The world conjured in Olivia Wendel’s compositions is one I wouldn’t mind spending some time in. Figures, flora and fauna come together to create a dreamlike universe that feels enchanting and joyful—one in which life, in all its forms, is a cause for uninhibited celebration.
Her aesthetic sensibility started forming early on. Wendel grew up in a historic (and haunted) house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where creativity was the norm. “My mother and my grandpa Herzl [the sculptor Herzl Emanuel] were huge influences on why I became an artist,” she says. “They were always encouraging me to draw and to never erase mistakes, which to this day is how I work, intuitively and without planning.”
In addition to her rich childhood memories, Wendel counts unconventional forms of dance, such as the choreography of Pina Bausch, and the work of artists like Frida Kahlo, Florine Stettheimer, and Paul Klee among her inspirations. Some of her earliest pieces were drawings of people in motion, and an exploration of the body has remained a central theme of her work. “For me it’s really about vulnerability and the way our bodies both contain and express emotion,” she says. “From the time I was small I’ve been obsessed with bodies and trying to understand all the ways a body can move. Depicting the female figure is a way of inventing my own mythology.”
Feeling limited by the static constraints of paper drawings, Wendel discovered a new medium that let her figures move: textiles. Shortly after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design with an MFA in textile design and working at Proenza Schouler and Kate Spade, she launched her own textile design business, a line of hand-painted silk and wool scarves. As she prepares to launch her second collection in November, we caught up with the artist and designer to find out more about her process, inspiration, and the trials (and rewards) of starting a creative business.
What would you like to tell the world through your art? What feelings do you hope to inspire in the viewer?
Being one in a pair of twins, I have always been fascinated by opposites and questions of identity. My paintings are intuitive and personal; I rarely plan them in advance. Usually I am inspired by an emotion, memory, or particular concept that develops as I work. Each painting is an environment that I exist in as I create it. I choreograph each painting like a dance, inventing characters and imagining the movement of every figure. I am interested in expressing how it feels to be a woman and exist in a woman’s body, from my own experience. It is my hope that through sharing something honest and vulnerable I can empower others.
Do you think that artists are obligated to be socially and politically engaged?
Yes. Even if our work doesn’t directly address politics, we all have a responsibility to use our voices for change. One of my favorite recent memories was going to the Women’s March in NYC. I painted a sign to hold up but I wasn’t planning on bringing any of my scarves; I didn’t want to advertise my work in any way. As we were leaving the apartment, my husband Rolando asked if he could bring “The Performance,” which is a design of many women standing together in a circle, their individual bodies creating one large form. I thought he was bringing the scarf to wear, but as we began marching, he unfurled it and held it up as his sign. So many women and men came up to us and said they loved the design and that it was such empowering imagery. As an artist I often feel like I’m not doing enough to change the world, so it was very moving to see how my work might inspire and uplift others.
What drew you to textiles?
I came up with the idea for my label because working in the industry I realized that so much of what we see on textiles today is designed digitally. To me there is something so special about hand-painted designs. I wanted to translate my paintings directly into textiles, preserving the spontaneity and life of the original artwork. The first collection was inspired by duality and opposites; that concept informed every decision, including the lack of color. I was thinking a lot about the experience of being a woman. For example, “Wood into Water” explores the freedom of being in the wilderness whereas “The Performance” is about how we present ourselves to fit in in society. My design process is very intuitive—I don’t sketch things out first, I just start painting from an idea in my mind.
What was a moment when you were very discouraged, and how did you get past it?
If there is one thing I’ve learned since starting my own business, it’s that you will be discouraged often, sometimes daily, but you must keep going. I’ve had so many moments of fear and self-doubt but I try to remind myself that being uncomfortable means you are growing. Having a business, you have to be okay with perpetually taking risks and not knowing how things will turn out, it isn’t easy but that’s been my experience. The uncertainty is occasionally balanced out by moments of reassurance and success that make it very worthwhile.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ignored?
I’ve realized it’s so important to be able to listen to advice from others but above all else, honor your intuition and trust it. If I had listened to all the advice I’ve received along the way, I would never have gone to art school, I’d have never started my own business, and who knows what I would be doing. That’s not to say I’ve necessarily made all the right choices but at least they were ultimately my own.