RESPECT. Interview: Olivia Sisay and Nudity, Fears, and Kubrick Films


Art is expression, but art also can’t be a crutch. Art is self-reflection but it’s also a confession of a lack of knowledge on oneself. Art is organized by beginning & end, but the ends and beginnings operate in chaos. In a world of dichotomies, and coupled with the business and unethical conundrums of “the art world,” as Olivia Sisay says, being sure to air-quote with her fingers when they weren’t muffling her stained wine glass, art and its culture are misinterpreted and are oftentimes transformed into an unapologetic realm of repressed emotions and expression.

An adolescence in Lancaster, Pennsylvania entailed of art censorship from school administration and straddling from the unapologetic, unaware patriarchal standards which meant nudity, sexuality, and fears were either sequestered as taboo subjects or jested at in defense of a vulnerability. Through this environment, Olivia experimented with the female and male bodies in her paintings, colors to match feelings and auras, and an alarming self-awareness about who she was and what she enjoyed to make her art out of.

Olivia brought a glass of wine to the small table and sat it next to magazines and unfinished fruit as she spoke with RESPECT. to discuss the mysterious “art world,” her fears, mental illness, sex, and the subtle influence of Stanley Kubrick films on her artwork.

RESPECT.: What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid of most things (laughs). I think in terms of art, I’m afraid of getting to a point in my life where I’m not proud of myself anymore, or a point where I feel like I’ve done all the growing I can do. I don’t wanna get to a point where I’m like “alright, it’s not getting any better.”

RESPECT.: I think thats totally a subjective thing. Growth.

Yeah completely. I measure growth creatively, by just seeing change in what I’m making, and seeing a message in what I’m making. I think when I first started expressing myself in art it was all over the place, but going forward I was starting to see myself in all the things that I make. As far as just being a person though, I think my personal relationships have grown; and you can measure growth in that aspect by how well you make friends, or, like, how well you attract people who you don’t know so well. I’m think I’m getting better at that, or, at least I’m trying to.

RESPECT.: That second part’s difficult. You need participation from both crowds if you want to make friends or network proper. It’s not just reliant on you, but reliant on the other person’s desire to engage; and that’s difficult since it’s always arbitrary, I feel. So, you may think you have social skills, but other people may not, you know? So, on that fear of not being able to grow socially: it’s totally a two way thing.

Totally. I mean, if you just don’t get along with someone, then you can’t beat yourself up about it, and call yourself unrelatable. Sometimes people don’t get you- and that’s okay. But you also have to, you know, tell yourself “I’m the sh*t,” and accept your understanding of yourself over someone else’s understanding of you.

RESPECT.: So on that two way dynamic: does an art piece have meaning or do people give it meaning? Additionally, which is more important?

People 100% give the meaning. Some artists- and I don’t know if this goes all the way to the most renowned people, just speaking on some artists I’ve met- make something that means absolutely nothing to them. And they’ll put it up and say “watch what people say about this,” and you’ll get like a million different reactions. It’s crazy, because I’ve definitely made things that were just, like, bullsh*t, and someone says something about it and I’d be like “….you know what, you’re right (laughs), that makes perfect sense.” And a lot of artists do actually try to make a statement- political statements, mainly- in their art, but I feel like it doesn’t mean anything. One piece of art won’t change anything, people’s reactions to it is what makes the statement, as well as the number of people who do react, and the way in which they go about reacting to it. And I don’t know if that’s my personal goal as a creative, but, it does feel good for people when respond, especially being a person who’s not very good with words. I’m not good verbally articulating things, so when people react to something I made, it makes me feel, in a way, like I’m an influence. And that’s awesome.

RESPECT.: Art’s kinda like a social experiment.

(laughs) I don’t know. Sometimes. Art definitely has purposes other than delivering a message. It’s not just to get a reaction, or to get people to think. Sometimes, it’s real personal; it’s really person to person, or piece to piece. I think a lot of art is trying to understand yourself, but you can’t understand yourself until other people tell you who you are.

RESPECT.: So then, and this question always gets a million different interpretations, are you who you say you are, or are you what other people say you are? In other words, you could say “I’m a funny person,” though, ultimately, it’s up to other people to assign that trait to you.

Yeah I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that, in conjunction with, like, authenticity on the internet; personal branding and all that. I see a lot of people, who I don’t personally know, who I’d consider to be genuine on social media; they talk about their problems, they share things they like, stuff like that. They kinda say, “hey, I f*cked this up, but it’ll be okay,” and that’s kinda like the general thing with people who I enjoy following.

I started thinking: is that authentic? Or are they trying to seem relatable and authentic for the purpose of being more popular? It’s real frustrating. I do feel like, though, that whereas back then people liked keeping their blogs squeaky clean and aesthetically pleasing, today are trying to focus more on being their real self on the internet in a way that’s effortless. It’s so hard to keep up with that stuff when you’re not who you are. It’s straining. That’s why Youtubers talk about their depression all the time; their whole career, for the most part, is being themselves, but not really themselves.

RESPECT.: It’s performing.

Yeah! It’s acting. But yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and my own personal brand, even though I don’t think I have one yet.

RESPECT.: One of my PR professor’s told me that “every little thing you do is PR.” In that sense, even the least business/artistic savvy people have personal brands.

On a similar note, everything I’ve tossed up on social media has been very spur of the moment, so I think I pride myself on that. I guess my brand is a “lack of effort” kind (laughs). Nothing is really cohesive on there, and it’s a reflection of who I am, naturally, as a person. It’s also interesting that I’ve met people before who’ve looked at my social media and been like, “If I hadn’t met you in person, I’d be real intimidated of you,” and it’s so interesting because, like I said before, it’s the opposite (laughs); a lot of things intimidate me. But perception is a crazy thing. I can put something up on social media and be like “this is me, this is genuine, I like this, it’s going up,” and people can come to a completely different conclusion.

When you really think about the “art world,” and this is going back to the PR thing you mentioned before, is complete bullsh*t (laughs). People talk about it as if it’s this deep, mysterious place, and it’s very exclusive, and you have to have a certain mind to take part in it. It’s so stupid, you know? I’m not well known as an artist, so I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have a living off of it, but, the fact that someone can make a painting, and sell it for 50G, while someone can make a technically similar painting, and someone could sell it for $5 on the street is ridiculous. It comes from privilege, exposure, networking, and all this other stuff. It isn’t about the talent, it’s about who you know. A lot of people may say it’s “who does it first” but it isn’t about it at all.

I also hate that plenty successful artists- however you may define success, be it through fame or money- aren’t willing to collaborate with lesser known artists. A successful artist would be more inclined to collaborate with another known artist, or one of greater exposure, than someone who’s lesser known and technically and creatively better. I hate exclusion of any sort, and it’s bad that this industry I want to be a part of is engrossed in it. It doesn’t “help” this successful artist at all if they’re like, “I’m not gonna collab with you because you’re a street performer.” So, back to your question, maybe branding doesn’t even matter- or maybe it’s all that matters, since it’s all about “who you know.” I don’t know.

Self at 17

Self at 17

RESPECT.: Was “Self at 17” a portrait of 17? In other words, is that image of the overarching feel of what 17 years old was?

I wouldn’t say it was all of “being 17.” I would say that at this point in my life, it was the end of my first semester of my senior year of high school. So I was about to turn 18. And I would say at this point in my life, the visual with the girl with her hands through her hair, crouching, was (laughs) 100% who I was.

I don’t know. I was in a meaningless relationship, I was struggling creatively for sure. And that portrait, actually, was the first portrait of a nine part series that eventually became my senior project, and that portrait jumpstarted it. It completely began this whole different level of me as an artist and figuring out what I like to do. So that’s actually the most significant piece I’d ever made, to be honest. It reflected how I was feeling as a student, as a friend, as a daughter, as a girlfriend, and as an artist. I wasn’t feeling bad about myself, but I just didn’t want people to see who I was at that point, because I wasn’t really ready to show who I was, nor did I know. It’s funny you ask about it (laughs), I never actually thought about it until just now, verbalizing it.

RESPECT.: So on being “17,” and on the teenage years being the most formative years of an individuals life, would your artwork be the same if you weren’t you at 17? Also, using that misfortune as your influence- are you using it as a crutch?

I would say, as far as subject matter goes, some of it might’ve been different. But when I say that depression, hard times and anxiety is a “crutch,” I don’t mean that it makes your art better. I mean you’re using it as a motive to make art. I worry about a lot of creatives who struggle with mental illness who say to themselves “I don’t want to get better, because without that- without this- what am I gonna write about, or what am I gonna paint about?” And it sucks because any emotion you’re feeling is gonna inspire something. So if I were f*cking elated as sh*t at 17, I could’ve made a piece that was equally as great as that, and it would’ve meant just as much. “Self at 17” wasn’t my most successful piece because I was depressed, it was because I used art to work through a problem in an effective, and creative way.

Living Room

Living Room

RESPECT.: Describe “Living Room” and the meaning behind it.

Living Room started as just me trying to figure out color. Throughout a lot of high school, I was doing a lot of assignments and I was never happy with how I did with color. This one took me like 20 minutes (snaps fingers), it was all done in marker (laughs). It’s one of my favorite pieces because it totally embodies what my mission is as a an artist and what I’m trying to accomplish with color. There’s plenty dimensions in that painting, too. Very angular and stuff.

It also may be totally a coincidence, but I was looking through my childhood books when I went home, and I found my favorite book as a kid, Goodnight Moon and it’s literally the same exact colors as the piece. It’s like Goodnight Moon X-Rated (laughs).

Also, I was actually rereading one of my favorite books, A Clockwork Orange, and it’s super sick. There’s something about that piece that’s kind of…. sick. Demented. The “Ooo’s” and “Ahh’s” are me trying to add elements of sex in my pieces, which I guess can go back to the A Clockwork Orange thing.

RESPECT.: Real interesting how the Kubrick film and sex completely modified that idea of book for children that sits in libraries and schools everywhere.

Yeah and I’m not too sure if it was intentional on my end either. But looking back on the piece it would make a lot of sense if I did do that. The whole sexual theme is just very comfortable for me. I remember in high school I got a lot of my pieces taken down because they had exposed boobs in them. One of the pieces I gave you, “Catherine,” got taken down because the girl has a bush- that was wasn’t even allowed to go up. I showed it anyway (laughs).

It’s just crazy to me. Sex seems so comfortable to me, I just find it interesting that it’s so easy for me, and so easy to put elements of pornography or nudity in my art- and not even pornography. Nudity isn’t even always sexual. Like, in “Self at 17,” the person in the picture is naked, but it wasn’t meant to be sexual, even though a lot of people decided to view it that way. Same thing with “In Blue”; the piece screams depression, but because the person is naked the meaning is stripped from it and it becomes sexual.

In Blue

In Blue

RESPECT.: Do you ever stop yourself short of putting too much emotion, or yourself, into some art?

No. I feel like that’s what I’m like in my real life. I feel like my art, even though it may not be reflecting exactly how I feel, is a way for me to be comfortable with telling people that “I am feeling this” or “I have felt this.” It’s comforting for me to be like “it’s out there now.” I definitely struggle with showing people my reality in day-to-day conversation, so in art there’s just no holding back any emotion.

RESPECT.: Are you generally obsessive about finishing projects? 

Absolutely not. If anything I struggle to finish. Starting a piece is the hardest part of art, and finishing is the second hardest (laughs). Actually doing it is the easiest, because it’s in the groove, but figuring out when to stop is difficult.

Follow Olivia on Twitter and Instagram, and be on the look out for the first issue of her Art and Culture magazine, Rich Girl, due sometime this year.

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