Charleston · Entertainment in SC · Interviews

An H and five W’s with Karin Olah

Introducing… (drum roll, please)… the talented, charming, and beautiful artist Karin Olah. Karin was one of the first people I met upon first moving to Charleston, SC. That first evening in this stunning city, she was sweet and welcoming. How was I to know she was also a singularly talented artist? I just HAD to feature her on my blog! So sit back, relax, and look at all the pretty colors.

Skinny Dip in the Clouds (Olah)
Skinny Dip in the Clouds (Olah)

How did you become an artist?


In the town where I grew up, quilts were the most prevalent form of art.  I was born in Lititz, a little historic town near the Amish and Mennonite farming country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


I’m not Amish, but I’ve certainly been influenced by their quilt making traditions.  Amish quilts are known for strong geometric patterns and solid blocks of deep color. The work can be interpreted as pure abstraction, very modern, and it can be somewhat Mondrian-esque.


I guess there are a million reasons why I admire quilts – the study of color and geometric design is one.  The significance of tradition, particularly among the women of the household, is something that also intrigues me. Now that we have the convenient and inexpensive option to buy our blankets at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, why would anyone put the effort and time into making a quilt?  I think it comes down to something more.  It’s a spiritual pursuit. 


If you’ve ever attempted a quilt, you may understand the painstaking attention and patience that goes into the creation of one.  Something about the stitch-stitch-stitch, the sound of soft fabric, the way it swaddles and drapes you as you attend to it.  Maybe you have felt the rewards of quilt making. Maybe you’ve experienced a connection with the women in your family through the labor of it.  I’m sure everyone has enjoyed the warmth of the final product. 


So, the Amish quilts had quite an impression on me as a teenager.  After I graduated high school, I moved to Baltimore to study at Maryland Institute College of Art, and lucky for me, they offered a Fiber Art major. 


At art school, I learned all the ways to manipulate textiles – starting with carding & spinning raw wool – then weaving, dying, screen-printing and pattern design, making garments, building structural forms…. using natural and synthetic textiles.


I experimented with unconventional materials.  I made paintings that didn’t rely on standard stretched canvas – but rather integrated soft sculpture with costumes, toys, furniture, and pillows as my blank canvas. By junior and senior years, my work continued to take its queue from the geometry of Amish quilts.  I patch-worked and appliquéd squares upon squares.  I made installations with grids of squares & stacked squares.  The squares had soft, rounded off corners, almost like slumped shoulders, as a way to personify the shape.  I used bright, colorful, plastic material, high gloss enamel paints, lots of vinyl and synthetic fabric. 


Eventually the squares softened into anthropomorphic shapes like Orbs and swirls.  I played with muted colors in juxtaposition with clear & bright crayon box colors.  I was painting or printing on fabric to make my own textile design and patterns.


I moved to NYC the day after graduation and began to work in a textile studio.  I dyed, painted, and printed on any kind of fabric that you can name.  Designers, like Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, and Marc Jacobs would give me a concept or a color swatch along with a bolt of white silk, cashmere, matte jersey, etc, etc – and then I developed and dyed all their fabric.  The fabrics were then made into the clothing that went down the runway or was sent to factories as production samples.  I got to go to the fashion shows at Bryant Park too, which was a fabulous perk of the job.  I also worked on costumes for Broadway, TV, and movies. 


After a few years, I wanted to have more time and space for making my own art.  I left NY and lived in Hawaii for a few months – where I rediscovered my love of quilts in 2002.  After learning a little about Hawaiian Pieced Quilts, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work.  My first quilts were a cross between crazy quilting and block printing – a little freestyle too since I never used patterns.  I cut up my father’s old striped business shirts.  I started collecting fabric – any solid colors that struck my fancy.


Quilting really is an art form that bridges the genres of fine art, fine craft, and fiber art, in a sometimes utilitarian way, and always in a historical context.  The quilts that are displayed in the biggest museum exhibitions are the same ones that once draped a bed or hung on a backyard wash line.


I’m taking principles of quilt making and infusing it with painting… blurring the line with painting.  I like the whole process of quilt making but I love the first few steps – from choosing fabrics, colors, & composition to piecing.  The artsy decisions.  After lots of arduous sewing, I began concentrating on just the top part, just the design process. 


 I was making miniature patch-worked quilt tops – but not finishing the back.  Then shortly after I moved to Charleston in 2003, I glued one of these experiments on paper and painted in the stitching.  Bells went off in my head and this series of work started to grow.

Who is your biggest artistic influence?


I love modern painting, abstraction, pop-art, texture, and collage.   I salivate over the works of Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Hans Hoffman, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko, and Antoni Gaudi, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcus Kenney, Ross Bleckner, Inka Essenhigh, Gary Hume, Fred Tomaselli, Jasper Johns, Carter, Emilio Lobato, Arturo Herrera, Sergej Jensen, Takashi Murakami, Matthew Ritchie, Jeff Koons, and Brian Rutenberg.


Very influential has been the Art Nouveau Movement, early Dada collages, textiles of the 1940’s and 50’s, Amish quilts, and the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.


But, It’s not so much ‘who’ that is influential on my work – it’s more like where, what, how –  It’s here, it’s home, it’s Charleston.



What is your preferred medium?


I take print making and quilt making principles, add a dash of painting, and come up with a new process… which I call collage paintings.  It looks and feels like screen-printing – one color at a time, tight edges, flat span of color, using transparent layers to create halftones / blend colors.  You can also approach the work in relation to the process of quilt-making – backing, batting, quilt top pieces, decorative stitching = canvas under-painting and loose sketch in pencil, large pieces of neutral fabrics, smaller swatches of cut and pasted textiles, textures, finishing flourishes in gouache paints.


I start with a stretched geossed canvas or linen (or heavy watercolor paper for my small studies).  Then I sketch in pencil – a sparse outline of the composition.  Then I use acrylics to push some foam-y, float-y, misty under-painting/background into the composition.  At this point the shapes begin forming.  Then after the paint dries, I begin to cut and arrange the first of 4 or 5 layers of fabric.  I use natural fabrics – mostly cottons, linens, some silk.  Then to adhere it, I spread a coating of rice starch onto the back of each piece.  It’s tricky and time consuming – and I have to make sure each fiber and each string has the right amount of paste and pressure to make it fuse.  Then I repeat all the steps a few times.  I end with more drawing and some flourishes of my paintbrush.  I use gouache for the final painting layer.  It’s an opaque watercolor-acrylic paint that is loaded with pigment and mimics the matte-look of fabric.


Where do you get your inspiration?


My palette and the shapes I use are plucked from the world around me.

 I loosely reference movement, air currents, geography, the sky, clouds, flowers, the world around me – using organic lines and abstracted shapes.  Are we wrapped up in and warmed under the blanket of sky?  My inspiration comes from the sky, the sun, the air, the earth.  There’s a mystery in the layers of atmosphere in the clouds; there’s a happy energy that the sun gives off, there’s a personal connection to the grass, the sand, the trees — these are all emotions that I hope to capture in my work.


Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the shade of the sky throughout the day and the way the water reflects that shade – hence – I’m working on a lot of blue paintings this season.  These organic and rounded shapes follow the curve of the marsh, the meandering waterways, and the arc of jet plumes, the weight of clouds, and air currents.  It’s Spring – It’s breezy – I’m imagining the color and shapes of the wind (if it wasn’t invisible). 


I love the way that, in graffiti, abstraction emerges from something we look at everyday – the alphabet.  Graffiti art has its own vernacular, its own language in symbols.  I think it actually has a lot in common with quilts. 


I consider language, lettering, handwriting, and cursive.  When you unwind a spool of thread it has a similar flow as antiquated script.  A ruffle is just a series of the letter M.  Follow the hemline of a skirt and you’ll have the letter O.  When I paint, I think about how far can I distort a letter until it is just an abstract shape?  How do I write a word that no one can read? 


Actually, it might be easier to mention all the things I don’t get inspiration from… which would be a blank list.


When are you most artistic?


After a day at the beach, after a flight somewhere, after spending time in nature, after a day at art museums… I fill up on visual stimulation, then return to my studio, pick up the scissors and paint brush and recall the shapes and colors I’ve seen.  I try to spend at least 2 hours each evening in my studio, but on weekends, when I have the time to spare, I’ll work for 5 – 8 hours.


Why are you an artist?


I aim to stir up emotion.  I’m working with textiles as a way to share my emotions about beauty and the metaphorical aspects of fabrics.  Because my work is non-objective, color and the layering of shapes can be the star of the show.  A brain always tries to recognize an image (or what it sort of looks like).  Since I’m not offering an easily recognizable composition – like a figure or object, the brain has a curious moment to figure out what it is.  Hopefully that is the point when someone looks closer at the work – realizes it is made out of fabric – then the brain recollects all of its associations with textiles. 

So a viewer, maybe, thinks about a family quilt, a baby blanket, a favorite dress or the feeling of fabric on the skin, feeling covered up…. comfortable… warm… safe.  Emotions of tranquility and happiness. 

Creating and Inventing something I’ve never seen before is painfully difficult, but the reward of finishing a painting is so great.  When someone has a connection to what I do… when they are moved to own a painting… so that they can experience that connection every day… it is such a fulfilling moment.


Thank you, Karin, for being so eloquent and inspiring! See more of Karin’s work at her website:

No Lemon No Melon (Olah)
No Lemon No Melon (Olah)


One thought on “An H and five W’s with Karin Olah

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