Education: B.A. from Mississippi State University in art, 1982; M.F.A. from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, in mixed-media graphics, 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.
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, which is, she says, "a place where you felt anything was possible. 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 had made reference to in earlier work she showed at the now-defunct Coincidence Gallery. The myth seemed even more relevant to Oliver in Germany, where she was staying in a town called Schwandorf where she daily observed the local swan that lived in the river that flowed next to her studio and the great art library.
"My paintings aren't so much about that particular story as they are about the implications of the image, she says. " I was compelled to work in that direction."
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: 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," she says. "I love images of strong beauty."
As Oliver developed as an artist, she says that 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 jam-packed 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 she 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. 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: 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 a Paris residency in 1994 because Styrofoam was "abundant and free." Today she scavenges trash bins, beaches and construction sites for the material. "You can buy it," she explains, "but that doesn't fit into my reason for using it."
"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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