Masters of Light: Olivia Steele
July 2019 - by SORAA
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Olivia Steele is a woman of many mantras—powerful mantras that inspire and enlighten when immortalized in her neon masterpieces. The contemporary light artist fuses glass, noble gas and light to manifest emotions and dreams the human eye can see, study and appreciate.
Steele has shared her symbolic and sometimes irreverent creations across the globe, with light installations in Berlin, Germany, Mumbai, India, and Tulum, Mexico. Inspired by her philosophies around light and art, we reached out to Steele to learn more about her extraordinary vision.
Read on for an illuminating conversation with Steele complete with eye-opening revelations and witty banter.
An Artist is Born
“My work is born from my dreams and search for meaning.” —Olivia Steele
Tell us about your path to becoming an artist.
I was definitely born an artist. My mother was a country music singer and interior designer with a very trained eye, which I think I developed from her. My father was a businessman by trade but a real intellectual and philosopher of sorts. He would have wise quotes or truisms for just about anything.
I was born with a heightened sensitivity to light, which affected me a lot in grade school. Lighting and contemporary art was always an important feature in our family home and I have definitely adopted my parent’s obsession with lighting, which probably influenced how and why I chose to work with it.
My real gateway into the art world came with Pret A Diner—a pop-up dining experience, which I founded with my former partner in 2011. It was an ephemeral dining venture in iconic locations across Europe; an ambitious collaboration between Michelin Star Chefs, art galleries, famous mixologists and musicians and performers.
I was the creative director of Pret A Diner and it gave me the platform to transform some pretty incredible spaces while exhibiting and selling my artwork. Over a span of 3 years, I opened 13 restaurants and was exhausted, to say the least. The sudden death of my father and the necessity to take a break from it all is what opened the door to leaving everything behind and dedicating myself to my art full time. After all, it's the work of an artist to turn dreams into responsibilities.
How would you describe your artistic style?
I harness the power of neon gas to manifest my symbolic and sentimental statements in various environments that consist of short, punctuated truths mirroring the ingenuity and malaise of humankind.
The nature of my installations is experiential. They influence the viewer’s awareness of language, emotion and context that stimulate feelings of inspiration, reflection and curiosity. My work is an interplay between language, interpretation, contrast and contradiction. At times, it’s ironic, often humorous and subliminally subversive.
My work is born from my dreams and search for meaning. It’s all about confrontation, empowerment and expansion. It’s about sharing old wisdom and internal mantras outwardly; about challenging, summoning and even seducing my viewers into considering the weight of the messages and truisms I strive to convey. This intention and drive shapes my ever-evolving style: a play of light between semiotics and the somatic experience.
What is one of your favorite art installations?
Because we are talking about light, I immediately think of the light architecture of James Turrell. I see what he created as light installations; when the sun shines through the forms he made and hits the walls at different angles, it illuminates its power. Light is fleeting and intangible, but incredibly powerful. To see someone working with it intentionally the way I strive to, manifesting with precision to show the viewers the capacity light has, is moving and motivating.
What inspires you and your work?
I’m inspired by a plethora of fluctuating elements, from current issues, current feelings to past reflections and revelations. Poets, philosophers, mystics and the works my father inspired me to seek outwardly and inwardly give me the impetus to form words out of neon. Nature and my dreams, however, are my greatest inspiration
What do you hope people learn and/or feel when they view your work?
My work is quite personal, drawn from my life and dreams, but ironically, this is what makes it universal. After all, we are all one. I hope my work conveys my own attempts to live every moment with conscious intention by inspiring in viewers a moment of reflection and introspection.
It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors. Because I believe this, I believe that every person can take from my work exactly what they need to see and feel in the moment they encounter it. So, finally, it is up to the viewer to observe their own reactions and configure their own reading.
What inspired you to choose light art as your preferred medium?
I have always been significantly affected by light. It deeply impacts my emotions and state of being. I pursued a master’s degree in lighting design and developed a very deep appreciation for the technical aspects of light. I still have this appreciation and I always create and install with precision. I have an eye for details and I can’t look away until what I want to create is done perfectly.
I love neon. When I came to it you could say I had a love affair with it, and that hasn’t ended. Working with glass, noble gas and light is exactly what I need to be doing. The fragility, complexity and spectrum of colors that can be achieved with lots of little tricks is incomparable to any other light source.
Light as Art
“Light is the language of the Gods. Text is the language of Humans. I work between the two.” —Olivia Steele
What does light symbolize to you as an individual?
The beauty of darkness is that it forces you to create light. My life has become an ongoing process of turning darkness into light. Light does not sugarcoat; it illuminates. Coming from my childhood with my mother’s knack for design and perfectly curated lighting and my father’s words of wisdom fostered my interest in light design and spiritualism.
Both light and spirituality have to be handled with extreme care and dedication. It is this level of attention that I appreciate deeply. I have to show up for my work just as my work shows up for me. My life has not always been easy, but through the process of creation, I have been able to heal and remain present, evolving and fearless. Light is the language of the Gods. Text is the language of Humans. I work between the two.
How do you think light impacts humans as they experience art?
Light is everything. It draws us in and directs our attention. It is a powerful tool for creating and curating that can make or break a piece of art or an art show.
How do you choose a color for each art piece when illuminating your work?
This is purely intuitive. Sometimes, when conceptualizing an artwork, I get a “download.” Often, when I am installing an artwork, the vision for the next piece comes to me in full color. Sometimes, it is an aesthetic choice, but I’m mostly guided by the process of creating. Things don’t always come easily, but they come naturally. I know my colors and surroundings well.
How does light play a role in all art, regardless of medium?
As I mentioned before, light is everything—from gallery shows to art fairs, from billboards to studio lighting. Light is the cornerstone of how art moves through the world and is displayed, which in turn deeply influences the viewer’s experience of the artwork and world.
Is there a specific color that you tend to use often when creating art? What does that mean to you?
The color I use most is called Salmon Rose, which comes from an Italian glass company. It's the perfect synthesis of calmness, warmth, subtlety and sophistication. It's a great color to live with. It’s important to take into account the livable factor of colors because neon can be blinding and bright. A dimmer is always obligatory !
You mentioned in your manifesto that your works were a result of coping with the turbulence of your childhood. Which art piece moved or inspired you the most?
A piece with my late father’s handwriting, “See you on the other side…”, was one of my first artworks. It was a collaboration with my dad. No one knew he was going to go so soon. But, he is always with me, and having this piece in my life is a beautiful reminder.