Divine inspiration

By Christine Dunkle | Dec 19, 2019
Photo by: Christine Dunkle Kathryn Oliver with one of her icon paintings in the sanctuary at First Congregational Church in Camden.

CAMDEN — One look at Kathryn Oliver’s artwork brings to mind stained glass figures in an ancient cathedral. And for someone without a religious upbringing, she comes across as a spiritual person, enthralled with ritual and symbolism.

“I grew up very differently than the way kids grow up today,” she said. “My parents were very busy. I had a free-range childhood.”

As a fifth-grader, she began to read the novels of C.S. Lewis, but didn’t recognize their religious undertones without biblical knowledge. “I just remember other books were so stupid, these coming-of-age stories,” she said. “And here was this mythical story that was so big it could barely be contained.”

“I gravitated to art naturally. I made pictures as a child and never stopped,” Oliver said. Only when she looked into it further, did she realize the lion Aslan was a Christ figure. She felt called to be an artist and found that every book, every movie, had this same story repeated over and over in its own way throughout the world.

She left school at 16 and while she attended fine art school for a short time at 21, formal education wasn’t her thing. “If I could go back in time and talk to my 20-year-old self, I would say ‘study classical painting and theology,’” she said. “I was not skilled to learn that way back then. I’m a self-learner, so I just stumble into things.”

And that stumbling brought her to researching religion, myth, philosophy and more. “[I found] these Druids and early Christians were connected to nature, these two worlds were synthesizing,” she said. “They were intuitive, earthy and mystical.”

Oliver described the split between eastern and western religion around a thousand years ago, and how the eastern held on to its mystical origins. She began to study paintings online that really spoke to her.

“Living in a secular society, [I just didn’t have that exposure],” she said. “I fell in love. I was so moved by how profound it was.”

Oliver traveled to Europe several times and recalls Italy as being extraordinarily beautiful. “Michelangelo’s David is awe inspiring. You’re not just looking at it, you are in it,” she said.

Influenced by the stained glass windows and icons in the churches, cathedrals and museums she visited, she was led down an unexpected path to learn about Byzantine Iconography — images of holy/religious figures during the 4th to 15th century.

Oliver took many photographs of icons from that trip two years ago and brought them back to Maine. “I kept returning to them over and over again,” she said. “I began to paint from this inspiration as the late winter light lengthened and I haven’t ceased.”

When the time came to show her work publicly, Oliver wondered about the traditional exhibition route. A friend suggested she find a church. That’s where the First Congregational Church of Camden came in. “They were so receptive… and I don’t even attend here! They are just so kind and generous,” she said.

Oliver first exhibited at the church for Advent last December and then went on to hang another series for Easter in 2019. She currently has paintings on exhibit through Jan. 6 at First Congregational Church, 55 Elm St., Camden; Lincolnville Community Building, 18 Searsmont Road, Lincolnville; and United Methodist Church, 61 Pleasant St., Waterville. Her work can also be seen at Harbor Square Gallery on Main Street in Rockland.

Oliver’s “Sacred Garden” pieces are awe inspiring in themselves. Most are massive in scale, measuring around 5 by 9 feet, but their process of creation doesn’t stand on ceremony.

“I buy these [canvas] rolls online, and I use cheap paint and brushes from Walmart,” she said. “Sometimes I use leftover pieces glued together. It’s recycling!”

Her large paintings must be draped from the wall onto the floor in order for her to work. She rolls them out as she goes and often doesn’t know how a piece will look until it is hung at full height. “It’s totally impractical. I’m probably crazy,” she said.

“I work in this tiny room with giant rolls and this giant Australian Shepherd that doesn’t move when I tell him to leave. So I’m tripping over him,” Oliver said. “And then I have all this plaster coming out where I’ve nailed [the painting] to the wall so many times.”

A month ago, Oliver was happy to study in Connecticut with George Kordis, a Greek Master Iconographer, which inspired her current shows. He says it is the task of the Byzantine painter to seek and find the soul in the painting — the hidden element that bridges the worlds of separateness and existence — where “isolation becomes love.”

“I’m excited to continue,” Oliver said. “I am always creating. When you make art every day for 52 years it adds up.”

Oliver thinks art today is lacking in that sense of joining things together. Society needs mythical stories to help make sense of things and this is the only time in history we don’t have that.

“Today’s art is all ironic, all social commentary,” she said. “You have a banana stuck to some duct tape. That doesn’t join anything together, except the banana and the duct tape. It is a sideshow.”

Oliver came to Camden 20 years ago by way of Boston and really questioned what role art had in her life and in general. “Galleries didn’t excite me, music concerts didn’t excite me, museums didn’t excite me — I was more about combining them all,” she said about how she intended to participate in a world where her talents obviously lie.

When her son was in kindergarten, his school asked parents if they had any ideas for projects. A light bulb went off and she decided to create something that married her interests, including her love of gardening. She created backdrops and large puppets for a transformational theater, defined as visual storytelling through structured creative play, song, drama and a deep connection to nature.

She partnered with Kristi Williamson, a teacher, singer/songwriter and choreographer, and worked on these larger-than-life performances for ten years. She recalled an early show in the Camden Amphitheatre. “Our finale was a puppet on a boat,” Oliver said. “That was really fantastic.”

Oliver says there are different sides to all of us, but there is just something about participating in the ceremonial. The colors she uses are very outward and joyful, which show an exuberance in her work.

But when it comes to photography, her work becomes introspective, a “sweet melancholy.” She mainly poses herself in nature. “I use myself. At least I know I’ll show up on time,” she said.

She began to express herself more through photography while navigating her son’s difficult teenage years. “As a mother, you love someone, but you don’t know how to help,” she said. “He’s wonderful now. Looking back, it’s just something you have to go through.”

Oliver has also loved poetry since she was 16 and read “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The quote “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter” has always stuck with her.

“I carried that my whole life. We’re always longing for something we can’t quite reach,” she said. “Poetry, well, good poetry, is a way to remind us of our humanity.”

Oliver sometimes feels like she’s all over the place with her artistic interests, but they certainly come together in the long run. She’s currently working with a Cambridge dean of divinity whom she discovered while listening to an interview. They have collaborated to combine images and poetry recitation into video. “I use my iPhone and collect all these little bits. It’s all Maine, it’s all right in front of us,” she said. “I love doing videos.”

The public is invited to her closing slide show talk and party on Monday, Jan. 6, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the downtown Camden church. Williamson will be in town to give a blessing and sing as part of the event that falls on Epiphany. “It’s very personal, I’m not an authority,” Oliver said. “I’ll just speak from the heart.”

For more information on Oliver’s many artistic endeavors, visit kathrynoliver.com.

The Arts & Entertainment deadline is Thursdays at 5 p.m. for events dated on/between the following two Thursdays. Please email press releases/photos to A&E Editor Christine Dunkle at arts@villagesoup.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Ralph Stanley | Dec 22, 2019 17:24

Thank you Kathryn. Kind of you to share your work.

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