This Artist Draws on African and Jewish Heritages to Make Something New

Alma talked to Olivia Guterson, or Midnight Olive, about her intricate black-and-white line work and bringing Jewish themes into the present.

When Olivia Guterson — artist name Midnight Olive — joins our Zoom call, two things strike me immediately. The first is the tall artwork propped up against the wall behind her. Large, intricate monochromatic shapes, resembling hand-drawn flowers, climb a structure that reminds me of an architectural arcade. Its marriage of scale and precision draws the eye right away.

The second thing I notice is the top of Olivia’s young son’s head. Nalo smiles at me when we’re introduced and then goes back to reading his book. Throughout our interview, Olivia is able to be present for both of us, letting him know she’s still attuned to him without missing a beat as she talks about her work and process.

Midnight Olive is an artist and a community organizer based in Detroit who works primarily in black and white “for its stability, intensity, and honesty,” according to her website. A member of the Detroit collective Art Babes, her style of line- and pattern-making “emphasizes the delicate beauty and balance of the human hand.” She draws influence from both sides of her family history — Jewish and African — as well as from the American Southwest, where she grew up. Her work “tends to focus on contrast… black and white; busy and still; quiet and loud.” Over the course of our conversation, I learned that this line from her artist statement guides not only the final product, but the process as well: “Things are more than they appear at first glance. Everything is ephemeral.”

I talked to Olivia about engaging with the themes of Passover in her new work, creating a sustainable world, drawing from her heritage, and how having a child has affected her process.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

What a beautiful backdrop. Is this your work?

Oh, thank you. Yes, this is the piece I’m working on.

And you have a little guest.

I do. He’s reading a little book.

He is adorable. Can you tell me a little bit about the piece behind you?

I’m working with a socialist woman in New York. She was sharing a little bit of her journey with me, and I was really inspired by it. And so I wanted to create a work that honored her story.

It looks big.

It’s eight feet tall. [Olivia begins moving around her studio.] This one I made just after my grandmother passed away. It’s called “My Grandmother’s Last Quilt.” My grandmother was a prolific quilter, collector of fine china, and had a lot of art that incorporated Hebrew and our Jewish heritage. She made doilies, she had all these fabrics and stuff that she brought from her home country, and a lot of these patterns grow from being around all her fabrics and materials. I took a bunch of different patterns from her and my own life, and was thinking about what her last quilt could be.

Beautiful. Can you tell me more about your grandmother, and how your work grows out of your heritage?

I’ve been doing a bunch of research, and I can pinpoint that my grandfather came from Pinsk in the Ukraine, and then my grandma has always said Russia. So I’m trying to trace back to find where exactly. They immigrated to the United States in 1912, and set up community in Seattle, Washington, which is where the majority of my family is right now. I was born on Navajo land in New Mexico and was deeply influenced by the patterns I saw there in the land, pottery, and textiles. The other side of the family has deep Southern and African roots, so I was exposed to African textile works and patterns, but also the plants and spices that make our foods. All of these rich patterns and shapes, but also techniques of making, are deeply embedded in my works. Because I have such a wealth to pull from, I’m able to incorporate spontaneity and improvisation to create unique works.

I think as people we process everything we take in in different ways. And some of us have language to express that, or make sense of it. I’m creating my own pattern language. Both sides of my ancestry are deeply textural, and there are so many patterns and colors and motifs. There is an attempt to hold my multiracial identity as a wholeness. I think oftentimes people are like, “oh, you’re mixed,” or, “you’re half this half that,” and while all those things might be true, I don’t necessarily like the connotation of half, or of missing half, or mixed. There’s no confusion. I think you can hold the complexities of having a multiracial or intersectional identity. And so for me, having a pattern language that honors the sacrifices and joys of both lineages is really important — and that they get to share space together.

I feel like I can see all these traditions combining to make something new in your art. Can you tell me about your personal Judaism, and the role it plays in your life and work?

It’s always grounded me knowing the story of where I come from, and what my ancestors had been through. How we gather and how we support each other has always been a really important part of my life. Even in this year, we have a process of how to mourn, and that’s so beautiful for me. It’s community. I feel really comfortable knowing that wherever I go, there’s a community that welcomes me. And also, you know, there are 14 million Jews in the world, so there’s 14 million ways to be Jewish, and I love that. I love the desire to question while learning, the contemplating but also remembering.

The piece you’re making now, At Our Table, interacts specifically with the theme of Passover plagues and single-use plastics. How did you start working on it?

I would go to conferences, and I would just see these incredible banners. And I always was like, oh, it must be really fun to paint on them. And people just throw them away. For the past few years, I’ve been collecting — I guess it’s garbage, but I think of it as things to paint on, because I’ve always wanted to be conscious of my materials. When COVID hit, and we were forced to use plastic bags because they didn’t want us to use reusable bags, I started looking into how I could recycle them, and there’s no way of doing it unless you drive really far. And that was really horrifying for me.

So I started stockpiling the plastic bags when I was forced to take them, and then while walking around my neighborhood, I started picking up garbage because I needed something more to do on my walks. I felt like I was giving back, and I spent so much more time looking around me during those times. Again, it just didn’t feel right to start throwing things away unless I knew where they were gonna go — the whole out of sight, out of mind thing doesn’t work for me. I ended up with all this plastic material. When Reboot reached out about a piece on Passover and modern-day sacrifices, it was a perfect meeting of the minds.

olivia guterson
Sal Rodriguez

This piece is going to live outside the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Detroit, in a field. Visually, it’s going to look like a 20-foot table. I’m weaving together thousands of plastic bags to create a tablecloth. It’s going to be set as a Passover table, for social distance-observing guests, because I really want to meet this moment and talk about how we have to reimagine how we celebrate and how we gather, and how this is year two for us. And then all the components of the table — the seder plate, and matzah plates, and everything — is made out of the plastics that I have found here. I’m gonna paint things, and I want it to look like a really lovely gathering. But I also want people to be conscious and understanding of what the material is. So I’m not disturbing it too much. We can tell that it’s plastic, but it’s not so plasticky that you can’t see that it’s a table, it’s a celebration, and it’s honoring my heritage. I think a lot too about the ritual of setting a table in this time. I so miss sharing a meal and having holidays together.

It’s great that the process of making it will perpetuate sustainability. I think that’s been the case in your other work — the work you’ve done with lanterns, Meditation for Hope and The Light Within. Do you design differently when light is involved, or based on how a piece will be installed? Do you think about location?

Yeah, I think when a work is going into a specific place, it’s really important for me to spend time in that place. And also if it’s part of a larger community, I want to be a part of that community and make something that feels honest and represents the people that are there. For The Light Within, again, it was missing being able to celebrate with my family, especially since I have my son now. And so I wanted to make this life-sized menorah that was gonna be a source of hope. And again, I wanted to be thoughtful in my materials. That was made out of recycled paper and solar lights in birch plywood, which is considered sustainable as well. I really thought about embodying hope in this time. I mean, it’s solar lit. And so it has its own energy and its own life. It’s really fun.

The Light Within
Olivia Guterson

I’m thoughtful about the material, but also about the space and the energy, and how people are going to interact with it, too. I want to make things that are beautiful, but not so that people can’t touch them or be a part of them. So even with this install, At Our Table, I do want you to feel a genuine invitation to come sit down and safely share a meal. Something so beautiful about Passover is that it’s a time for us to remember and reflect, but also contemplate what it means to secure liberation for everybody. And in this day and age, that means making sacrifices. And I know this is a year of massive sacrifices. But I think we really need to understand that it’s not enough for us to just make sacrifices now, in this moment, but we also need to make sacrifices for our future. Something about weaving these bags together has been very meditative. That’s also part of the process.

I think too about tikkun olam and repairing the world: What does my corner of the world look like right now? And what can I contribute? And what do I have to say? And also, can I make it kind of fun and make people question why we value what we value? Just because something is disposable doesn’t mean that it actually goes away. We use a plastic bag for five to 15 minutes, but they last thousands of years. And that’s crazy. I don’t want to necessarily shame people, but I do want people to question the cost of convenience.

I wanted to ask you about your own backyard, Detroit, where this Passover piece will live and where much of your work has been made.

Detroit is deeply in everything. There’s so much inspiration here. There’s so much community here. There’s so much support here. There’s so much material. But yeah, I think what makes Detroit so unique is that Detroit has been through so many hardships, but the thing that has kept it going is community, and in being resourceful in art, with people telling and documenting their own stories. And people holding space to validate those stories, because everyone matters. All these stories are super important.

Detroit is in this work, literally, because I sourced everything from here, physically. It’s a place where it’s important to hear people’s stories and understand where they’re coming from — and, yes, add to the conversation, but also just bear witness by listening. By no means is it a blank canvas to use. It is really important to know who you’re standing next to and whose shoulders you’re standing on. But for me, the art community here is really beautiful. The Jewish community here is really beautiful. And both have been incredibly supportive.

Talking about community and continuity, your son has been a delightful presence throughout this interview. How old is he? How has he affected your practice?

My son’s name is Nalo. He is 7 months old. He was born in August. I actually had him here at home. So I had a midwife, which is something that I had wanted to do pre-pandemic, but definitely when we were in the thick of things, it just felt safer being at home. Since he’s been born, I’ve brought him with me to do murals. He was part of The Light Within; I had him with me while I was putting up the menorah outside. I think it’s really important for us to make sure that we hold space for children to be part of every aspect of our lives. He’s made me think about community a lot more, how I show up for people. When it comes to art, and to thinking about what materials I’m using, I think I’m a lot more conscious of that as well. I want to make beautiful things. But I also don’t want to contribute to making more waste. I think I’m a lot more thoughtful about what I’m making and why I’m making it, and the impact.

My process has changed as well. I do really intricate black and white line work. And those are things that take hours and hours and hours. But now I spend more time thinking about the work, so when I have time, between naps or after he goes to bed, I’ve thought about the work so much that I’m able to just make it and I don’t necessarily need to be with it as much. I’m also making bigger things — it’s harder to make small delicate things. There’s a sense of urgency to this time as well, you know, and I don’t want to make art just to make art; I want to be a catalyst for these conversations.

I’m very excited about At Our Table, because it feels really honest. And it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. At the same time, the vulnerability of making something so honest that’s asking people to consider how they live their lives — I don’t take that lightly. Not at all.

Midnight Olive’s installation, At Our Table, is part of Canvas’ exhibit Dwelling in a Time of Plagues. The exhibit opens tomorrow, March 26, 2021, and Olivia and other artists are speaking at a free virtual opening event tonight, March 25. Register here.

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