Q&A with Pat Otto: Body Presence

Reclining Head
Pat Otto. Reclining Head. 2004. Beeswax and oil paint on wood,
height 6.5″ x 9.5″ x 4″.

Patricia Otto's house in Edgewater is a gallery, a studio space and a home shared with her husband, painter Kristopher Dodd. At the entrance, beneath a large mirror, there is a tray with what looks like bones of a human spine. The walls are filled with small, detailed paintings in decorated old frames. Kimonos made out of paper, fabric and painted canvas, hang on large walls. Resting on shelves are ceramic sculptures of nude figures with horses. Miniature vessels with painted parts of anatomy are scattered around like some relics used in sacred rituals. Three-dimensional encaustic portraits hang on smaller walls.

Regardless of scale or medium, brilliant color, meticulous attention to detail, and singular vision are present in Otto's huge body of work created since the 1970s. It is a testament to a multi-faceted journey of discovery and personal growth.

ArtStyle: Could you talk about your early work?

Pat Otto (PO): After I graduated from college in the mid-70’s, I was still painting in Detroit. The art scene was kind of cool there at that time, rebellious. I had a 1000-sf studio for $90 a month. While Abstract Expressionist art had been popular with my teachers, I was not concerning my self with that. Figurative painting was just not done. I was just painting whatever was around me. I was painting large oil paintings of interiors and still lifes. I did a lot of larger-than-life-size pastel portraits of friends too. Because of the feminist movement, a lot of “personal art” was being created, and I guess that is what I was doing.

Bedroom Suite with Clock

Pat Otto. Bedroom Suite with Clock. 1977. Oil on canvas, height
36″ x 52″.

ArtStyle: Did you consider yourself to be a professional artist?

PO: I just considered myself a painter. I always had a teaching job and, I thought, “I can always type.”

ArtStyle: What brought you to Chicago from Detroit, and how did this transition affect your work?

PO: I ended up moving to Chicago in 1980 because of the obvious reasons: it is still a Midwestern city but the art scene was more vibrant. My work changed when I came here. I started working with egg tempera on marble panels. They did not make egg tempera paints back then, so I did a lot of research on my own. I ordered dry pigment from someplace in NY and made my own paint, used rabbit skin glue and marble dust, and actual egg. I'm not sure how this transition happened but I always loved early Christian paintings. The color is just incredible with egg tempera paints, and they are far more long lasting than oil paints can ever hope to be in terms of color fastness and permanence. I did a whole series of these paintings and they're unusually large for this kind of painting. My smallest ones are 2′ x 2′, and like those early Christian paintings, they are very staged, symmetrical and iconic, and have jewel-like colors. So I worked with that for a while and I loved the material. I made my own frames from a variety of moldings from a hardware store and combined them in different ways.

Fan Male
Pat Otto. Fan Male. 1983. Egg tempera on panel, 24″ x 24″.

ArtStyle: How else have you used egg tempera?

PO: I started working in the art therapy field when I moved here. I was with people who were abused in various ways, and I became inundated with a lot of their “stuff” as well as my own. One of my ways of dealing with this was to make small clay pieces that fit inside of my palm. They are fragments, clay chards, smooth and soft, shaped like a thick potato chip. I would fire them and paint body parts, bones and organs on them, using egg tempera in a very delicate way. This was my way of honoring their preciousness. When I exhibited them, I made these “nests” for them out of wood that I carved and painted.

ArtStyle: Did your ritual drinking vessels evolve out of “fragments”?

PO: Yes. As a continuation of the “fragments,” I started making ritual drinking vessels. They were glazed ceramic pieces — in the shape of an actual life-size organ or bone — turned into a drinking vessel. I have a fascination with anatomy and the sacred remains or bones of the body. At this time I also created several funerary urns and canopic jars. The actual ashes of a friend of mine were stored in one of the funerary urns by request of her family.

Heart Ritual Drinking Vessel
Pat Otto. Heart Ritual Drinking Vessel. 1993. Ceramic,
height 6″ x 4″ x 3″.

ArtStyle: Where does your inspiration for imagery and technique come from?

PO: I've always been interested in early ancient art: early Christian paintings, pre-Columbian vessels, ancient Egyptian art, Persian miniatures, illuminated manuscripts, and anatomical drawings.

ArtStyle: Within each new body of work, your materials fluctuate but they seem to be your own re-invention of a traditional technique. Could you talk about the process of selecting a new medium?

PO: A good example is my encaustic work (see Reclining Head at the top). I had dreams of the images actually hanging there on a wall, so then I had to search for materials that I could use to create them. For example, I knew the approximate size and shape, that I would use wood as a base, and that there needed to be a certain softness and texture to them. I searched for ways to express these images until I found a medium to accommodate them: driftwood that I roughly sawed into the desired shape and then alternated applications of melted beeswax, oil paint glazes, and sweeps of a propane torch.

At times, I re-visit and re-interpret earlier imagery in a new medium. For example, in my new work, my figurative paintings from the 1990s are altered, re-constructed and combined with other artists' trashed paintings. These re-cycled transformations became what I call the “kimonos.”

ArtStyle: There is so much variety in your work. You move from large to small scale, from one medium to another, and select subjects that seem to be unrelated. Yet, there seems to be a consistency in your fascination with the human body and things that touch it. Could you talk about that?

PO: Yes, I'm fascinated with the body. My ritual drinking vessels and “fragments” are both related to body parts and honor the sacredness of them. I’ve also done a lot of portraits. Even my still lifes from way back deal with the feeling of a human presence, of someone having just been there. Kimonos, of course, are about that presence too.

Pillowtalk Kimono
Pat Otto. Pillow Talk Kimono, front view. 2006. Painted canvas,
fabric-reconstructed, height 52″ x 51″. Private collection.

Otto has exhibited worldwide for three decades and has artwork in the Collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts Archive in Washington, D.C. As president of ARC Gallery, she is helping to take the oldest women's cooperative gallery in the Midwest forward into its 35th year. She teaches painting and drawing at Truman College, and provides clinical art therapy services in private practice, specializing in women and the creative process.

For more of Patricia Otto's artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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