Olive Hayes 

Olive Hayes is an American abstract artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This Q&A was conducted over email between Olive and Claire Sarfeld the founder of A WAY Gallery. Olive is an emerging artist  who was a part of The NOW group exhibition with A WAY Gallery. 

Missed the exhibition? Download The Now Archive below. Olive's work "Smack" is included on page 7 of the archive.

Can you tell the A WAY community a bit about yourself and your artistic practice?  

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and moved to Philadelphia, PA for college. I'm still based in Philadelphia today. I recently graduated with my BFA from Moore College of Art & Design. As for my art practice, I work almost solely in oil on panel. I prefer working large scale; for me, there's something very bodily about working on a panel that is larger than me. My recent work focuses on the subtlety and explicitness of the nude figure. More specifically, I both satirize and confront the cliché of the nature nude within the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. The figures in my paintings playfully pose or engage in sexual acts; their over-saturated bodies are exaggerated to parody the subtle fetishized depiction of the natural nude. Their hidden eyes reference the deflected gazes of the nature nudes, reinforcing the viewer’s role as a voyeur. As these figures roam in their darkened spaces, they are unknowingly presenting their ballooned bodies to an outside world.

How did you make the decision to go to art school? We're you encouraged to be creative growing up?

I was always encouraged by my family growing up to draw, but it was never much of an expectation. My parents did a great job of letting me self direct when it came to my interests; they never pushed me in a specific direction. For most of my childhood, I was way more interested in the sciences than the arts. I wanted to be a park ranger, environmental scientist, and even a writer before I considered art as a career path. It wasn't until late high school that I began to really connect with art making. Deciding to go to art school for me was a bit rash; I only began to consider it in my junior year of high school. I was set on it after this period, though. This decision was based on a newfound passion for art making; a subject that I honestly wasn't very experienced in but was totally invested in.

"Wander the Earth", Oil on Panel, 48” x 72” 2020.

You’re a recent grad from Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, PA. was there a teacher who impacted or influenced you during your time there? Or what's an important lesson you learned while there?

Yes! My professor Alice Oh definitely impacted my studies. Alice is an amazing painter and educator who I first met in my sophomore year during my first ever oil painting class Although it was a normal introductory course, Alice centered all of our assignments around the figure. This really solidified my desire to be a figurative painter. Since this class, she has constantly acted as a mentor for me; rooting for me in opportunities that come my way while remaining very critical when discussing my work. 

What is some advice Alice has given you that has impacted your technical practice?

Alice always advised me to work on many pieces at once; this is something that really affected the way that I work. It's so helpful for me to have many ideas being created at once; not only does this allow me to take breaks on certain works, but it allows the pieces to inform one another. It's so much more cohesive to build collective narratives, visuals, and techniques in a quantity of works rather than create a piece alone and try to build off of that.

Alice so instilled a sense of capability in me. Because art was something I was not serious about until shortly before I enrolled in art school, I had a hard time taking myself seriously. In my early years of college I was never certain if my work was of high enough quality or if my concepts were valid and cohesive. When Alice became my professor, she really validated me by telling me to apply to certain competitions and programs. This let me know that she genuinely thought that I could be successful if I put the work into it. That's not to say she acted like my work was perfect, either. She definitely let me know where I could improve in critique! After having her as a professor, I definitely have a growth mindset. I know I can improve, and I'll be striving for improvement throughout my arts career. But, I'm confident in my work and I take myself, my skills, and my experience seriously.

Alice sounds like she came into your life at the right time, and was able to guide you in the direction you were meant to go in.

A photograph taken at Olive's final Critique at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia, PA

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you? Are you thinking about doing an MFA?

While I typically work large scale, recently I've been spending my time working on a series of small works. The pandemic has pushed my studio search back a bit, so I've been trying to find creative ways to keep a consistent body of work going as I paint from home. I am currently painting full time, and I am definitely planning to enter an MFA program. I want to be able to teach at the college level.

What about working on a smaller scale has been challenging to you?

I love working large scale for the physical aspect of it. There is something so much more interesting and easy for me to plan out composition and form when I have to move my entire arm to sketch and my entire body to move from one side of the work to another. In my small scale work, I can't do that as much. I also find challenge in not being able to step away as much; in my large work, I can run to the other end of the room and see what it feels like to enter a space and see my work from afar. Smaller work can't be seen from a distance; you have to approach it to experience it. I'm starting to redirect my mindset to appreciate this more and play with the value of creating something that calls for close inspection.

How did you come to nude figures as your subject matter? 

The nude was always a subject I felt deeply interested in and drawn to. It was something I wanted to inspect further in museums and a topic I often wrote about in my art history essays. It took me awhile, however, to get to actually including the nude in my own work. You may not be able to tell this from my somewhat bold paintings, but a huge barrier for me was my shyness. I didn't feel comfortable seeking out nude models to paint from. I also didn't feel comfortable discussing sex and nudity with peers. During the later half of my senior year in college, though, I threw all my insecurities out and just went for it. I realized that if I constructed my own pseudo-nude figures or referenced my own body, I didn't have to paint from models. The discussion barrier was something that just took practice and repetition.

What ideas are you currently exploring in your practice?

I am exploring three main ideas in my work: nudity, sexuality, and the environment. My work both appropriates and criticizes the nature nude, and more specifically, how the natural nude is acceptable in "family-friendly" spaces. I'm interested in what aspects allow an image of nude, often sexualized figures to pass as modest. My work aims to flip this perceived modesty on its head and rather portray the nature nude for what it is: an image that has been created for sexual gain.

Additionally, I am interested in the connection between nature and the nude body. The nature nude is a combination between landscape and figure painting; and I believe that this collaboration between two art subjects contributes to its perceived modesty. How do the bodies relate to the natural space that they are in? Why are they there? I don't aim to answer these questions in my work; rather, I like to continue this strange ambiguity. An artist may claim a group of people are nude in the woods because they are bathing in a pond; but just how common is that? Bathing is an excuse to depict nudity, it's a scapegoat. I find this both humorous and interesting, and so I use very ambiguous environments in my own work. I want these paintings to show the figures at the forefront; highlight their strange sexual actions, and then have an impossible to locate space existing around them.

I've noticed in some of your works you've opted to focus more on the body and not include a face, why is that?

This is definitely a newer practice, as all of my older work was very reliant on eye contact. Paintings of people to me are often so voyeuristic. This is especially true in paintings that include the nude. It's such a peculiar interaction to be looking into a window of this person's life, culture, and surroundings. They don't see you looking at them; they don't even know what space they're currently existing in. In my work that focuses on the body, the faces are intentionally cropped out or blocked; this is a reference to that voyeuristic interaction: the nudes are wandering their own environments and as we look in on them, they have no idea they are being looked at. They have no opportunity to confront or observe their audience or outward existence.

"Among the Grass", Oil on Panel, 36” x 60” 2020.

As an emerging artist, what do you look forward to the most in pursuing a career as an artist? What kinds of challenges have you faced so far?

I am very excited to continue networking, traveling, and exploring galleries, museums, and art spaces. Aside from creating, my favorite part about being an artist is the social aspect of it. I love talking about art, attending and having critiques, and being introduced to work and people. My next big goal is to find a studio in a shared space. Now that I am out of college, I'm craving that sense of community that classes offer. 

"At the Bus Stop", oil on panel, 72” x 48” 2020. 

Thank you again Olive for taking the time to share your artistic journey with myself as well as the A WAY Community. I've really enjoyed chatting with you more about your practice, your thought process, and your artistic journey thus far. 

Can't wait to see what's next.

Interested in seeing more of Olive's work? Visit her website HERE