A few weeks ago, when I was walking into American Politics, Olivia Han ’25 approached me, asking if she could be an Artist of the Week. Fully convinced that she was a theater major (she very much is not), I was slightly terrified before our interview because I had no prior experience in theater. So, you can imagine my surprise when she said she’s a sociology and studio arts double major.
“I didn’t get into painting until Swat. I’ve often specialized in drawing with charcoal or colored pencil. As of late, I’ve fallen into this niche of focusing on the mundane and how to show very silly parts of life like washing your face. I feel that’s because they’re distortions of my reference photos that do not necessarily fit that hyperrealistic space.”
Olive, like myself, is a portraiture artist. Needless to say, I was simultaneously embarrassed and captivated. Her focus on presenting the mundane because of its regularity forms a distinct vision in her art. Art is often about the spectacular: when we think of capital “A” Art, our minds are brought to the Sistine Chapel, Starry Night, or Guernica. Those pieces are undeniably resonant, however they are not relatable as they don’t depict the ordinary. In contrast, Olive celebrates innately human experiences, like our morning rituals.
“I have chosen to not pursue art professionally in the future. Since art is more of a fun exercise for me, I can portray subjects that aren’t serious. It can just be my friend putting in her contacts, and it doesn’t have to have a deep meaning behind it. I basically just have the freedom to create the things I actually want to make.”
It’s not to say that Olive’s art hasn’t held a deeper meaning. She elaborated that, “I’m a Lang Center [for Civic and Social Responsibility] Scholar. The project I’m currently working on influences my art because it deals with mental health and how that pertains to survivors of sexual assault. That’s another major aspect of [my] creation — specifically using art as comfort. I guess you can see this sort of progression. My work starts off in a very painful place, and then it slowly goes into like this appreciation of life or ordinary things.”
The story of the tortured artist is ingrained in popular culture. “Good” art is painful: Michelangelo suffered from immense back pain after vigorously painting the Sistine Chapel for four years straight. Vincent Van Gogh was tortured by suicidal ideation in the Saint-Paul Asylum when he created Starry Night. Picasso painted Guernica because he was horrified by the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. In an overwhelming sea of pain, Olive proposes a different perspective: creation as comfort.
However, it’s not to say that she doesn’t want to cover similar subjects — her approach to heavier concepts is simply different. “I’m using my knowledge of biblical references for some of my latest projects. What I’m doing now is this reference to St. Peter upside down on the cross, because, as the story goes, he felt that he was unworthy to be hung in the same manner as Jesus so he turned himself upside down. In my head that was just so exemplary of girlhood, that sort of self-sacrificial martyrdom. I’m creating a fresco of a teenage girl in her room. Just posed upside down, so her head is like, at the bottom, while her legs are over the top and her arms are by her head. In the four quadrants around, I’m sort of creating little spaces to be various things that you would find in teenage rooms like a bunch of books, messy laundry everywhere, and a ton of makeup.”
Olive is particularly interested in portraying teenage and childhood experiences. While in high school, she published a children’s book Rosie Saves the Planet. “That was a pandemic project. [When I was seventeen] I started making these illustrations, and I guess it was for my inner child and going back to things I used to enjoy. So I ended up writing a story about animals and climate change. It was an interesting time in my life, but it’s still really cool.”
Independent of her children’s book, Olive also worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) this past summer to help influence young activists to become more socio-politically engaged, “I ended up working for the ACLU National Advocacy Institute for two weeks. I felt there was an art to the importance of communication and storytelling there as well.”
Olive’s art is personal. She chooses her friends as subjects and depicts teenage girlhood in its purest form. In creating art, she also is forming a bridge between her current and younger selves. Moreover, in painting others, she still creates a self-portrait, just not in the conventional sense. Her signature lies in her impressionist brush strokes rather than a specific face. Hearing her speak about portraiture and her inner child reminded me of why I love art to begin with.
So, as embarrassed as I am that I mistook her for a theater major, I’m incredibly grateful that Olive approached me for an interview. I’ve been so focused on creating art on a strict deadline that I forgot what makes portraiture special to me. It’s not about capturing perfection but rather the beauty in simply being human. Or, at least for Olive and I, existence alone is an art form.