Ulrike (Uli) Ostermann is a Canadian artist of great depth and insight. I find her paintings http://www.uliostermann.com/ to be intriguing and mysterious. Uli is also very knowledgeable and says many things here that I believe other artists and people in general, will find encouraging and inspiring…
“…After I have finished such an abstract painting, it is then up to the viewers how to react to it. I have moved on. If they like it, then we have connected ...”
MICHAEL: Hello Uli, Your work is very intriguing. After looking at your website, I get the sense of veiled narratives. I see storytelling in your paintings, but the narratives are loose and leave much room for individual interpretation. Am I on the right track?
ULI: Hi Michael. Yes, you are on the right track, but it is a little bit more than storytelling. Let us add “meditation” and somebody once said “poetry,” but that is feedback...a nice one, too. Think and feel the painting, let it get to you and then, if it has a title or theme, have questions and find the answers. If I can achieve that in a person then it is a compliment for me.
MICHAEL: Are you saying that you want people to have their own personal views of your work? Might their interpretations be wrong?
ULI: No, not if the painting is purely abstract like the “C series.” It’s called the C series because I only numbered the works. They are spontaneously painted, meditative and driven by impulses or ideas. After I have finished such an abstract painting, it is then up to the viewers how to react to it. I have moved on. If they like it, then we have connected.
Especially colors address feelings and that gives them therapeutic powers. I rather prefer an emotional approach to an abstract composition, in the first place, than a reductive, cognitive, “own personal view” which is conducted by the mind. Our eyes always want to recognize “something,” categorize, interpret and understand. But when you are able to be genuinely open and don't want to analyze something to death, then there is a chance that a composition can resonate with you, “gets to you” and you become still.
That's what I meant with “meditation” ... like listening to music, feeling good or touched or feeling disturbed by the color choice, but intrigued in the same time. When working with a theme, then I have painted my own personal view. Then the viewer can ask how is the subject interpreted or transformed and why this way? How does the painting affect the viewer?
MICHAEL: I understand. How would you describe your own state of being while you're painting? What's going on inside of you?
ULI: In Zen … sometimes up to 9 hours. When close to deadlines, it will be more. Paintings like “Giants,” take weeks. It is all about full concentration on the effects of brush strokes and also on the resonance between colours. You yourself become the creative process, there is no ego, only being in now. An idea in the beginning appears later as a blueprint and materializes as an art work like an architect builds a house.
We are creative beings. I feel alive and especially when people feel inspired by what I do. I am fully aware of how lucky I am. It is not about lonely working; it is about a special and deeper communication with others through painting.
Ideas appear as little, dream-like visions. They interfere unpredictably while working, even when I do groceries or the laundry. Therefore, quick sketches and written notes preserve these impulses or inspirations for later, and you will find these papers everywhere. Sometimes they are better ideas, so often you have to paint over. Sometimes you start to paint, and after days of failing you feel a sudden breakthrough when the painting seems to take over and “paints itself” and sometimes you know how the picture will look from the very beginning. Very liberating.
MICHAEL: For me, the writing process is very similar.
ULI: When I’m stuck and nothing will work, I have to stop, sometimes for days. But my mind will spin around solutions. Like a lot of artists, you often work on several paintings simultaneously, so that you can proceed with another one. It is very unsatisfying when you’re stuck - Very! I can be so detached from parts of daily life that I discover I have washed my car keys in the washing machine again, or you find pencil and ballpoint pen in the fridge or the paint brush got washed out in my coffee, not in the jar with water next to my cup. To my defense - the latter is a classic and happens a lot to others too.
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha! I totally understand.
ULI: When I paint, I am a barefooted hermit; I like to be grounded. That's the reason why you'll find footprint traces leading to the door, fridge or up on the staircase because there is always paint under my feet or woolly socks (sigh).
MICHAEL: Ha! Ha!
ULI: When it comes to being without interruption while working, I admit, I am a “Princess and the Pea” type. I am blessed with understanding people around me. Don't get me wrong, this is only an excerpt of “the state of being” while painting - there IS a social life as well.
MICHAEL: Of course. I find the way you use color intriguing. I see lots of color blocking and juxtaposing of colors with figures. It's almost like they're characters in your paintings. How do you see it?
ULI: You are the first person who has pointed that out. I haven't thought about colours as “characters,” but it seems to be right in some cases. Colour can trigger your emotions and yes, colour could work as a character when we think of it as an effect on the viewer. I think you can find it in “Taboo and Permission” or “Hope is the Thing with Feathers.”
The latter is mainly a very deep, red painting and you find a white space on the upper area of the canvas with three, white feathers in the middle. It seems to open up as if the feathers want to reach new shores.
The color RED is my minimalist way and stands for suffering. Hate, pain, abuse of all kinds, fear, death, etc - reduced to a burning red. Our eyes can land on the surface of the canvas instead of becoming restless by a busy composition. The color red belongs, together with orange, to the most alarming colors. It is one of the reasons why they are used in traffic.
We are fed with overwhelming negative news and horrible imagery from all over the world by the media and on a daily basis. I didn't want to be one more who transports these messages by inserting- for instance - war scenes into the composition. We know, and it is hard to bare helplessness. I use red as a reminder, but the focus is on the positive - on hope in this case. The positive belongs to reality as well in order to stay whole, heal and to survive, and that makes hope powerful. The color white opens up and feathers symbolize a protective mind-set of faith in new beginnings, a connection between the physical and spiritual world, if one is open for this.
MICHAEL: Yes indeed. “If one is open for this.” That seems to be one of the big issues with contemporary art. How do we get more people to be “open” to contemporary art?
ULI: In my eyes, one cannot answer your question without explaining Why people should be more open for contemporary art? You have asked a question that demands a complex answer and I’ll really try to keep it short, but it is difficult.
As I wrote earlier, we are creative beings whether we cook and decorate the top of the meal with parsley, repair a car, invent something, operate on a patient, paint, dance or land on the moon etc. Sadly to say, the atomic bomb is a human creation as well as all other kinds of weapons are, including words and manipulation.
When we communicate, we create an exchange of information and, simultaneously, we create a certain atmosphere (energy) coming with the choice and use of words. You definitely can destroy with words, can crush a young soul as a teacher or parent, for example. And you can use language to uplift, heal and support. Young people should understand and learn about creativity and empathy in school from the very beginning, in theory and practice.
ULI: The arts create culture and they are a fundamental, characteristic part of humanity. The arts can be a crazy and exotic experimenting field of thoughts and feelings, subconscious and conscious points of views contrary to the rigid business world or the mainstream of normal society. The arts create beauty and also touch our deepest feelings …
Contemporary art also mirrors the state in which a society and the world is in. Therefore, free-spirited thinking is scary for dictatorial systems (burning books and paintings, political persecution).
Contemporary art can provoke and incite critical thinking, debate, arguments, examination, and therefore is a chance to keep us awake and alive.
MICHAEL: Totally. How did you reach these conclusions?
ULI: It starts from the very beginning with early childhood - in my opinion and to answer your question - and how inspiring your home, school and social environment is for you. It is well known that our experiences influence our thinking. Is our childhood mainly about making us passive by parents using intimidating power plays that come with restrictions, obedience, violence and a traumatic feeling of powerlessness? Is it about being pre-programmed in order to become your parents' or grandparents' expectations, instead of being allowed to bring your musical side out of you or to become a passionate window cleaner?
Is it about neglect and boredom without structure, inspiring offers and guidance? Is it mainly about fun at all costs, being almost exclusively fed by dumb movies or one-sided movies in which heroes glorifying violence become role models? Is it about unquestioned consumption/entertainment and materialistic orientation as a credo of life?
Or - from very early on - is it about kindness, trust and appreciation? Is it about guidance that patiently allows free space for trial and error self-discovery and problem solving, including artistic explorations like reading, music and writing? Is it also about learning to bare failure and to deal with rejection and other frustrations without losing your self-confidence in order to learn persistence, focus and social skills? Kids who are engaged in the arts are four times more likely to be acknowledged for academic achievements and also four times more likely to attend science and math fairs than kids who are not involved in the arts (source: Americans for the Arts).
ULI: I think it is likely that the latter offers more ground for learning to become a rather self-contained or independent thinker than an uncritical passive follower convenient for manipulators.
ULI: I am talking tendencies here. Of course, you can become a wonderful, respectful, strong person because of a hard childhood and youth! Often it is hardship that pushes a person to get out of certain circumstances. Sometimes, it is also the way to open up to art. History shows. You also can remain passive and disinterested in life even when you got an inspiring upbringing.
But you asked how to get more people interested in contemporary art.
ULI: Schools should integrate contemporary art the same way they do with history and politics, nutrition, environment, health, sociology, languages and psychology, etc. It should be integrated - early on. I am not dealing with the school situation anymore as my children are grown, but I listen to parents who have children in school, I read, and sometimes hear teachers who are frustrated. At that time, when my daughters were students, you could meet parents who saw school only as a kind of daycare while they had to work, just to know their children were under control. It is a night-filling discussion because there is still a gap between wishful thinking and reality regarding school programs, and I will stop here. So, if you ask me how more people should become more open to contemporary art - it starts with inspiring role models, inspiring homes and inspiring schools. The students of today are the parents of tomorrow who then should go on to inspire their children.
MICHAEL: What is your relationship with the contemporary art world? Do you know many artists? Do you visit galleries and museums and talk with art professionals? Are you part of the art scene?
ULI: I recently came back from Calgary and, among others, spent time with artist friends again. We visited the modern galleries there, had discussions with representatives and gallery owners. And, yes, I befriend artists here along the coast and in Vancouver, and have experienced people starting to hear about my art. During the last years, many of my paintings also got accepted for gallery exhibitions conducted by the Federation of Canadian Artists in Vancouver, including the open international POTE in 2009, 2012 and 2014. You can imagine these are events where you can meet and connect.
Life at the coast is reflected in many art works by a lot of painters. Tourists and collectors love landscapes and wildlife. You'll find brilliant masters capturing light and details etc. In discussions with others, it seems to be a common opinion that abstract painting still has a long way to go. The more easygoing lifestyle here inspires my themes. I call my paintings “inner landscapes” and “inner portraits.” But I also look over the fence.
Regarding connections, I communicate with artists from the eastern part of Canada and participate in mutual exhibitions, once in a while, as I am a member of the Society of Canadian Artists. There are also lively activities regarding the BBK in Germany (Association of Professional Artists - The Plastic Arts/Germany). Right now, I am preparing for participation of the painting “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” for a planned BBK exhibition in fall.
I think since we communicated and handled the shipping together, new friendships with the organizers resulted from this team work. Hope I can be there for one of the next shows. I am very intrigued.
Whenever I can visit our daughter and son-in-law in London, it is likely that you'll find me in the London Bridge area and at the Tate Modern. Love the National Gallery and a certain cafe around the corner.
In early summer, I had an appointment and introduced five, large works to a new gallery in Vancouver. We discussed possibilities. But I haven't heard anything from them again.
When it comes to galleries, it is still difficult to get in. The one in Calgary that represented me closed permanently this month, after a year of existence. My submissions to galleries in BC are successfully ignored, except one. When we communicate in long monthly intervals, the gallerist answers to my emails and takes her time to write. I would love to be represented by her and was surprised that she seems to observe my development. So, I am respectfully working on that, but I haven't found the one gallery yet that dares to represent me.
MICHAEL: I understand Uli, but don't you think the gallery model is an old model? Isn't the Internet helping you to get your work out there? What more would you like to see? It seems like the Canadian government does a lot to help artists. No?
ULI: The government is regarded as very helpful (events, grants). I can only tell you what I learned in conversations with other artists during the last years. I don't have any experiences in this territory. There are grants artists can apply for and apparently many resources are available. There is also CARFAC for Canada’s professional artists, defending economic and legal rights and educating the public on fair dealing with artists. But you can also hear frustrated comments when it comes to supporting emerging artists or art schools. It is more the "Leading Edge" art or artists in the top tier of recognized Canadian artists that/who are seen as being privileged.
MICHAEL: Yes, that’s usually the case.
ULI: Thinking of a gallery as an older model would be an, “either or” narrow point of view. Galleries as well as media attention in any form should remain ways for exposing your works. They struggle due to high rents and the economy. And yes, 50% commission is hard to swallow for a lot of us, added to your shipping costs and other expenses.
In order to reach more people, galleries should become more accessible for everyone not only for those in the arts. Some offer already their venue for events. They should be more interactive with the public. I recently learned from a young artist and curator from Calgary. A friend of mine who also has an advertising background told me - and I share this opinion - that it is also about quality. Countless artworks are on online-galleries and often are not even curated. If gallerists want to attract more people and buyers, they have to invest in educating potential customers and seek more long-term relationships with artists. For me, this calls for a transparent and respectful communication between gallerist and artist as a must.
Based on my experiences - a proper website is essential. I use it a lot and it is very convenient when attaching it to cover letters and submissions etc. Voila, everything is there what is needed to be known, and you have saved time. You have worldwide exposure. You also can track how many people see your work.
As a buyer and art lover, you can search artists' websites from everywhere on your computer. Sometimes the “holy aura” of galleries seem to intimidate people. In this case, one can browse on the gallery website first, and if interested in a shown work, you can go on searching for additional information about the artist (website) before deciding to actually go to this gallery or contact the gallerist.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I’ve written about this.
ULI: I also share the opinion with others that we should know how we see our art. Which gallery is suitable for me - the commercial one plus your own private studio, public art galleries, for example? And you should connect with the right gallerist for you.
Other artists sell works on the net and believe that will be the general future for the art business. Instagram, for instance, helps to reach a wider audience than a gallery is able to. I have sold through my website and when I was still on the Saatchi Online Gallery some years ago, it was fine. The customers were happy. On the other hand, I also know that the photo of a painting on the internet can show a completely different colour palette than the original piece due to cameras, light conditions and type of computer monitors. Also, a possible difference between knowing the measurements of a work and seeing the actual size in reality should be expected and not underestimated - especially when the size is large.
If you want to spend money, you should see the original (if possible) in order to figure out whether it is suitable for the room and wall you have in mind, right? So, here we are back in the gallery or visiting an artist studio in order to see an original. It is up to the customer, and, in my eyes, both ways work referring to you question, gallery vs. internet.
ULI: If you want exposure as an artist you should try everything as good as you can. Besides gallery representations and participating in shows, trade shows with your own booth at good art fairs can work for you too. It is pricey and you have to calculate carefully, but there are successful artists out there doing this and no high commissions to a gallerist. Summer art fairs and other markets in communities are very popular, for instance. Artists use online galleries, write blogs, print their own art book, get into newspapers, magazines, use Youtube, Instagram, Twitter etc. Be interviewed! That’s what we’re doing right now!
MICHAEL: You are very wise.
ULI: Currently I am also working on two written and illustrated children's books for a change, to be finished in late fall. I also hope to have my studio/gallery built until spring in order to participate in the regular open studio art tours here on Vancouver Island. It is announced in newspapers and you'll find brochures almost everywhere. People like to visit studios and potteries. My idea is also to offer the place for evenings with writers, once in a while; introducing their new books and discussing burning themes of our time. We'll see how that will go. I think you have to be persistent, and there will be always struggle, but it challenges you.
MICHAEL: So Uli, given everything we've chatted about and all of the struggle involved with art and the fact that most people won't ever buy art, what's the point of contemporary art? Why should people care? Should everyone care about contemporary art?
ULI: Why should people care? We have to go back to an earlier question of yours, Michael. You asked, How do we get more people to be "open" to contemporary art?
Among others, I mentioned that contemporary art can mirror the state in which a society and the world are in. With this I meant that by reflecting on the “Zeitgeist” - which also includes positive aspects - and by criticizing and churning up serious deficiencies, contemporary art, like history, psychology, politics and/or philosophy, can teach us how to see. It can also sensitize awareness to what is around us and can stimulate independent thinking. Question remains, does a political system want mature, critical and responsible thinkers and voters? This is very important and also not new, I think.
Contemporary art is only one more aspect or facet of social life like politics, sports, economics, science, religions etc. We are all different with different interests.
By the way, you never defined contemporary art in this interview, and how YOU see contemporary art? There are different approaches when it comes to the question what contemporary art is regarding of time frames. What was considered contemporary in the 20s of the last century is certainly not contemporary today. "Contemporary" here implies an ongoing process in art history. Commercial galleries may define art starting with the year 2000 as “contemporary.”
Many avoid problems by using the term “Modern and Contemporary Art.” I wouldn't be astonished if there are critics and artists out there who are not interested in defining contemporary art, at all. But this all is a night-filling discussion.
MICHAEL: And what about all of the struggle involved as an artist when you know that not a lot of people will buy art?
ULI: I understand what you mean. If you are only exclusively oriented in selling as an artist, then it often will show in your work (not always). Sometimes it is then mass-production and superficially painted for tourists, for instance. Quality can suffer.
The gallerist is oriented in selling and often the interests between artist and gallerist can collide. It is the irresistible urge of wanting to create with your heart and soul, and suffering when you are blocked. Boy-O-Boy, do I hate painter's block. It is a certain human drive, a life force - creating, whether you sell or not. A lot of painters have several jobs, while working in the studio at night.
Real artists are born with this lifelong perseverance. I am born with it. It is part of your individual identity...like your fingerprint. It is not learning only a trade or working in jobs which one can change and later retire from. I am not saying that artists’ work is better. That would be complete nonsense, but I am saying that artists’ work is different.
I don't have to have a vacation from painting, for example, nor will I retire from it later, not voluntarily. You never ever will manage to get a pianist to chop wood ....that's what I mean - lifelong focus and love for what you are doing. You send the result out for others to receive (images, words, acting, music, dance etc.), and that's your special way to communicate with the social world. And, from very early on, school programs and education should offer access to the arts.
ULI: For me, working creatively is actually living in the Now, like searching and catching the right wave, if you are a surfer. It took me years to discover this because being married, for example, or a mother and keeping the family together are parts of one's identity, as well. They are your social roles you have accepted. And while these roles will change with getting older, being an artist is like “staying in character” your whole life.
MICHAEL: It certainly is. Uli, this has been quite an enlightening discussion. My very best to you.
Check out Uli Ostermann at http://www.uliostermann.com/.