Born Gallup, NM, 1990 / BA The Evergreen State College, Wa / Lives in Detroit
In the hours that transition from sun to moon, Olivia Guterson’s artistic persona, Midnight Olive, emerges. For this interdisciplinary artist, the night welcomes freedom to be in conversation with herself and to respond to the observations and questions conjured throughout the day.
Through abstract compositions that show up as murals, site-specific installations, and on canvas, Guterson’s art is an avenue for personal investigations of ancestry, ritual, and remembrance. Her signature line works are monochromatic, but now and then, color shows up to indicate when she is in conversation with or channeling the energy of others.
For example, in Meditation for Hope (2020), which was displayed in Detroit’s Cadillac Square last December, in addition to her signature use of black and white, there were pops of red and gold. The installation was created as an offering of peace, hope and inspiration to the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inside of a glass greenhouse, Guterson created a sanctuary-like feel that featured 26 multi-sized lanterns hanging above three colored canvases. The canvases were sewn together and sculpted into a tree trunk-like structure. At a wide view, the installation resembled a tree of life.
The lyrical repetitions present in Midnight Olive’s compositions give her work a meditative quality. Her lines and shapes are in constant transit, creating what she describes as a pattern language that pays homage to the motifs and textures she found in land, fabrics, and pottery while growing up on the Navajo Nation Land in New Mexico, and the foods and materials that connect to her familial roots in the South. In this way, her freehand art honors her Jewish and African-American heritage and the ancestral practice of working with hands–from sharecroppers and quilters to doily makers and writers. “[The patterns] have their own evolutions, so it’s like one might grow and become something else, and I know that journey because I felt it. I’m archiving my history.”
In an ode to ancestral instruction, Sankofa (2018) records a search for guidance by looking back to navigate forward. The mythical bird of the title is a central symbol in the language of Ghana’s Akan tribe, that loosely translates to retrieve: go, fetch, seek, take, and return. Guterson drew eyes throughout the piece to hold space for her “ancestors and aunties” and to “lean into the spaces that they have nurtured within me” as part of her journeying forward. Additionally, there may be a task for the observer as well, one that queries what it means to be future-present and past-present as a way to arrive at the needs of now.
I Created You as Both the Question and the Answer (2021) is a 48 inch high pedestal that contemplates what it means to take up space as beings navigating in the world. Considering the piece’s scale, Guterson’s curiosity exists in how the viewer chooses to interact with the structure. But there’s an introspective presence that also informs the work. Often investigating the past and present to find truth, the artist acknowledges the “beautiful reckoning” that comes with the unknowns of motherhood, realizing, she says, “that as much as my son, Nalo, is the answer to so many prayers, he also is the questioning of so many things in myself; just as I am both.”
This realization birthed the beginning of works where the relationship between mother and son is the muse. The diamond-shaped self-portrait Out in the Everything, Out in the Everywhere (2021) introduces these portraits. The intimate painting features Guterson cradling her son, who was born “in the quiet of night” at their home. Shifting her eye to objects at the ground level of domestic spaces, the security gates of her home inspired the bottom patterning. Black and white geometric shapes are drawn at the top of the gem to acknowledge Guterson’s family’s multiracial identity and ancestors. The red paint used in the background evokes contrasting emotions of boldness and tenderness, strength and vulnerability. With mother and son in the center of the composition, you get the sense there is protection above them, below them and surrounding them.
In her thoughtful and intuitive drawings, Midnight Olive’s visual storytelling seeks truth. Though the work is layered and deeply personal, there’s an energy in her geometric abstractions that invites the viewer to consider the many questions and answers that reside inside and outside the body, and to inform the way we show up and hold space in the world for ourselves and others.
LaToya Cross, November 2021