91 Olga Krimon
Olga Krimon is a brilliant artist whose work defies labels, as she delves into different styles and approaches in her exploration of beauty and mood. She has won a host of awards from the Portrait Society of America, as well as the Artists' Renewal Center and various art magazines, which have featured her numerous times. Her artist statement gives a great definition of art as visual poetry, and bears repeating here - it's the simplest way to understand her work:
"I take reality. I absorb it through the mill of my experiences and schooling. And then I produce a new carefully designed reality that evokes feelings and memories. This reality takes abstraction of strokes, edges, values, and color relationships, and morphs them into a world that I imagined, that affects a viewer on a level deeper than words."
'Self-Portrait with Peonies'
Olga Krimon grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, where she developed her love of art. This led her to secondary school in Kazan Art School No. 2 in Russia, where she learned a traditional academic approach to art, based on Russian masters like Repin, Serov, Fechin, et al. She then moved to the US, to Davidson College in North Carolina, where she got her BA in art history. This set her for the career she'd been planning - working at Sotheby's in NYC, the world-famous auction house.
A few years later, after the magic wore off, Olga found herself looking for something new and needing money. So, like Yuko Shimizu, she joined the corporate world, with a regular job, and even earned an MBA. She was successful, and yet unhappy. As she puts it in this interview (Skarno Magazine):
". . . But through that I kept painting, drawing, learning. I knew I had to, I couldn’t be without it, but I couldn’t imagine having it as a career. The lucky few, I thought, who did it professionally, had to be the luckiest people alive. And one day I realized that if I don’t, I would literally not function. I had to. That hit me. And I realized that I was coming to this through all those years. I finally got to the point where I needed it so much, and I had so much in my head that had to get out on canvas, that everything else had to become second to this desire. And there was no going back. I am glad it happened this way. I was able to experience other paths, get on my feet, and became an artist because of the calling. The more you experience, the more you have to say in your art. And the more I cherish every day of being an artist. It really is a dream come true."
In this article by Karen Parr-Moody (Nashville Arts, 2018), Olga says, "“When I quit my job, my whole organization and my boss thought I was crazy, and maybe I am. But I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. When it’s not you, it’s not you. You have to do what you have to do. It’s funny how things worked out.”
Russian masters were a big influence on Olga's painting process and her way of seeing. She explains in the same Skarno interview,
"Their paintings were mostly value based, look at Repin as an example. But Serov took it even further, introducing much more vibrancy and thick juicy brushstrokes. Even Levitan’s landscapes to me are value-based first, although the color harmony there is magnificent. They made figures and faces palpable, so real. And it was not by meticulously rendering them. Rather, by simplifying them. Compositionally, their works are also exceptional. They arranged the values in such a way that the light traveled in a specific pattern. Once you see those patterns, you realize how simple this actually becomes. They best things are so simple, not overworked. That’s what I am trying to master. Massing the lights, having a very clear idea of the movement within the composition. One of the paintings that influenced me greatly is Repin’s Ivan The Terrible, where Ivan is holding his dying son (who he just murdered. A horrific story, I know).
'Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16th Nov, 1581' by Ilya Repin, 1883-5
"Look at how perfect that composition is. And that red – red of the blood, red of that carpet – that red is spectacular, and yet it’s rarely pure red. And once you see it up close, you realize how brilliant the strokes are, how he used textures to create this reality. It’s a striking piece of art. . . .And then there was Fechin, who broke the color into so many lines, strokes, touches, it’s almost as if he attacked his canvases with such force that it now projects back and we feel that pulsing energy. "
'The Artist's Wife & Daughter' by Nicolai Fechin, 1922
Olga Krimon also simplifies reality, through her mill of experiences, delving into different levels of abstraction, which she describes thus (Skarno)
". . . the question of realism and abstraction is an interesting one. The best realist art is just that, abstract. Take any of the Russian artists I named above. Or take Sargent or Zorn. You step back, and the paintings give an illusion of a living and breathing person in it. Come close, and it’s the abstraction of strokes, lines, knife applications, variety of edges, and so on. Those are purely abstract elements. Look at Sargent’s girl on the foreground of Boit daughters (if you can see it in person) –
'The Daughters of Edward Boit' by John Singer Sargent, 1882
"if you look at it closely it’s a pure abstraction, the paint is incredibly thick.
"How is that not an abstraction? That’s the highest level of abstraction – when it’s this way up close, and it actually forms reality when you step away. So if I think in these terms then these two extremes we are talking about meet . . ."
In that interview for Skarno, Olga gives a word of warning for students considering the life of an artist (it reminds me of the joke, "Art school is the most expensive training you'll ever find to wait tables.")
"I would say enter this field only because you can’t possibly be whole if you don’t. It’s a very hard road, it’s harder in many ways than many others. Don’t take this road because you don’t think you will succeed at something else, you may be too young to know that. Have something to fall back on. Have education and experience that would then give you courage, and hopefully a financial base, to pursue art. I know, it sounds discouraging, but it’s not. And also – have something to say. It’s only because you have a lot to say that you want to become an artist. If you have that drive, and that will to pursue, and ideas that are competing for attention in your head – then dive in, because your life will not be complete if you don’t."
Olga was kind enough to answer some of my questions about her life and work. Here's the interview:
1. I’m a curious about the goals of your artworks, because you said in one interview you have a lot to say in your work – and one might assume this refers to a verbal message, be it feminist, familial, political, etc – that’s what we typically expect. But, when describing the process, you describe the fundamental idea as a mass of colors, light and shadow, curving and diagonal lines, and then finding a suitable model after. This reminds me more of Whistler’s Arts & Craft approach to art making, that the composition itself is the idea, and doesn’t need any meaning beyond that, like when he painted his mother’s portrait and titled it ‘Arrangement in Grey & Black No. 1’. So, I’m curious to what extent these people in your work are characters telling a story, and to what extent they’re abstract shapes and colors? Because each face you paint has a presence and personality to it, it’s not just a doll posing (neither is Whistler's mother).
"That’s a great question, and the one I keep coming to daily. I believe that the idea of a piece is to create a certain mood, to express a certain feeling. Through composing, through certain imagery, through the value and color arrangements. In that I am certainly a follower of Whistler. Yet I find these elements everywhere in my favorite works of art, even though those artists didn’t verbalize their theories. I see it in Sorolla's compositions, in the superb modeling of form by Sargent and Repin, in the thickness of orderly chaos of Fechin’s world, in Arkhipov’s compositions, in the lyricism of Levitan. The list goes on. I don’t care about their specific subject. I don’t quite care to learn more about the sitters of their portraits. I care to be drawn in, to savor every stroke, to get elevated somehow, to get into another world. To learn. And to never be the same again - because that image and that memory will now be with me. That’s what I want paintings or drawings to do. To have that kind of effect and power."
2. Who are your subjects? Are they mostly people you know? How do you find your models?
Oh anyone I can convince to sit :). Commissioned portraits are, of course, for specific people. But my figurative pieces evolve as compositional ideas, and then I try to get someone who fits my idea as a reference. If I could photograph myself I would use myself more (and I do sometimes). I alter a model’s face sometimes if I use her too often. My sons have done reference modeling for me as well.
'Girl in a Blue Chair'
3. Speaking of composition, what is it about curves and diagonal lines that you like so much? What makes them superior to straight, horizontal lines? Does it increase the tension or excitement in a piece? Is this the secret to composing a picture that draws viewers in?
"No, not superior. They are, just like verticals and horizontals, just means to create a certain movement within a painting. And I feel that it’s the curve, especially a curve that is alive (that is, with variations of thick and thin, soft and sharp edges, etc) that really gives me an ability to create that movement. But I very often use horizontals and verticals. Absolutely."
4. When composing an image, most painters think of the canvas as a window, with viewers looking into it. But then, some artists use a canvas more as a teleportation device, transporting viewers to another time and place. I get that feeling in some of your works, such as 'Guard', 'Ania', and 'Silence'. How do you get that effect, and do you plan for it from the start?
"That’s an interesting way to look at it. Teleportation. I need to think about that. Even Vermeer, who was the master of that “window”, teleports us in a way into that time and space. So maybe the two are not mutually exclusive? I do want to get a viewer immersed in the world I create."
5. How do you decide the size and dimensions of your canvases?
"I usually work on small and medium size paintings, although I do have several life size works. I have many premise linen panels, so sometimes it’s what I have at hand that determines that. Also, if I am exploring a new idea, it’s easier to work smaller. Actually, figurative paintings are easier on medium and even life size canvases somehow. It’s very hard to attend to modeling a head or hands on a small scale sometimes.
"If I have a live model (that’s always the best, but in reality not doable that often), I find a canvas or a panel that allows me to match the size of the model’s head and figure (from where I am sitting). Then I don’t have to measure precisely. Or rather, measuring becomes so much easier."
'In the Shadow'
6. What little lessons or advice do you hear when you paint? What do you tend to worry about?
"Do you mean what I hear in my head while I paint? I worry a lot about not being unique. Meaning that I have so many images of so many works by so many artists in my head, that I feel sometimes I am not saying anything new. Even that highlight in the eye - ah remember that painting, he or she did it this way. And that painting has it that way. The model’s pose has been used and reused so many times over the centuries. How do you say what you want to say in a new way? Yet when you have these thoughts, they are not helping at all. If anything, they stagnate you. You have to just let it flow. Let it organically evolve. And that “letting go” sometimes is the hard thing to do. Because your head keeps nagging."
7. Was there any difference in approach or in priorities in how to draw and paint while you were at school in Kazan, and later with Orbik and Lipking?
"Oh yes. First and foremost, Kazan art school training was academic classical training, with plaster casts, with sculpture and art history lessons, etc. You slowly, very slowly moved from hundreds of still lives - not to mention cones and spheres - to plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures, and only then to a human head or figure. And that’s when quick gesture sketches started to play a huge part. And that’s where maybe a similarity with Orbik’s approach starts - the emphasis on gesture sketching, on capturing the essential with a bold line.
"And we were forced through hours of studies and through weekly homework to develop a discipline of working as artists. And that’s a huge part of being an artist. It’s a very very tough job.
Taking a class, even with masters like Orbik (it’s so unfortunate that they are not possible anymore) and Lipking, will give you pointers, but without hours of working on those pointers they would remain just that. And I believe Kazan school was right - learn to draw first. Painting a human head even in Jeremy’s workshop can only teach so much if a student can’t draw a cast yet. I think it’s all teachable, it’s all doable, it just takes time and dedication."
8. You’ve traveled around so much, has this influenced your works? Do you ever paint landscapes?
"I have not painted landscapes for a long while. I do occasionally, it’s such a treat to get out of the studio! My travels gave me access to so many museums around the world. And there are still so many to see. And to go back too. I can live in some of them."
9. What should art students and teachers focus on most?
"I think I eluded to that a bit above. I think it’s imperative to build a strong curriculum tailored to a specific student or a group of students. To plan that progression from simple to complex, from drawing to painting, from a cube to a human head. Yet in a way that doesn’t suppress creativity. I have many ideas on this, and I am seriously thinking about starting to teach on a more consistent basis now."
10. How do you feel about the modern and post modern art world?
"If modern is unique and personal, then impressionists and cubists might’ve been that. And in my strive to create uniquely my own works I may associate with that myself. But not to the extent that Rothko took it :). If postmodern is to break that - if post modern is Warhol - then I don’t associate with that world so much. But I think it’s important to just keep working, without the thoughts of what I would call it and where I belong."
11. What do you tell someone who thinks art doesn’t matter?
"I have nothing to tell them. I don’t even want to talk. I am not trying to convince them or influence them in any way. I can only share the works that move me. If they don’t - there is nothing else that needs to be said. But, I can talk about art for many hours with someone who wants to talk about it and is genuinely interested in it. I know how it enriches my life, and I love seeing and feeling that in the eyes and the words of others. And in the works of others, most importantly. I am fascinated by everyone who has the urge and the courage to create and to express - and who puts their soul into what they do."
Note: These links contain nudity
'That What I Dream', 2014
'Yin & Yang', 2016