D: To start, please briefly introduce yourself to our audience.
O: I go by orr. I’m an interdisciplinary artist who is currently investigating installation artwork that incorporates my interest in illustration, hand drawn animation, painting, sound and performance. While I work with a lot of different mediums, my heart has always held a bias for pen and ink – preferably ballpoint pen. Once the mark is made, there’s no going back, and I enjoy taking that little bit of risk. I’ve been practicing art throughout my life, but I didn’t begin disciplining my work until about eight years ago. I’m about to graduate with my Master’s in Fine Art, but that whole piece of my journey didn’t really begin until 2018…
D: What other artistic mediums have you played around with so far? Any secondary favorites among them aside from the good old pen and ink, or perhaps any you’d like to revisit someday?
O: I began as a digital painter before I moved onto oils in traditional media. Since then, I’ve preferred any mix of oil or gouache for painting. I rarely do digital work now, but I do get nostalgia for it.
D: Sounds like you’ve had a taste of both the digital and analog world in that case. Is there any particular medium you’re still aching to try out someday?
O: I wish I had the hands for sculpture. The desire comes in waves, and I do take on little projects for prop-making or costume design time and time again, but it’s a whole mental battle to allow my hands to craft in such a way. I’d do anything to muster the patience for more three-dimensional works.
D: Regarding your artwork, one recurrent motif in your work is the image of the pierrot/clown/jester. What draws you to this particular figure?
O: It narrows down to identity and masking. Mystifying persona. I was attracted to clowns when I was a child, because my mom had hidden these little clown figures I rarely got to see or touch from the chest they were kept in the back of my own closet; the curiosity continued to develop from there. I’d research carnival and indulged in a lot of art depicting different clowns and the circus. I’d eventually come to design a pierrot pretending to be a traditional, red-nosed clown and paint or illustrate different scenarios for them. From there this pattern ensued of writing and designing clowns masking different aspects of their personality or even twisting the presentation of their own emotions in order to fit their idealized roles. There’s a philosophy behind clowning, and I believe the ideology can be taken in a multitude of different ways depending on the individual engaged with them. For me, I guess it fits naturally with my work, because I like to develop narratives for the characters I design. Clowns are highly emotive beginning with the design itself. The rest follows from there… However, more than anything, they’re just simply fun to draw.
D: It’s weird how so many people I know seem to have grown up in a clown home. I remember also having a whole bunch of clown figures all over the house growing up.
Aside from the pierrot/clown imagery, another element I’ve noticed forming a recurring motif in some of your work is fish. What does the image of the fish mean to you?
O: I’m actually excited you’d ask, haha. I haven’t really been asked about this fascination before but forgive me for the strange associations I’m about to describe… It all begins with their eyes. I think the obsession is pretty common, really- eye shape, eye color, and the like. My own obsession with eyes returns to the body post mortem and the unique expression they take after death. Aimless yet direct. I’ve experienced several passings within the household as well as outside amongst friends or distant family, but one that stood out was my father’s. He was in a coma on a respirator, and despite retaining roughly 20% of his consciousness, his eyes remained wide open. They never blinked. We kept his body alive for well over a week, and he didn’t blink once. Those eyes reminded me of fish eyes. For several years, I had held onto this fish bag that he had given me prior, and I carried it wherever I went until it finally broke on me earlier last year. The direct association of watching those still eyes with this bag I’d carry with the previous fascination of the eyes of autopsies and bodies I studied when I was younger narrowed in on this symbol that I created for myself of the fish just after we took him off the ventilator. They stand for something between living and dead for me. Like angels of the water. I want to say that my bag was the first thing I saw after he passed, but it was tucked out of my sight in a bed I had made for myself beside him- it’d be pretty romantic if that was the case though. All-in-all, this symbol I’m suggesting doesn’t really need to be known… I’m not sure if it matters, but it matters to me. A coping tool, I think. I even have a character that goes by the name “Fische” that I physically embody. I’ve several symbols I repeat much like them for similar reasons.
Also, fish are very pretty. My friends now gift me with all sorts of fish-like trinkets, and I fell in love with the actual creature as a result. I’m wearing this fish necklace and some fish earrings as we speak, haha!
D: Definitely didn’t expect the fish motif to have such a close and personal connection to you! Thank you for sharing. I think it’s absolutely a positive thing for artists to have certain symbols and motifs that might perhaps be meaningful only to themselves. As you mention that you have several of these private recurring symbols, I have to ask – do you consciously set out to incorporate these into your work right from the start, or are they elements that just tend to sneak up on you as the pieces develop? In general, what’s the process from original seed of idea to finished work like for you?
O: It’s not conscious at first, no. I start making the connections when I recognize that I’m driven to repeat a specific image… The fish being one of them. A lot of my imagery comes from the subconscious. I don’t reason with it; I just do and try to unravel what motivated the imagery later. I find that I struggle executing an idea the more structured the concept is designed, so it’s best for me to keep things as loose as possible. Most of my work looks very much altered from the original intent, but I feel a lot of visual artists experience something similar. Like a game of telephone from the mind to the hand. It’s frustrating up until the moment you decide to let go of the exact imagery you began with.
D: Letting go of that original imagery you start out with can be quite a challenge. It’s at least something I find myself struggling with rather frequently, especially when making analog collages. Certain concepts seem to insist upon themselves more aggressively than others. What are the most challenging aspects of the artistic process for you?
O: I think it’s letting go of any idealized concepts that distract from your original intent. There are areas where I’m weak in technique and bad habits I wish I’d dissolve by now, and I sometimes forget the joy is in the creation and honing in where you discover potential strengths rather than focusing on what may be expected of you and forcing yourself to fit into a category that doesn’t feel natural. I over-render, for example, so I’m trying to be looser with my mark making, because it’s liberating and more expressive for me. I do a lot of formal, figural work, so I’m trying to return to my roots where I drew more cartoons and made up my own anatomy. I want to have fun with my art and do things I want. Not what I think others want to see. The imagery that comes from that may bounce around, but at least I’m bringing forward what I’m interested in at the moment.
This sounds like a mess of things, so I hope it all makes sense? I’m not trying to say that all artists must work in a specific way to be authentic either. Everyone has their own, unique methods to execute what best interests them. The confidence is in the stroke.
D: Being able to just freely indulge in your own subconscious whims and create without taking into consideration what others might want to see is HARD. That’s another skill I haven’t mastered quite yet. But enough with the negativity for now, let’s look at some positives as well: Would you care to share some of the proudest artistic achievements of your career so far with us?
O: Some achievements I didn’t even realize they were worth being proud of until much later in life… I’ve been exhibiting in galleries since high school and was even recognized by the mayor of our town when I was a sophomore, I believe. I was amongst a small group of artists that made it to the state level in a competition called VASE- it was a first for our city. I want to be proud of that moment. It’s a very complicated memory, since I often went to such events without family or friends present. But, otherwise, I think it’s really cool that some of the closest friends I do have I bonded with through art. Whether online or in person, that was our love language. I have a massive pile of artwork I collected from one dear friend back in Texas, since we traded drawings nonstop over the years. I connected to art friends out of state as I began traveling as an adult- friends abroad even! From the Netherlands to Germany. I just met with a sound artist, illustrator, and model while I was in Berlin, and we hadn’t seen each other in person in the seven years we’ve known each other. And those I haven’t met yet, I’m determined to meet. If I wasn’t posting consistently online for as long as I was growing up, none of those relationships would be possible. I consider that a major achievement through all this art making… I’ve presented in galleries large and small, screened at film festivals, but nothing beats getting that opportunity to hand an original drawing to a dear friend and artist you look up to in person. Even better if you can collaborate with them!
Getting into university too, I think. I’m fortunate to have earned the scholarships that I did and am thankful that the committee of my school had enough faith in me to have me on again as a grad student with the Dean’s award… Sometimes I fear I’d disappoint them with the way my art has completely shifted from my initial portfolio as a hand-drawn animator, haha. But, again, it took a dear friend and sort of father figure to even get me to apply as an undergrad in the first place. Mentally and emotionally, I was resistant to moving forward. The fact I trusted him enough to submit to something bigger than community college is an achievement on its own, maybe.
D: For sure, finding the strength to cross that threshold definitely counts as an achievement as well in my book! Lots of things to be proud of, it sounds like. Having the opportunity to finally meet someone in the flesh after such a long time does sound like it must’ve been wonderful. I’m still hoping that someday I’ll be able to meet some more of our Semioculus regulars in the flesh as well.
We’ve already looked into some of the recurring motifs and symbolism in your work, and we’ve spoken a bit about your own artistic background as well. Another thing I’m curious about is your influences. Would you be willing to share some of the artists and/or things that have influenced you & your work?
O: Absolutely! There are a lot of different artists and research topics that have influenced me visually… I was mostly inspired to begin art through the concept artwork of Yoshitaka Amano for the Final Fantasy series beginning with X/X-2. I was the type of kid that spent all day outdoors then up all night playing video games with my younger brothers. Otherwise, I was inspired by Edgar Degas to begin oil painting after my first visit to an art museum when I was roughly 13-14. It was around then I was visually studying the aesthetics of Greek and German architecture- mostly cathedrals or columns. I often think of “acanthus leaves” when I’m doing my detail work. As far as animation goes… I’m a hopeless Simpsons fan, so I always give Matt Groening some credit, haha. David Firth also had a big impact on me as a kid. Dog of Man is a film I still recommend and one of which I continue to find grimly beautiful. The first anime I ever watched was Spirited Away, and the sequence of No Face dining in the bath house is something I think about very often when moving my own creatures. I’m also a Satoshi Kon fan. Narratively and visually stunning work in his small collection….
Then, I suppose like most any other curious kid, I was studying autopsies and post mortem photography as young as I could remember… I had my nose in my Dad’s, old medical books – especially ones that listed oddities – even though my folks did their best to keep me away. They considered such things indecent for a kid… Which is fair. Seeing someone’s entrails pulled out during surgery or a heart growing outside of someone’s chest due to Ectopia cordis may be a bit much for someone at the age of nine, but there’s a beauty I find quite fascinating about it. The internal made external. I mostly did that research to try and figure answers to some deaths that had already occurred in my life by then, but I still hold onto the sterile, pastel colours often found in medical illustrations or sepias in post mortem portraits. It’s why I used to use lots of pinks, whites, and blue palettes in my digital and traditional paintings or sepia inks for penned works. I think of those figures as breathing cadavers.
D: The imagery of disease, decay, death has clearly been very influential on the overall style and aesthetic of your work. It’s an aesthetic people tend to either immediately find themselves drawn to, or find themselves repulsed by – there’s usually not much of a grey area.
What do you personally think about the role of the dark and macabre as subject matter in art?
O: That’s a broad question… I can really only speak for myself on that one. There’s a sort of catharsis with releasing these darker subjects into the world. Whether it’s expressing repressed desires, engaging with some level of humor, or simply to highlight the beauty in something that most others would view as grotesque, all-in-all it’s simply an expression that is asking for some kind of recognition. Some just happen to lean towards what others consider “dark” because they’re often involving subjects we tend to keep in the dark. I don’t really like to consider myself as a dark artist… but I understand why my work fits under that category. I just find the human body gorgeous and am deeply curious about revealing what is otherwise concealed from our everyday.
D: There’s definitely something alluring about exploring those more obscure recesses of mind & body.
Now, I’m going to kinda jump to a completely different topic with this next one, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about since you first brought it up: Animation! There are several animated clips on your official website, including your short film m:lk. Would you like tell us a bit more about the short? What was your experience of working on the project like? And of course, most importantly, can we expect any more of these animated shorts in the future?
O: Of course ! It’s been a long time since I’ve last created a film, and m:lk was the last of the few I developed. The story was something I was developing for years, but it was mostly stuck in the designs and character writing up until just before the lockdown in 2019. I began animating the film using automatic processes and managed to pump out a third of the film within two weeks before getting stuck… That’s when I began storyboarding, mixing sound, and asking for peer reviews to help direct the flow. I came to learn that I was trying to develop a story reflecting on my time being institutionalized. I’ve spent a couple years in-and-out of inpatient treatment, and 2018 was the last I was away following my longest stay in psychiatric and medical care. It’s strange, because the wards I was in, I was always surrounded by staff and other patients, but I felt a deep loneliness since I was needing family when my family was unable to find the time to see me whether for family therapy or visitation. Our bathrooms were where I found complete isolation, and where I was comfortable enough to allow myself to unravel in privacy. White walls with no mirror, compact- it’s surreal. But comforting. I came to deeper realizations in my personal bathroom than in any therapy session I was in. It parallels very similarly to my lockdown experience. I was entirely by myself, living alone, and rarely saw another person despite being in the center of downtown Chicago- not even from my window, since I was facing brick walls. Animating during that period helped me process a lot of my traumas, especially with a narrative like this one… The story is mostly about finding peace with your innermost struggles, but also recognizing a danger when you develop an attachment with your illness, especially while alone. It’s complicated, and I can talk a lot on just that, but this is the core of the idea. I think I was trying to figure a grace with my mental disorders while differentiating myself from them and also hoping for personal growth and belonging as I continued to develop well outside the ward.
I do have a new film I’m slowly putting together… I’ve been creating these vignettes for these installations I do in the meanwhile, but I have a new character that I’ve been processing over the past two years. I’ve drawn, written, and performed as them, and now I have a little storyboard I created automatically like the one before. Hopefully I can get that together within the next few years, haha. I’m excited to share this one. The last was very flawed given limited resources, but I think I’ve learned since then…
D: Sounds like it was a deeply personal experience for you to work on the project in that case.. I’m glad to hear that the process seems to have had a somewhat therapeutical effect. Limited resources or not, the end result was still good if you ask me! Absolutely looking forward to seeing what the next one will be like.
Next up is a question I pretty much end up asking everyone somewhere down the line: What’s the local art scene like over on your end? Are you involved in it? Do you have any favorite haunts you’d recommend to our followers?
O: I think we’re all trying to navigate something personal one way or another. But thank you… I just have to get started.
The art scene in Chicago is very rich, honestly. Galleries are scattered all over and each have their own flare- some are more underground while others are more commercialized. There are plenty of museums that feature work for just about every genre or era you can think of… Contemporary, Modern, Baroque, Science, Medical, Sex work, and on. The further you are from the city, the better. I’m more familiar with the performance arts scene at the moment, so right off the bat I’d recommend a visit to No Nation or TriTrangle for contemporary performance and live music. They sometimes host illustration shows, and I’ve done a few installations with friends and colleagues there. Hyde Park Arts Center also hosts a lot of local artists across mediums and the Leather Archives Museum is fascinating. The Edelman Gallery once hosted a show for Joel Peter-Witkin that featured an installation from his last photoshoot… I think that was back in 2019, but they still have some very interesting exhibitions and artist talks in that small space. Then The Martin Chicago is a wonderful, inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ artists across the board. I wish I knew of more venues that feature the dark arts… I’ve admittedly had a hard time finding those spaces, but I know they aren’t unknown. I’m still learning about the arts in the city.
D: Thanks for the recommendations! Sounds like there’s quite a lively scene out there indeed! I always dig those venues focusing on a very specific niche. Pity about the lack of easily findable spots connected to the dark scene, but I guess a predilection for lurking in the shadows is of course very on-brand..
I’d like to thank you very much for taking the time to share some of your thoughts and experiences with us! One last thing before we wrap things up: Got any exciting projects coming up in the near future you’d like to tell our readers about? Anyone you’d like to give a special shout out to? Now’s your chance!
O: And thank you for making the time! It’s a privilege, honestly; and I’m just happy to talk with like-minded folks in the arts. I’m working on a couple of new things at the moment, but my focus has been pretty set on this installation I’ll be presenting as my thesis here in May. It’ll involve some life-sized double-sided paintings, animated projections, and some sound design, so it’s a mess of things I’ve got my hands tied in. The film component to the piece is in progress, so I’ve been animating very slowly. I’ve got a few performances coming up, but I’m most excited for an experimental theater production a group of artists from my school are organizing. It’ll basically be a ballroom full of projection, lights, and experimental performances mingling with one another as well as with audience members who attend the space. We’re set to get that going in April!
There’s a lot of people I want to shout out, but I always fear that I’ll be missing a name if I do, so I suppose… I shout out to anyone who was interested enough to read through this interview- let alone finish it. Moreover, shout out to Semioculus for being a tremendous support for dark artists at an international scale- especially through social media and tackling the constraints that come with it. I hold high respect for groups like y’all. I know you work hard yourself to make these things happen for us, so one more thanks and appreciation to you too for reaching out to any one of us. It’s been a true pleasure!