Nana Olivas in conversation with Katya Babikova

Katya Babikova meets with SOHO20 member artist Nana Olivas at her New York City studio to discuss evolution and progression: of feminism, of New York City, and of Nana’s own body of visceral work. 


I followed Nana to the basement of Tribeca building. She later told me that the New York Feminist Art Institute was located on the second floor. In the furthest room was her studio, a confluence of New York aesthetics – white painted brick walls, layers of dried paint on the floor, and one window overlooking the walls of the neighboring building. In the middle of the studio stands a long long table covered with canvases and a dusty, vintage mirror near a pile of brushes and other instruments.

N: My friend came to visit and she asked me why don’t I wipe this mirror, I said “But I don’t want to wipe it, I like it this way.”

K: Are you working on new pieces right now?

N: (Pointing at a series of pink-colored canvases) It’s totally different from anything I’ve made before. First of all, I’m not a person who likes pink. But this stuff excites me. I usually work with black, white and the blood, using varnish. I had this experience recently of being overwhelmed and having really rosy cheeks. The idea of the rose color had occurred to me while mixing the cow’s blood and gesso.


The other thing you can always find in my work are layers – there is one coat, two coats, three coats. I like the splashes of color on the table, I’m always interested in what’s on the side. I’m trying to get this kind of feeling onto my canvas.

For a lot of pieces I’m making now, I’m using a shroud. I paint on it then I cover it again, then I roll the edges into the paint. I love the exterior as much as the interior of the painting, it’s really important to me. In that respect it makes me both a sculptor and a painter, because my paintings are really starting to become more sculptural.

K: What draws you to certain materials, like cow’s blood?

N: I’ve been drawn to blood since I was about maybe 17. It’s just something that happened, I just thought of it. I love the texture. When it dries it starts to crack, and it’s so beautiful. And I love the viscera of it in contrast with the chunkiness of the gesso.

K: What about tools?

N: I don’t really use paintbrushes anymore. I ice my paintings as if they were cakes. I use these prayer cards that were from my grandfather’s funeral in 1989, the kind they give out when you pass away. It’s a really great tool. I used them over the years and they’ve become art pieces themselves. I wasn’t really close to my grandfather, but I like how these stay and work with me. They’ve always been at my studio and one day I thought, these are perfect to scrape the paint.


K: I know you were also involved in the NYFAI (the New York Feminist Art Institute) activities. What do you think about the reality of the feminist movement nowadays?

N: I was very young back then, and I was fortunate enough to be involved.

I think we as women have to realize that there have been incredible strides, but we cannot forget what it means to be a feminist and really appreciate the luxuries and the freedoms we have – not take them for granted. Look at what’s going on with politics and Planned Parenthood right now. It’s about women’s right to have a choice along with our personal sense of who we are, and I find that it’s kind of weird the way feminism is structured now. I don’t have any problem with nudity or sexuality, I believe in more power to do whatever you want. But, I think women are so sexualized in a way that’s not only demoralizing, but denies other aspects of our qualities, like intelligence. I hope that young women will stand up for themselves and realize that these freedoms can be taken away.

New York Feminist Art Institute was fascinating for me because I was young and it was a real community of artists and ideas. I interned there and it turned out to be a really great experience. I think also of something important that feminists sometimes forget, that men need to be feminists too. It’s absolutely the case. My dad always said that he’s a feminist.

K: Do you like the way New York has changed since then?

N: No I have to say I’m rather disappointed in NY. I was born and raised here. I think it’s part of what’s disappointing me about the whole world though. It’s about comfort, which can be a great thing. I want everybody to be comfortable and have the most beautiful things in the world. At the same time I feel like when it’s only about the pursuit of luxury, it just gets depressing. I look around NYC, which used to be really vibrant and have little shops, and you could do many simple things. There were real wonderful opportunities to make art,and to do art; there was this real underground vibe.

K: How do you feel about the art world these days, when it simultaneously strides to be inclusive and intersectional, but it seems only to be dominated by a small group of galleries and people who make buying decisions? Do you feel like you fit in?

N: Oh, I am a total outsider. It’s actually really funny. I have a friend who was becoming an incredibly successful actor. He and I were having a discussion once. He said to me, ‘you are really on the outskirts of the art world, you are never going to be an insider.’ He was right.

When you are working and it’s going really well, you feel like you’ve gotten to this place, like walking through space and time and being connected to everything. It’s an unbelievable experience. I was working the other day and I actually screamed “YEAH!” The neighbors probably thought I was dying, but it was fantastic and so fulfilling on an intrinsic level.

K: Do you think it’s possible to be a successful outsider these days? What would you say to young artists?

N: I think so. I think we always have to find new way. I was thinking about that and it’s much more the internet thing – We have to connect more, but I don’t always know how. One of the reasons I am proud to be a member of SOHO20 is because it fosters a way of doing your art work on your own terms.


K: I want to believe in a science and technologically-progressive future. How do you see your art and yourself in future? Will you adjust?

N: Not my artwork. The maximum technology I would use is an installation with video or projection.

I used to kiss my paintings with blood and drag my hands all over it. I prefer to touch it, I like to get into it. I once drew a line of blood around the gallery; I wanted it to have a thread of a feeling of being together. I think the great thing about being an artist – and you can apply this to almost anything in your life – is to be open-minded and try to be open to whatever it is that is possible to do, because if you don’t, you are closing off avenues.


Find Nana’s bio and work on her member profile on our website.