Architerior got a chance to talk to Stockholm based artist Julia Olanders whose widespread artistic talents are drawn together by a sense of being strange, juxtaposing and fun. She shared how the building materials she uses in some of her projects have raised important questions for discussion such as – Can something toxic be beautiful and decorative? We discussed how Julia with her art hopes to invoke a sense of confusion in the viewer, a way of interrupting our categorisation of materials and objects. Julia also shared some thrilling ideas of how her family situation has made way for opportunities to seek out the “doubleness” of things.
How did you find your way into art?
Well, I have it in my blood I guess, from my mothers side of the family. It always came naturally to me, thinking and acting through art and projects, since I was a little girl. But back then I didn’t understand that it was art I was creating, of course. Or maybe it’s the other way around – my way of creating art is the same as me playing games as a little girl, I just never really grew up.
Was education in art a part of your journey to become an artist?
Yes, I started studying art straight out of school, and later dipped my toe in both the craft- & design-pool, as a contemporary jewelry artist and later as a designer – graduating from a master in design in 2019. It’s been quite the journey. I did a year of art school in Gothenburg and then later took my bachelor in Contemporary Jewelry at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and my master degree in Design at Konstfack here in Stockholm.
What techniques do you use?
A lot of different casting techniques, shaping and reshaping materials. Transformation is a key element in my figuration. Right now my medium is building materials – plaster, jesmonite, concrete and insulation foam. The foam is really a love/hate relationship, since it’s so toxic and bad for me, as well as to the environment, to work with. But then again, that was the reason I chose to include it in my project; can something toxic be beautiful and decorative?
How would you define your art style?
I recently heard that I fit into the term Maximalist, so I guess that reflects my work.. or deconstructed ready-mades? Misplaced materials?
Has your style or technique changed over time?
That’s really hard to tell. I’ve tried my hand at so many different techniques during the years, moving between different fields and contexts. At the same time I’m pretty new in my career, since I’ve been studying for so many years. During my studies in the jewelry field I did work in porcelain paper, silicone and silver, making something that is hard in texture seem soft and vice versa. Another project circulated around tea and soap. I let them switch places and compared the routine of washing with the ritual of tea-ceremonies. I created huge tea-bags in the shape of a symbol that you’d bring with you to the bath. I’ve always liked to take two elements or objects or contexts, and let them mix.
If you had to summarize your art in three words, what would they be?
Strange, juxtaposing and fun.
Which artists or art styles have inspired you?
I think movies from my teenage years really shaped me, and made me intrigued by things that are weird and twisted. I remember watching Mulholland Drive and being totally captured by its strangeness and beauty. Matthew Barney was also a huge influence on my work, with his Cremaster Cycle movies in which a fictional entity makes its way though strange worlds and places, where it meets people and things from the real world. It creates a strange mix between something real and unreal. Nowadays I get really inspired by the wise words of Ursula K Le Guin, and her theories on “speculative fiction”.
When other people view your work, what are their reactions and thoughts?
Materials and objects have specific connotations that help us categorise and relate to them. As a sewn piece of fabric, the mould is associated with soft skin or a cushion while the building materials come from heavy industries and toxic construction sites. By combining them into this blob of a thing – like a body stripped from its revealing skin, a fleshy equivalent of the antique statue – I hope to invoke a sense of confusion in the viewer, a way of interrupting our categorisation. Almost as a representation of our times of building and rebuilding, bodies sprung out of the stinking piles of materials we make and consume and throw away.
Is there something in particular that you wish to convey to the viewer through your work?
I like juxtaposing. Something happens when you bring two sides together, it creates a split where you can understand and see the two viewpoints at the same time. I place my work at this line between two opposites, or two similarities. In the Betweenness collection, this has manifested itself in a series of sculptural vessels made out of building materials — a play between something functional or sculptural. Can these semi-toxic materials used to hold up structures of our homes, hidden behind walls not meant to be seen, be used in a different way? Can they become something decorative, like a vase? I see my objects as more of conversation pieces, question marks, that I leave for the viewer.
When starting on a new artwork, what goes through your head? How does your planning and creation process look like?
It usually starts as an idea that I carry with me for a while. I’m not really a sketcher, more of a day-dreamer that constantly twists and turns my objects and projects in my head. When it feels done, then I try it out in the materials straight away, prototyping and building and problem solving as I go. I let the materials decide how much room they want to take up and which shape they want to take in the mould. They guide me along, and I leave room for unexpected happy accidents or unforeseen bumps or shapes. The pieces become their own little individuals when I start decorating them with more layers of foam, plaster or concrete. I work on them until I feel that tug of uncertainty: is it a vase or a sculpture? Is it pretty or ugly?
What are you working on right now?
I just finished a set of lamps for Adorno Design, which was shown during London Design Week. I’m also working on a collection of candle holders that feels really fun and exciting, and I’m sketching on some stools or pedestal-looking things as well.
How has Covid-19 affected you as an artist?
Yes. I lost my daytime job, and with that my sense of security. Everything felt hopeless and making art seemed very far away. I had to borrow money and sit tight, while the whole cultural scene grind to a halt. But I was both lucky and unlucky, having won an award just before the pandemic hit Sweden, and had some of my work making its way through the country via a design exhibiting tour. Unfortunately it didn’t manage to move along to other countries, as per usual other years, but it was a real comfort to have something still happening when everything disappeared.
Inspiration is important when creating, where do you find inspiration?
Well, to be really honest: my twin sister. Or rather, when something is double or copied, or simulating as one thing but being something different. I think that’s what it all comes down to – me trying to work through my identity as a twin, seeking out the “doubleness” of things.
Is there any artwork that you’ve created that is extra significant to you?
I think all my objects become important in a way, they all come to life. Recently I made a small lamp that ended up standing a bit crooked, like it was tilting its little head, and that just made my day.
How do you define “good” art?
Oh what a tough question. What is art? What is good? I think I like it when something challenges you, when the concept has a twist to it.
What are the best things about being an artist?
I’m never bored! I always have something to work on, or ways to get inspired. It’s really more of a life-long journey.
What are the worst things about being an artist?
You must handle so much more than just the creative part, working with both marketing and logistics as well as balancing expenses and meeting deadlines. It’s almost like it’s a four person job at least, which is tiring.
Are there any special moments in your art career that you’d like to share – moments that perhaps brought you forward, gave you clarity or changed you?
2017 was a tough year, I just graduated from my bachelor’s and straight after that got into my master program, making me move from Amsterdam back home to Sweden. I was already exhausted, having experienced a lot during my last year of study both in school and on a personal level. I ended up burning out, and by the end of that year had to make the hard decision of taking a break from my master. It took me two years to recharge and come back to some kind of level of creativity, and even though I returned I wasn’t fully myself again. This experience changed me. And again, it also helped me in a lot of ways. I got better at listening to my body and my needs, not to be so critical all the time of everything I was making and to actually take a break from it all once in a while (especially during evenings and weekends, something unthinkable before). So I am in a way grateful, even though it was the hardest way of learning.
What does it mean to you to be able to work with art?
For me art helps colour my life, makes it more interesting and meaningful. I could never live without it.
In ten years time, where do you see yourself and your creative work?
Hopefully living off my work, and perhaps becoming an educator myself— mentoring the ones going into the field of art, design and craft.
If you could go back to the beginning of your art career, what advise would you give yourself?
To relax and enjoy it more, and not be so hard on myself.
Julia Olanders Instagram @juliaolanders.works
Photo credit: Karin Olanders