Education: B.A. in art from Mississippi State University, 1982; M.F.A. in mixed-media graphics from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, 1984
Artistic medium: Paintings and mixed-media works combining found objects such as Styrofoam.
Where you can see her work: At her show, "Trail Signs," at 1708 Gallery, 103 E. Broad St., from Nov. 2 through Dec. 1. The show will then travel to the Isaac Delgado Gallery in New Orleans and the Meridian Museum of Art in Meridian, Miss.
What inspired her latest body of work: Oliver spent seven weeks this summer in residence at the Oberpfalzer Kumnstlerhaus in Schwandorf, Germany, an international exchange program of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. "I try to get away every other summer," Oliver says. "I find that it really feeds my work." To help finance her trip, she sold original postcard-sized works for $25 apiece to friends and collectors and mailed them from Germany.
While in Germany, where her studio was in a castle, Oliver began working on the paintings she will show at 1708. She also spent time in German museums looking at antiquities, and traveling in Prague, Czech Republic, "a place where you felt anything was possible," she says. "The whole city is art."
Oliver had originally intended to work on a series of landscapes while she was in Germany, but because it rained during the first weeks of her trip, she found herself stuck inside the studio and library. "The environmental conditions sort of direct you to your muse," she says.
In this case, her muse is the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, which she reread while living in a town called Schwandorf. She would also pass a swan on the way to her studio each day, she says. "My paintings aren't so much about that particular story as they are about the implications of the image."
Also, she adds, some of her new works display a maternal element "that probably wouldn't be there if I hadn't found out I was pregnant while I was on my trip."
Why she uses classical imagery in her work: Oliver has used images from classical art in her work since she was in college. "The reason I was attracted to [classical images] initially was because they were strong and were considered icons of beauty, yet they were incomplete cracked, imperfect, yet beautiful. I love images of strong beauty."
In 1994, while living in Paris during a residency at the Cite Art des Internationale, Oliver says she became enamored with the Venus de Milo, which has since become a "mascot" in her work.
As Oliver developed as an artist, she says figures from history and myth "became a vocabulary in my work. It is like creating poetry with images instead of words. That's why I like them. You can make a piece out of mud or camel dung, and if it's a classical form, people think about it in a different way."
Where she works: Oliver works in the quintessential artist's studio in Shockoe Bottom. The large, two-room space is drafty and jampacked with canvases and art supplies. Thursday through Sunday is studio time, and it's not unusual to find her there for 12 hours at a stretch. The rest of the week she spends teaching art at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Hand Workshop and the Virginia Museum.
How Oliver creates her art: Generally she works from a photograph of a classical work but sometimes will work from a plaster cast, or even the original work while on-site at a museum. "The photographs are just there for reference," she explains.
She works on more than one piece simultaneously and often starts by creating a background first. She draws with charcoal, and uses acrylic-based polymer paints, sometimes with sand, cement or mica mixed in for texture.
Her latest works, many of them large, have been created on canvas and paper, a departure for Oliver, who has worked almost exclusively with Styrofoam for the past six or seven years.
Why she uses Styrofoam: "As everyone knows," Oliver says with a chuckle, "I use a lot of Styrofoam." When used by Oliver, this modern, man-made material takes on the appearance of an ancient, crumbling piece of stone.
Oliver began working with Styrofoam during her Paris residency because the stuff was "abundant and free." Today she scavenges dumpsters, beaches and construction sites for the material. "You can buy it, but that doesn't fit into my reason for using it," she explains.
"I use a lot of recycled materials. It allows people to see beauty in materials that they don't associate with beauty. If there's beauty, they'll look further. It's the bridge. For me, the juxtaposition of something that is not beautiful with an image of beauty creates a compelling relationship."
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