Shining A Light On Olivia Steele

Olivia Steele is an insightful and acute artist. She welcomed us into a room filled with colors, spray, some of her artworks, her multiple collection of trinkets, comfortable green arm chairs and a heat-wave proof fan. Her works of art are concise and can be grasped within seconds but nevertheless they linger on and deserve a more thoughtful interpretation process. 

Her pieces consist in a statement handwritten in neon lights placed over a photo or a setting, either artificial or natural .

The Steele atelier: a place to worship artistic creation. Photo: Chris Phillips

BAPs: At first, I sensed that your work was maybe expressing hopelessness but then I thought the contrary, that it’s actually hopeful. I started looking at your videos and one of the things that struck me the most is that you chose lights because it makes you happy. How underrated do you think happiness is in art?

Olivia Steele: It’s not really celebrated and it’s not really represented except for maybe pop art, but most art comes from a place of suffering and is a vehicle to process the pain and the frustration and illness or whatever. I make my art from a place of discovery, from enlightenment, from the search of meaning for things and processing a certain situation and making something positive out of it, or just try to understand myself. It has a more philosophical angle to it and to celebrate every tragedy because every tragedy is an opportunity. All of these things set you up for being better, if you chose to accept it. It’s a process and I always say trust the process.

BAPs:  You talk a bit about spirituality; do you believe in some sort of God?

OS: I was born to a very Christian family, I was very active in the youth group. But then, when I was in boarding school, I took a Conspiracy Theory class and that marked the end of my Christian faith. The Catholic church is in business since so many years because they are selling hope and they’re able to sell hope.  You’ve got to control your population somehow and religion is a great way to do that. Human beings need to be controlled, if not you are gonna have mayhem; anarchy. There is a reason for it, but it’s a myth.

I believe in God as an entity; as someone or something bigger and greater than me with a plan and I believe in nature. Nature is a God to me. Karma is a bit of a religion to me, what you put in is what you get out and it’s a cycle and everything is connected. A religion is also a lifestyle, how you choose to live your life and values. But no, I don’t worship a God with a name; it’s more of an entity and a spirit.

Olivia Steele collects crosses and chains. Photo: Chris Phillips.

BAPs: I believe your work is somehow lyrical, what is your relationship with Literature or what do you enjoy reading?

OS: I don’t read a lot, I never did, I’m a visual person and I love words.  Words are very powerful but in very concise and short contexts, especially when you put them in context with something else. I’m a text-based artist, I use one sentence that can mean everything and I find strength in words. They are my vehicle. I was really influenced by Rumy, I can say that reading that in school changed me a lot. I still go back to some of those poems to make sense; to find solutions to certain situations. 

BAPs: I also noticed the theme of love; how inspiring do you think a broken heart can be?

OSTotally. People cross your path and come in and out of your life for a reason; to teach you something every time and that’s why falling in love or meeting people or having experiences with people is so content-rich. Love is a very polarizing experience: every time you love you love differently and I’m always taken back by how differently I am capable of loving. 

One of Steele's love-related pieces surrounded by tools of creation. Photo: Chris Phillips

BAPs: When I read in your manifesto that “contrast is the great teacher,” I also thought about this quote by Virginia Woolf [sic] “Love involves a peculiar unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding” and I related that to your work. Opposites that somehow come together and you make them come together, let’s say, visually. 

OSYes, it’s the contrast: the juxtaposition, the irony and the contradiction. I am naturally connected to these themes.

Olivia Steele's sign: two merging crosses. Photo: Chris Phillips

BAPs: Could you tell me a bit about the two crosses with the “Born to die” statement. 

OS: In essence, the inevitable is that we are mortal. It’s a contrast, but it’s realizing that we have a time in life to have a journey – but the end result is that we are going to die.

BAPs: You chose two crosses instead of one, is that related to love? What is so appealing about them?

OS: It’s my sign; my brand. Honestly, I was raised with crosses, it’s a part of culture and I don’t know why I like the cross so much but I’m drawn to it and what happens when you put two crosses together. That completely  fucks up the meaning and it becomes something else. It’s hard to talk about my work because everything is so open to interpretation and every one has their reading based on their history. Why I made it and how it came from my head and into the physical is almost irrelevant. It’s put out there for people to consume, for people to interpret into experience. It’s a moment of experience.

BAPs: Right, I was just thinking that they are two lines going opposite ways and at some point they meet. It’s like understanding and misunderstanding and then boom, love. 

OS: I never thought about that, that is a great interpretation of it – that’s so true. 

Steele explaining the connotation and denotation of one of her pieces. Photo: Chris Phillips

Where she is most happy at: her house – "That’s my own world, I live in a world of fantasy; it’s where I’m safe and where I create what’s magic to me. But when I go out, I love Berghain. It’s like going to church. It’s the same feeling that what I suppose people that go to church have."

BAPs: When I was looking at one of your videos when you explained contrast between the image and the words and that there is always something that slides, that doesn’t fit, that is actually the origin of comedy. What makes you laugh?

OSI love comedy; I hate war, killing movies, guns. Comedy, comedy, comedy. I love Eddie Murphy and Jamie Fox. I saw Django Unchained the other day, I loved it. It’s genius. What makes me happy? Simple things make me happy: I love to laugh, I love it when somebody makes me laugh. My assistant makes me laugh a lot and that’s such a gift. I like to dance, that makes me happy.

When I came home, I wanted to check that Virginia Woolf quote I mentioned to her – it was actually by Diane Arbus. However, I found one by Virginia that suits Olivia Steele perfectly: "The compensation of growing old … was simply this; that the passion remains as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavor to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light."

Article by Sofía Martinelli