︎ INTERVIEW: FRENCH DESIGNER & ARTIST - JOHANNA OLK
Living and working between Guéthary & Paris, France, JOHANNA OLK studied industrial design and has always been attracted to objects and composition with a timeless beauty; restricted to what is essential. She enjoys the simple things, which create emotion. Her work as a designer and an artist revolves around these themes. Johanna’s work represents the strengh and emotion of living in the ordinary. She paints graphic images playing with simplicity and the everyday life’s melancholy, whilst also making minimalist hand poked tattoos.
What made you want to become an artist?
Just as everyone I used to draw a lot when I was a child, unlike many of us, I’ve just never stopped.
What inspired you in your early years?
I have always been attracted to portraits, I liked to take pictures of people around me. I guess it was a way to understand them. Growing up, I was struggling a lot with my body, my new feminity and curves. As a result I was watching and drawing bodies, especially women. I was like a researcher looking, drawing and taking pictures of a subject to get to know it and understand it further.
What was your journey like in discovering your current stylistic approach?
We are sponges. We absorb things all day long; sounds, colours, all kind of details we then soak up in our work. I grew up in Brittany, the sky was grey, people humble and strong. I studied industrial design and I developed an interest for simple things, which are able to create emotion. I am very attracted to pop art, mid XXth century graphics and the Renaissance period. It’s a long and slow journey, I am still researching and trying new techniques.
Do you have any other interests which you believe may have influenced and facilitated your work to grow further?
I do many other things; photography, animation, sculpture, dog walking, bad music etc.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently doing a series of paintings for an upcoming show in Los Angeles, and some sculptures too. I haven’t travelled for the past 6 months, so it gave me the opportunity to experience a lot. I have always been doing a lot a different things but I couldn’t find a way to connect them. Lately everything has started to merge. I find links between my paintings, drawings and sculptures. I see more clearly where I am going and for once I feel I have unlocked something and progressed.
Your work seems to have a very consistent and specific look. Do you feel as though your work develops or changes depending on your surroundings and influences at the time?
It changes a lot; techniques and colours especially, as I enjoy experimenting. Even if I always end up preferring the back and grey version. It’s true that the theme, visages, woman, is constant for the moment. Spending more time just drawing without purpose helps me to change my subject but I can’t help but loving to draw people. Starting sculpture and working in volume is great too. I like making faces, then destroying it and trying to draw this new mess.
Would you say your work is emotionally or aesthetically driven?
It’s first emotionally driven. I have been depressed for a while. My paintings and drawings were the representation of my state of mind. White and grey, black flat tint as dark shadows of actual bodies, empty eyes and faces. Melancholy. I still love to represent this specific no-emotion, which weirdly creates emotion. That’s something Renaissance artists mastered. Portraits from this period are incredible.
You mentioned that you work with two other artists. What are your intentions with the renovated studio space you share?
My work studio, .sserie is a big open space I share with 3 other artists, Margaux Arramon-tucoo, Sarah Segalla and soon Pierre Touré. There is also Jules Viard, making surfboards at the back. It used to be a laundry (« blanchisserie » in French, this is why we called it .sserie). We have been renovating it and it’s now a place where we work, invite friends and artists we like, organize events and exhibitions.
What is most important to you when creating work?
It has to create emotion.
I noticed on Instagram that you are a tattoo artist. How did that come about?
A paper or a canvas or a skin, are the same, it’s just different material. I did my first tattoo on myself in high school with a needle and some random ink because I was in love with a stupid guy. Then I went to Nantes and met the best people, I was at school with Ivan he had a super scary tattoo machine, it took me a while before I tried, but once I started I followed him. I am now tattooing without a machine again. I really enjoy hand poked tattoos; I like the perfect imperfections, it’s effective.
At what point do you think you found your own distinct voice within art?
Not sure I did.
Could you tell me about your style and process? It seems very minimalistic and pure, is this a reflection of your character?
It’s half a reflection about my personal life, then about what I have been experiencing and enjoying in art and design. About my character, I am not sure. Just ask my friends!
Much of your work is centred around a female figure; can you tell me more about her?
It’s easy for me to make work about women, find ways to represent them, like them, love them, understand their bodies, find beauty in few details. Just as I try to do myself.
What method do you use to produce your work? Do you have to be alone or in a specific environment?
It really depends of the day, my mood, what is surrounding me. It’s always different. I like to listen to the radio (some interviews or people talking about random subjects, I like France Culture a lot) or have noise around me; a film on my computer or something that I don’t even watch but just makes noise.
Are you motivated to produce art that reaches other people, or is it more of a personal experience?
It’s always a personal experience, I am then always very surprised how it can reach people.
What do you aspire to do with your work in the future?
I am currently working on new paintings for my upcoming exhibition. It will be in Los Angeles in November with Innocnts and made possible thanks to Sean Tully (Thanks again for your trust Sean!)
What do you want the future to look like for you and your art?
I want to keep enjoying my art and I hope people will keep enjoying it too.
You are clearly involved with illustration and tattooing but are there are other mediums you hope to undertake?
I wish I had time to do more animation! And new sculptures!
What advice would you give to fellow Cortex Creatives who are beginning to embark on creative careers?
I think that it’s important to do it for yourself first of all, and keep creating even if people don’t like it. It can be hard sometimes because of social media, when nobody « liked » your last post or not a lot of people are « following » you. Few followers and no likes doesn’t mean it’s bad work. When I started drawing and tattooing very few people liked my stuff (in person and online), it was hard but I had another job, so I didn’t really care. I was pretty poor too, but it was ok. I kept doing it anyway ! Even if it was still hard sometimes.
What lessons have you learnt that you wish you could have passed on to your younger self?
I wouldn’t say anything to my younger self as I learnt a lot from my bad choices. The best comes from the worst. Nothing comes easily; hard work is the only option. I am 25 and I still have everything to learn.
What most excites you about your creative career?
I love being able to make art every day with my friends, travel a lot and meet incredible people all the time. Every day is different and I can do pretty much whatever I want whenever I want. I am very lucky.
Interviewed & written by MATHEW PRICHARD
Photographs & illustrations by JOHANNA OLK