Sarah Walko (The Raven) speaks to artist Julia Oldham.
SARAH WALKO: How do you usually start your day? how do you usually end your day?
JULIA OLDHAM: I start nearly every day by being enthusiastically kissed by my dogs, who want me to wake up and feed them! I am a real creature of habit and have pretty fixed routines throughout the day. In the morning, after feeding my two dogs and two cats, I like to sit down with a cup of tea and do something relaxing to warm up, like reading a novel or drawing. Then I’ll work on my current project for a few hours. In the early afternoon I always take an hour-or-two-long hike with my dogs. I live in Eugene, OR, and everyday we climb the same hill together, which is near my house. It’s nice going to this particular hill–it’s a relatively unused piece of land where I never see anyone else–because my dogs are VERY naughty. My dog Saga, a big black wolfy-type mutt, once tried to steal an old man’s walking stick because she wanted to play fetch. Once I’m back I’ll usually work until bedtime. I find it really difficult to unwind at the end of the day and to fall asleep. I honestly still haven’t figured out the best way to end the day and let myself get sleepy.
SW: Do you listen to anything while you work?
JO: It depends! I work mostly in animation and video. When I’m editing, writing scripts, researching or working with sound I have to be very focused and can’t listen to anything at all, but if I’m drawing animated sequences, which is a repetitive and time-consuming process, I love listening to stories. I tend not to listen to music much while I work; I find it weirdly emotionally distracting. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, though. I like a bit of everything: science fiction, fantasy, young adult fiction, biographies, history, murder mysteries. A few recent audiobooks I listened to while working were, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrook, about the historical sinking of the whaling ship Essex; Lilith’s Brood, a science fiction trilogy by Octavia Butler; and The Forgotten Garden, a contemporary Gothic novel by Kate Morton. I also have recently been re-listening to the entire Harry Potter series. That’s a comforting go-to for me. The narrator is excellent and has a different voice for every character. I can get really lost in it.
SW: What is a specific geographical place that you had an experience that served as a threshold or break through moment in the evolution of your practice?
JO: In 2007 I spent a month living in a rustic cabin with no water or electricity in my family’s small forest preserve in Iowa. My dad and I built a little solar charger for my video camera, and I spent the month recording video of myself engaging in the activities and movements of all of the insects, spiders and other invertebrates. These recording sessions were like little dance performances, and would sometimes last up to an hour. It was a strange and lovely way of transforming into part of the forest and losing my human self. The project that came out of this, a series of highly mediated and very eerie videos, felt to me like my first real work as an independent, adult artist. It was called The Timber, and it was a New Commission for Art in General in New York. I had recently finished grad school and moved to New York, and my time in Iowa was the beginning of the path I would take as an artist in New York City.
SW: Are any of your pieces self portraits?
JO: I think they all are, in a way. I’m often a performer in my video work, and I think the character that I play in these pieces is always a sort of dream version of myself: the self that can communicate with coyotes, discover the infinite, split into matter and antimatter, and live in an alternate universe. And even the animated pieces that don’t have me physically in them feel like self portraits: myself as Captain Ahab, as a dead whale, as Laika the Soviet Spacedog. I think this is because the work I make is based on adventures and experiences I’d like to have.
SW: What is one current project you are working on we can look for coming up?
JO: I am making a 4-channel video piece called How to Escape a Black Hole, in which I’m a futuristic, virtual guru who leads us to a black hole and then teaches us how to escape from its grip. The piece will be at a space in Portland, OR called Gray Box that has a state of the art system for projecting synced 40-channel works onto its 4 walls. I’m really excited. This piece will play with YouTube tropes such as self-hypnosis videos and ASMR videos, but is also connected to a larger body of videos that I’ve been working on for 6 years that are poetic and romantic translations of concepts of physics and math. How to Escape a Black Hole is a quirky self-help video in the form of a planetarium. I think it will be funny, but also relaxing and really strange.
SW: You have a lot of relationship with animals in your work. Can you tell us more about why and what they mean to you?
JO: Animals have always been my primary passion, next to drawing. My mother has a strange power to attract and calm animals–all kinds of animals–and growing up, there were always many resident and visiting beasts at my home. Some were our pets; some were roaming vagabonds; and some were wild animals that took a shine to my mother and stuck around for a season or so. I grew up in a very rural part of western Maryland, and there weren’t any children in the neighborhood until I was well into grade school, so all of my first friendships were with the animals around me. I’ve always felt more relaxed around animals than people, and have always had a sense that I can understand them in some primal way. Maybe I inherited this from my mother. Maybe it’s completely in my head! In any case, as my artwork is, in many ways, self-portraiture, these relationships with animals come up frequently. In my work about animals I also explore a desire to be able to transform into an animal or directly communicate in a magical language. In an upcoming piece, I’ll be casting myself as a girl living in the stomach of a bear. I think it’ll be about the desire to just be completely consumed and absorbed by something you love.
SW: Are you sea or land? day or night?
JO: I am a dense, dark forest at night, full of nocturnal creatures coming out to find snacks, amusement, and love. There are lots of quiet animal sounds, snuffling and shuffling, and occasional sprinkling rain. You can also hear creeks run through the forest, and they are full of singing frogs, crawdaddies, insect nymphs with big pincers, newts, and smooth stones. At some point the forest gives way to a blackwater swamp full of alligators’ shining eyes, and there are little shacks built high up in the cypress trees. There are some ghosts living in the swamp too, though they are very shy and tend to keep to themselves.
I mention the blackwater swamp as part of my identity because I recently discovered that my great great grandmother was the love child of a white woman in northern Florida and a Seminole man. The Seminole people were driven into the Okefenokee swamp in that area at around that time, and lived there with a variety of swampers who made their home in that inhospitable place. I visited the swamp this year during a family reunion down south and just had this immediate and intense feeling of connection to the place. It was magical! And a little terrifying and heartbreaking. I’d like to think that I’ve got some swampers blood in me.
SW: One living artist you’d love to do a collaboration piece with? one dead one?
JO: I collaborate regularly with a Brooklyn-based artist named Chad Stayrook (as a collaborative we are called Really Large Numbers), and I’m not sure I really want to collaborate so much with other artists except with Chad at this point. We speak the same language and have been working together long enough that it’s really easy for us to communicate and compromise. I have worked with other artists in the past and enjoyed it, however, in a general way I find it very hard to work with people–I always was stressed out by group projects in school and never quite got over that. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a control freak or if I’m easily intimidated by other people or what. It’s really special finding a person that you can work with easily, without any ego. Just a real melding of ideas and skills.
If I were to collaborate with a dead artist, I would like for it to be the reanimated corpse (or lovely ephemeral ghost) of Sylvia Plath. We’d make some really spooky things together and would engage heartily in haunting. Or maybe Herman Melville. I’ve been making work about Moby Dick recently, and I think that I’d really enjoy his quick wit and melancholy nature.
SW: What kind of bird are you?
JO: Oh, this is difficult, but I can assure you that I AM a bird. For as long as I can remember my mother called me her chickadee, her turkey or her little chicken, and my sister and I always call each other Chicken or Chickensis. We tend to engage in a lot of strange bird dances and songs when we’re together. I always fly in my dreams; I almost never have a dream in which I can’t fly! And in my flying dreams I’m always very, very high up and feeling nervous about coming down to land, because it seems like there’s probably danger down there. In that sense I think I could be vulture. I like to stay up in the air vents and away from all the hubbub, and then occasionally come down to quickly and quietly eat things that are already dead. I think I’d be a dreadful hunter. I’m also very attracted to roadkill and sometimes bring it home with me and put it in my freezer, which I think backs up my vulture theory.
SW: Your current project about How to Escape a Black Hole – how did that project begin/where did that idea come from?
JO: I’ve been making work about black holes for several years. I recently made a short graphic novel about a scientist and her robotic dog companion who travels to a black hole to study it. The dog, while he is in outer space, figures out a way to get as close to the black hole as possible and then escape from it using a theory posed by mid-century physicist Roger Penrose. I do a lot of scientific research for these science-based pieces. My husband Eric is a physicist at the University of Oregon, and he is an amazing resource. And my dad Nile, who I mentioned is also a physicist, has helped me with many of my projects. I love working with scientists; we (artists) have many things in common with scientists in terms of our processes and experiments, but in the end we tell different stories that have different goals.
In this piece, How to Escape a Black Hole, I’m continuing with my interest in methods of approaching and escaping from black holes, again using the Penrose Process, the theory by Roger Penrose, as a means of approaching this problem. It’s an interesting theory that, at its most basic, suggests that if you are approaching a spinning black hole, you can extract energy from its spinning ergosphere. If object A is approaching the black and splits itself into object B and object C, object B can jettison object C into the black hole, and through conservation of energy, object B can catch a free ride across the galaxy at nearly the speed of light.
For me, that theory is an interesting metaphor. If it’s YOU who is approaching the black hole, how exactly would you split yourself into object B and object C? It almost seems like something you’d talk to a therapist about, right? So I decided to approach this problem using YouTube self help videos as my guide. In the piece I am a wall-sized floating head that leads my visitors into a light trance and then toward a black hole at the center of the galaxy. Along the way, my spirit animal Astrolotl (an axolotl, which is an amphibian found in Mexico) creates an environment of relaxation geared toward those who experience ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or a euphoric and tingling experience in the head and back caused by various sensory stimuli). Finally we decide to fall into the black hole a bit to see what it’s like, and then have to figure out how we’re going to use the Penrose Process to escape. The piece will fill four walls and be a bit like a planetarium.
SW: Have you ever had a scary experience with a wild animal that made you more wary of interacting with them?
JO: My scariest animal interactions have been with dogs and wasps. I really love dogs, but I have been in situations where large, territorial dogs have barked at me and behaved aggressively, and it really can kind of reduce you to jelly even if you know all the rules and proper body language for responding to aggression. When I was really little, a very big hairy dog that lived in the neighborhood would sometimes bark and growl at me as I walked home on my long driveway through the woods. I remember being absolutely paralyzed by fear a few times, standing completely still and crying until I was somehow able to sneak past him. I’ve never been bitten, though. Regarding wasps, I find them very scary because they attack en masse, and I have a pretty strong response to their venom. yellowjackets are particularly scary because they’re incredibly aggressive and will follow you for a long way even as you’re running away from them. They’ll get inside your clothes and sting over and over. Their stings leave huge bruises on me, and I could imagine that being attacked by a very large nest of them–or a nest of hornets!!–could be pretty devastating.
I haven’t had any scary encounters with other wild animals. I’ve typically encountered them from a pretty comfortable distance, and I’m always careful to make noise while hiking in areas where there are bears and other large predators. Mountain lions apparently live in my neighborhood here in Eugene, OR, but I’ve never seen one. I once almost stepped on a baby rattlesnake sunning herself on a rock in upstate New York. That was scary after the fact, and I made sure to look more carefully on rock surfaces after that. I’ve had closer encounters with smaller wild animals that I’ve had to remove from my home or relocate from somewhere, but that has never gone badly.
SW: You mentioned you spent a lot of time alone – do you consider yourself a loner?
JO: I was a very shy little kid, but came into my own in middle school and high school. I enjoy people a lot, parties, and openings, but I am definitely an introvert. Socializing uses up my energy, and being alone energizes me. It’s easy for me to slip into hermit-mode, and I still feel shy and awkward here and there, but as an artist I know how important it is to connect with people and network and be visible. Social media is a lifesaver, both because I can find real life socializing a bit draining and because I live in a city that is not a major art center, so staying visible is more difficult. I use social media to stay connected to New York when I’m not there, and to show my network what I’m working on and doing. I like being funny, poking fun at myself and entertaining people, and I really enjoy using Facebook and Instagram as a medium for that sort of thing. I’m always surprised by people who complain that social media is destroying our human connectivity, because I have never felt that way. I think that virtual interactions can be very meaningful. And even better to be able to have those interactions while I’m walking through the beautiful woods or hanging out in a blackwater swamp.