A plum-colored octopus makes doughnuts in the kitchen, two tentacles whisking the contents of a bowl, another grasping vanilla extract. She cradles butter, an egg and three fresh doughnuts in her free tentacles. According to artist Jane Oliver, the image resonates with mothers who never seem to have enough hands.
Revolution Mill’s Central Gallery is showing a selection of Oliver’s latest works through Jan. 20. She earned her MFA in painting and printmaking from UNCG in 2002 where she taught drawing and art history courses for several years. From 2014 to 2016, she taught art history and introductory design at High Point University.
“One of the things you learn in school is the importance of keeping a sketchbook,” Oliver says. “A lot of students don’t like the idea when you turn it into a homework sort of thing but when it’s your own initiative, when you decide it’s important to keep continuing your exploration of different mediums, different things to draw, drawing from life, drawing from imagination, whatever, it’s for you and no one else. When I made a promise to myself last November [to draw every day], I thought: Well, how am I going to keep it?”
She decided to take her accountability project public on Instagram and named the account “A Daily Cute.” In the Central Gallery, her imaginings of the harried octopus hang as singles on the naturally lit walls, but a majority of her cute-themed illustrations nest in tidy three-by-three arrangements, as though copy-and-pasted from the Instagram page. Dressed up dogs hang in contrast to a motley of nude birds: a rotund owlet here, a Galápagos blue-footed booby there, all with dilated pupils, absorbing what light they can.
As a mother of two sons who returned to college in her early forties, Oliver is sensitive to the demands traditionally placed on women’s shoulders as mothers and homemakers, whether or not they participate in the formal economy.
“I drew inspiration from having been there and done that,” Oliver says. “A mom always needs four hands. You’re usually holding the infant with two hands and you can’t do anything else. So, I called the series When Your Octopus Helps Around The House. There’re your extra hands — why not go for eight? It was fun to think of various ways to put the cat in there as her little helper, too.”
Oliver points out, though, that “cats rule the internet.” So when she began her series focused on cats, the art-history buff decided to strive beyond simple, endearing portraits of friends’ and relatives’ feline companions.
“I thought, What if I combined cats, hats and the history of those hats?” she says. “That was a research-heavy project, but it was a lot of fun.”
A bergère hat lined with blossoms rests atop a chartreuse-eyed American short hair named Hazelnut; an Abyssian — thought to be an ancient breed hailing from North Africa or India’s coastal regions — wears an Egyptian headdress; a Scottish wildcat, or Highlands tiger, dons an orange and green striped tam-o-shanter cap, a compelling juxtaposition between a cultural symbol of the people whose marks on the land — particularly their introduction of domestic cats to the little tiger’s territory — continue to endanger the dwindling breed.
Oliver didn’t disregard the big cats, though; a snow leopard sports a tasseled sherpa, the mountain lion, a tiny cowboy hat between its ears.
Less darling is the artist’s rendering of Mary Shelley, a politically-radical 19th Century English writer best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein; her marriage to Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Shelley made horror a staple of home life. Shelley is the subject of one of Oliver’s double-sided mylar works during her October-long break from the project’s cuteness theme during “Drawlloween,” an Instagram artist challenge that offers a prompt list of all things spooky.
“Her story is so tragic,” Oliver says of Shelley. “She died young, her children died very young. She outlived Percy Shelley who was basically a beast — a wonderful poet, but as a human not so much. She was alone for much of her life, so I thought of making her a ghost in a house waiting for her children to come back. That was successful in getting across her loneliness and her sort of spectral nature… after fame earlier in life.”
Lips settled together, Shelley’s powder blue-face gazes outward from an ambiguous amber-brown background, an effect produced from introducing alcohol to the mylar side not covered in marker or paint. The wraith’s brown eyes are swollen with loss.
“Even though I know the importance of this [daily practice] for my development [as an artist] and for my accountability to myself, it took a while to get into the habit again,” she says. “There were days I was overwhelmed with chores… so then I shifted my priorities and started drawing first thing in the morning. You’re most creative in the morning; no matter what you’re doing, your brain is wired to do something interesting.”
Oliver says her favorite medium is graphite but that this year-long project forced her to experiment more, especially with watercolor, ink and colored pencil. She says drawing in her morning sun-filled home studio became “a kind of meditation.”
“The meditation aspect of doing it for me became really important,” she says. “It calmed me down, it gave me space in my own head and time inside my studio that was just mine. I used to meditate but then this took the place of it and it works a lot better.”