If I see a beautiful location in nature, I want to respond to it with a site-specific artwork. There is always opposition, but you know, when they say “you can’t” – you have to.
Olivia Steele is an artist widely known for her work using neon light to form words and phrases in public spaces and natural surroundings. Currently based between Tulum, Mexico and Berlin, Olivia has dedicated herself to a life of creative expression and her work has the striking characteristic of being intimate and emotionally charged and at the same time, challenging and subversive. We were curious to find out more about Olivia and her work and just what drives her seemingly unstoppable creative spirit.
Hi Olivia, we’re really excited to hear your Urban Tale…
As we speak you are in Mexico! How are you and what are you up to?
Indeed, I spend half the year living and working in Mexico. I’m based in Tulum, which is a welcome respite from the chaos that is currently unfolding in Europe and the rest of the world. It’s an inspiring place to work: I’m currently plotting several outdoor installations and photographic works. While I’m here, I also take the time to focus on my jewelry, clothing and merchandising line.
Where are you from originally and what was it like growing up there?
I was born in Tennessee and grew up between Nashville and Lucignano, a small town in Tuscany, Italy. Small town life has its perks and I was always surrounded by nature and animals, as I lived in a nature sanctuary for owls outside Nashville. However, I was pretty secluded from many things; we had no neighbors, and friends were a thirty-minute drive away. I grew up with horses, riding everyday and competing on the weekends. But as an adolescent, I needed more stimulation and adventure, so I ended up getting into trouble and doing things to appease my boredom. You know, rebelling against my parent’s expectations…
Where are you currently based/living and what brought you here?
I’m currently based in between Tulum and Berlin. My relationship with my ex-boyfriend 10 years ago brought me to Berlin. I visited Tulum for the first time five years ago, right after my father’s death. Tulum was the perfect place to take a sabbatical and heal, and then I ended up moving here. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to get away from it all. When I’m not in Tulum or Berlin I’m on tour, traveling for installations and projects.
Can you recall a particular moment or experience that inspired your artistic practice as it is today?
I was definitely born an artist. My mother was a country music singer and interior designer with a very trained eye, which I think I developed from her. She was extremely creative and a natural with design, whether it was making costumes or transforming mundane objects. Lighting was always an important feature in our family homes, and I definitely adopted my mother’s obsession with lighting, which probably influenced how and why I chose to work with it. My father was an intellectual/philosopher of sorts. He would have wise quotes or truisms for just about anything. Growing up around his words of wisdom definitely had a big impact on me and my understanding of how things work in the spiritual dimension, so this was where my influence of working with words came from.
What is it that draws you to neon light art?
Light is so influential and words are so powerful. Forming words in neon glass is not the same as just writing them, its like writing in stone. Bending and gassing glass requires a lot of skill, time and energy. It’s also the tension between permanence and delicacy: the glass is so fragile and can shatter in an instant, yet it is something that can also last forever. It’s a medium which requires a lot of conviction because once an artwork goes into production, it’s permanent.
In your work there seems to be a strong reference to pop culture, but some of the underlying themes are deeply sentimental and emotionally charged. Can you tell us more about this aspect of the work?
Yes, all of my art comes from my heart. I think this quote by Yayoi Kusama, best sums up my approach: “Every time that I have had a problem, I have confronted it with the ax of Art”. A majority of the messages and truisms come from my personal conversations and some rather tragic experiences. My art is a reflection of what I have learned and what I wish I knew. My movie, ‘Nothing Is It What It Seems’, is a very sentimental and emotionally charged manifestation of this. It reflects on the gravity of family ties, and every neon message in the movie was an attempt to communicate with my mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship.
Can you tell us about the PDA project you’ve been working on? Where has this taken you and what’s next?
My Public Displays Of Awareness (PDA) series is something I started a couple of years ago in Tulum. It consists of guerilla style Urban interventions in which I co-opt existing road signs, such as the typical diamond shaped aluminum ones. Each one has a different jarring and unexpected call for consciousness, such as: “stay present”, “know thyself”, “control yourself”, “pace yourself”, and “follow that dream”.
Working with neon isn’t always possible, especially in places where electricity is not ubiquitous. This was a way to talk to the world, to spread unexpected beauty in an unexpected way and to grab people’s attention. So far, it has taken me to Tulum, Miami, Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and Ibiza. My aim is to install at least one PDA everywhere I go, including the next location, on Tulum’s highways.
When working on site specific works, how do you select your locations and do you ever come up against opposition when creating the more challenging pieces?
It’s a synergy: I look for them or they look for me. It’s about seeing an opportunity and making it happen. If I see a beautiful location in nature, I want to respond to it with a site-specific artwork. There is always opposition, but you know, when they say “you can’t” – you have to.
You’ve traveled a lot for your work. What’s been the most memorable experience / place that you’ve been to far?
I have to say that working at Burning Man has been one of – if not the – most challenging experience to date, but with the steepest learning curve.
I executed multiple installations in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, which is kind of wild. I learned a lot about ambitious planning and organization; they were crucial lessons that have informed my development as a large-scale public artist. All in all, it was certainly the most memorable and I still receive a lot of heartfelt messages from strangers who saw my installations from two years ago. It’s a nice way to continue activating the memories.
What does the future hold? Are there any exciting projects in the pipeline or things that you have your sights set on?
I’ve been invited to design a stage and installation for Africa Burn with a view to transport it to a School in the township of South Africa. It’s for a charity called “Bridges for Music” which is building a School in the Township where children can learn how to produce and play music and follow their dreams. For 2017, I plan to return to Burning man, Art Basel Miami, Garbicz festival in Poland and Zona Maco in Mexico, among others.
UT’s final five…
Outside of the cities I live, definitely Istanbul
Insiders tip for Istanbul?
There are many shops and traders in the back streets of the Grand Bazaar with amazing materials and treasures that I use in my work. So inspiring. I’m in creative heaven when I go there.
What won’t you travel without?
How do you unwind?
I believe dancing is Medicine. Mezcal is also medicine, and really takes the edge off. I go into nature or hold sound healings in my studio in Berlin and take hallucinogens.
“Contrast is the greatest teacher” – a quote from my first Business Coach, Kieran Looney.
Photography: Markus Georg http://www.markusgeorg.com