time in the young woman’s life, the painting, Beloved and bewildered, captured the complicated life story. When her father passed away a few years ago, the painting Farewell emerged, “I painted my way through my sadness,” she said.
“I like to make paintings that are visually captivating but that one might learn something from too,” she said. “When I am working on a painting, I try to reach in many directions, to draw many layers together so there is often more than just one way to read it or relate to it.”
Beloved and bewildered was painted on an old wooden door. Choosing wood over canvas, Olivieri is drawn to the imperfections and warped nature of the medium. It has history, and as she explains, “I love the random way that wood ages and changes color, texture and shape. I especially love old doors, they symbolize so much transition, moving into new place, moving into the wilderness.”
Olivieri and her husband Lance choose to live intimately with nature in their little oasis north of Bend. Buying property and designing a house around an existing cabin provided them a way to later add on solar panels and live off-the-grid. “We wanted to live as close as possible to the natural world, to have as little impact on the environment as possible,” she said.
When not painting, Olivieri spends much of her time hiking and exploring the wilderness. She is driven to create art that will support and care for the earth and animals, “My heart breaks over what is happening to our wildlife,” she said. “I want to create work that might inspire a startling love for our wild animals and a desire to protect them and their habitats.” Olivieri has been instrumental in founding the new group (ONPAWS) to help central Oregon wildlife with a current focus on trying to stop cruel and unnecessary animal trapping.
Olivier has only displayed her work once in Central Oregon, but would welcome the opportunity to do so again. She is represented by the Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago, ACA Gallery in New York and the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica. Her paintings are in a traveling exhibition, Women Call for Peace.