For every experience a person has there are a number of things happening that the eye doesn’t catch, and that idea is what Antonia Olak is capturing in the negative space of her artwork.
“It’s that negative space that holds so much,” said Olak. “It’s what we don’t see that can have so much meaning.”
Olak is having an exhibition of her abstract and figurative paintings and drawings at the McMillan Arts Centre from June 3 to 28. It is called Cross Roads and it’s the first time she has exhibited both her abstract and figurative work together. An opening reception takes place June 6 at 7 p.m.
Olak was born in Northern California and moved to an isolated area east of Prince George on the Fraser River, called Mile 47, when she was in her early teens. Although it was tough to leave her friends at that age, it was a wonderful place to live, she said.
“I fell in love with the wilderness and the friends I made,” she said, adding that she learned an incredible amount while there, particularly from her step-father.
Her parents had bought her a set oil paints in elementary school and she stuck with that medium right through high school.
Although there was a writing group in Mile 47, there was little in the way of visual arts, so Olak saved up the money she earned as a tree planter and headed for Europe.
She went to a number of art galleries during her months of travel and fell in love with The Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain which held the work of many of the great European masters.
“It opened up a huge world that I never knew existed,” she said.
When she returned to Canada she attended the Vancouver School of Art, and although she found the people very nice, the adjustment from Mile 47 was difficult for her. She moved to Victoria and transferred to the Victoria College of Art (VCA), where at that time, she was able to do figure drawing at Emily Carr’s former house.
The home and grounds is now a museum called Emily Carr House. After her diploma at VCA, she studied art at the University of Victoria and met her husband, a photographer and sculptor. After some time in Vancouver and Gabriola Island, the couple moved their two young boys to Qualicum Beach, about 26 years ago.
Olak has worked with a number of art mediums over the years. Besides oils she has always enjoyed drawing as well as photography, and she and her husband ran a photo archival and restoration business at one time. She has also done silk dying, mixed media work and experimented with acrylics and charcoal on different surfaces.
Today she does a lot of work with acrylic which can be seen in her Cross Roads show, including her figurative paintings of horses. Her abstract pieces will also be hung at the MAC as well as her charcoal drawings of ravens and trees.
Olak has had solo exhibitions of both her figurative and abstract work in the past, last year she showed an abstract exhibition called Flux to thousands of visitors on Granville Island during the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
She said she has pinpointed a common element in her two bodies of work.
“Sitting back and looking at my work, it is obvious the figurative and abstract are very different, but there is a common denominator, and that is exploration of negative space.”
Olak’s figurative work has a surreal quality and her negative spaces are consistently powerful. Sometimes she purposefully makes the negative space awkward to command attention, she said.
With her abstract work she doesn’t try to hide the “ghost images of the early drawing”. In these pieces she fills up the negative space. She likes to use a lot of glazes in between brush strokes which allows light to reflect on the bottom layers, bringing out colour, she said. She uses brushes but also tools which include rags, wooden spoons, sticks and other materials.
“I’m not stuck with a brush,” she said.
Olak’s inspiration comes from nature and from her family; her two children have taught her a lot, she said. And her work, before it goes home to be cherished by strangers, teaches her. It’s an act of meditation and it gives her insight into her own thoughts.
“Painting tells me how I perceive the world and what is happening in the world around me,” she said.
Besides her show at the MAC, Olak’s work can be viewed online on her website www.antoniaolak.com and at the Salish Sea Market in Bowser.