Q&A with Abigail Ogilvy

Abigail Ogilvy: In your artist statement, you discuss the collage elements, but don't explain how/when you decide to put them into the work. If would be helpful to know why do you choose certain collage elements? 

Holly Harrison: This is an interesting question. There are probably a few different things happening.  

I think a lot about how much paper garbage there is in the world and all the postcards, flyers, junk mail, etc. that come into the house. So many resources go into creating this “stuff”, and I mostly just throw it into the recycling bin without looking at it. I decided to bring some of it into my studio practice by incorporating it into the painted/altered collage surfaces I’ve been creating.  

Along with meaningless paper junk, there’s also a lot of meaningful paper around. My daughter’s old drawings that I can’t bear to throw out (even though I have SO many of them), postcards from art shows, maps from places I’ve been, beautiful printed papers I’ve collected or that people have given me, vintage books and some old comic books (Jim and Mira both love old comic books and sometimes damaged or “not valuable” ones make their way into my collage stash), that sort of thing. 

And then there are random paper scraps that seem to proliferate everywhere, especially in my purse and on the dining room table—shopping or to do lists, Mira’s homework (lots of math equations), my husband’s notes for his gym workouts, etc. The other day I found a piece of paper on which I had written “retro futurism”. Why did I do that? I can’t even remember. I’m drawn to these random scraps and decided they would be interesting in the mix of papers I’m using.  

Because I’m washing most of the collage elements with white paint (sometimes other colors), I can use pretty much anything since it’s just there as a hint. The paint unifies everything, making it possible to join together lots of random things. It’s like a pool of memories–some things are more visible, others are pretty deeply hidden. I’ve always been curious about how memory works. Your brain can hold so many things; it’s interesting to me that along with remembering important or moving experiences, our brains also hold onto random, even meaningless things. 

When I’m composing the white collage fields, I’m working pretty intuitively. Generally I’m choosing from painted papers that I have previously created, so I’m just thinking about what looks interesting and finding relationships between the elements. Sometimes the layouts sort of present themselves to me and other times it takes a long while for me to get everything to a place where it feels like it’s working. I try not to have an agenda when I’m moving the papers around and instead am responding to the materials and to the hints of narratives that start to come together. 

AO: Why did you move away from imagery? In the artist statement you ask, " How do you create meaning when you are not working with images? " What made you interested in this topic? What caused this transition?

HH: I wanted to stretch myself. I had been working with bird imagery for a lot of years, and I wanted to do something different. When I’ve been working in a certain vein for a while, I can get into habits: I’ll know that certain colors will look good together or adding a particular collage element will be visually successful. But I feel kind of lazy when that happens, like I’m relying on easy solutions. Maybe it’s because I got a late start as a visual artist, but I don’t want to be complacent, I always want to be learning and moving things forward or going deeper. 

I tried out a few different things and have some ideas on the back burner, but there wasn’t a subject per se that felt as compelling to me as the birds had. But I did find that I was really interested in the idea of structure and how it relates to meaning, which is something that comes out of my background in poetry. Even though I’m not a conceptual artist (at least not yet), I enjoy the thinking that goes into creating a piece or a new body of work. Setting aside image allowed me to focus on the conceptual part of making a painting. And thinking more deeply about how I build a composition led me to questions of meaning and abstraction. Even though finding my way into the process took a long time, I feel the work that I am making now is both an extension of previous bodies of work (it’s still recognizable as mine) and also references poetic structure and process. 

AO: In terms of the color fields, did you ultimately decide they are empty, or are they full? You ask the question, but then how do you ultimately feel it impacts the work?

HH: To me, this body of work is more about asking questions than it is about answering them. I hope (maybe even am counting on) that the viewer will have their own thoughts and questions as they engage with the work. In my earlier paintings, I liked using visual elements that could be read as multiple things—a long horizontal line with tabs of vertical collage might read as a fence, a zipper, birds on a wire, etc. The brain likes to find meaning even where there is no one intended meaning. This is similar to how poets use language, where meaning is relative and the role of the reader is to interpret and interact with what is there. So that’s something I’m aware of when I’m working, and it’s something I like to play with, this idea that meaning can and will change, depending on what the viewer is bringing to a piece.