The Suzy Greenberg MFA Exhibition 2022, Interview with Olivia Gallenberger
Updated: Apr 6
Opening this Saturday, February 26th is our annual Suzy Greenberg MFA Exhibition show, Juried by Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and Coordinator of the Minnesota Exhibition Program at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Nicole Soukup. 2022 marks our 20th year of exhibiting MFA candidates, and this the first year we have extended this opportunity to both MFA programs at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota.
Please enjoy this series of interviews with the selected artists for this exhibition! Up first is sculptor Olivia Gallenberger, who is a current MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.
maybe the void isn't so bad after all, Olivia Gallenberger, ceramic, acrylic paint, wallpaper, various heights, 2021.
Where do you hail from?
I’m from Wisconsin. My hometown is called Oostburg (no one really knows where it is so I usually say I’m from ‘near Sheboygan’.
How do you find yourself and your work fitting into the Midwest?
I’ve only ever lived in the midwest. It’s a part of who I am. Contrary to what some may think, there is diversity throughout Wisconsin that has definitely impacted my work. I grew up in a building that was over 100 years old and made of beautiful brick in a small town right along Lake Michigan and surrounded by corn fields and cows. I went to undergrad at UW-Madison and spent 5 years there. Although my parents made it a point to do things in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Madison, and Chicago when I was growing up, to not let me and my brother become sheltered in our small town, it was a culture shock in some ways moving to a big city.
I became somewhat obsessed with the brutalist architecture on campus and fascinated by the fact that some of my lecture classes contained more people than my entire high school. I loved the fact that I got to experience using public transportation for the first time. It gave me more freedom than I’ve ever had before. There was also a diversity of students from different backgrounds that I had never had before. I learned so much about different cultures and met some amazing people (and got to eat some great food.)
After undergrad I lived in Door County, Wisconsin for two years. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived and probably will ever live. So many state and county parks, I finally was able to appreciate nature and find some solace in hiking. Clean and clear air, crazy rock formations, incredible beaches, endless cherry and apple orchards.
I spent a couple summer’s in Minneapolis as an assistant and then instructor for the kid’s classes at Northern Clay Center. That experience planted the seed for me wanting to find my way back here somehow. There was just something about Minneapolis, I couldn’t and still can’t put my finger on it but I just felt this pull to be here. It became an almost relentless goal of mine. I’m at a point right now where I can see myself being here for longer than the three years of my MFA program. I moved 11 times in 8 years, I’m so sick of it. I can see myself settling down in Minneapolis.
I'm sure you're asked this question a lot, but for this group it varies, some of you graduated unexpectedly into the pandemic and for some this may have been a conscious decision, sowhy grad school -now?
I knew I wanted to get an MFA, to be able to teach at a college level since I learned that was a thing that was possible when I was in undergrad. I also was advised by many to give myself at least a year in between. Originally I was thinking about giving myself five years, but in reality I had two. It was a somewhat last minute decision for me to apply to grad school, I think I decided in December of 2019.
I was feeling very trapped and under-appreciated at the main job I had, isolated in the area I was living in, and I just wanted to find a way to get out of rural Wisconsin. I secretly applied to a number of schools, I didn’t tell anyone besides the people I asked for recommendations, my roommate at the time, and a couple friends. I didn’t want anyone to know, in case I didn’t get in. I saw it as a practice round for the next year. But also, there was some work that would have been “too old” to apply with if I had waited another year. It was work I was proud of making in undergrad and integral to what my art practice is today.
There were some top ceramics schools I didn’t even apply to because I didn’t think I was good enough, even though the U was my top choice, I look back and wish I had the confidence in my art as I do now. COVID was something that seemed on the fringes at that time, it wasn’t something I was necessarily worried about. Things got better where I was living, I had a better job and felt myself finally growing a social circle, I almost considered deferring a year, I wanted to stay where I was, I finally found myself settling into Door County and I was worried about COVID in a big city, I was worried about the uprising after George Floyd’s murder, but I knew that I had to take this opportunity. It just felt like the correct next step in my life and career.
the two of us, Olivia Gallenberger, ceramic, yarn, glitter, artist’s hair, built to the artist’s height (5ft, 2in), 2021.
How has the pandemic affected your approach to grad school and/or your plans for or after?
It has been recently pointed out to me that settling into my grad school experience was not easy. I guess I never realized that until a few days ago. I just took everything in stride and accepted it as it was. That’s just what I’ve done for most of my life with challenging situations. I thrive on chaos. I find it motivating, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. I’m giving myself time to regroup and focusing on caring for myself right now. That’s not something that is easy for me to do. That’s something I’ve learned to do in grad school.
Obviously being in school during the pandemic has been different than expected. Wearing masks and social distancing is so important, but I feel that I’m not able to connect with my students, professors and peers as well as I normally would have. I’m a very expressive person with a sometimes blunt tone in my voice and that gets lost with my face being covered. I’ve had to focus on the tone of my voice and how I give instruction more than I would have in the past, but that being said I think it is an important skill for me to develop. It’s definitely still a work in progress. The physical distance is difficult too, I see the students I TA for more in person than my cohort (besides the person I share a studio with) and other grads in the program. Those social interactions with my students became crucial to my sanity, otherwise I felt myself becoming more and more isolated.
I’ve always planned on pursuing a career in higher education, the pandemic hasn’t changed that, but it’s forced me to think critically about my interpersonal and professional interactions at an accelerated pace. I’ve had to adapt how I communicate with others, to give direct, yet helpful feedback and instructions.
As an artist, you're often asked to "describe your practice", so for the sake of maybe sounding a little less pretentious, what are some things you like about your practice? What kickstarts things in the studio for you?
The music I listen to heavily influences my work, it’s not completely obvious, but I know it's there. I can categorize the work I’ve made over the years by the albums I was listening to on repeat in the studio while making. A large chunk of the titles I’ve made given my work are inspired by lyrics too. I’m also forever inspired by science fiction. I love how people in the past imagined the future or how film and television has defined what we see as “out of this world.” While I was building the forms in maybe the void isn’t so bad after all I was watching my favorite show of all time (Fringe) and then when I was working on the surface I was watching the original Star Trek series. I think that’s very evident in the colors in that piece. When I was making the works the two of us and can you taste the shame when you licked my wounds?, I was listening to the albums Petals for Armor and FLOWERS for VASES / descansos by Hayley Williams. Those albums are vulnerable and full of self discovery, which is reflected in the work I made.
Honestly, challenges in my life kickstart things in the studio. When I’m not motivated to work with clay I know things aren’t going good. I enjoy the rituals I have while working with clay: rolling the coils, flattening them with a paddle, pinching them together. This process is a quasi religious experience for me - an Atheist who was raised Catholic’s own version of praying the Rosary. I find that concentrating on building clay forms, allows me to clear my head and face life head on.
What kind of elements often show up in your work?
Clay is my one true love. This material will always be present in my life and the process of coil building feels like a ritual dedicated to it. It could be considered my “signature style” since I’ve been almost exclusively coil building for the past 6 years.
What are some themes you were working on before and how/if has grad school has shifted or focused your practice?
In many ways the work I’ve made in grad school feels like an evolved continuation of where I left off in undergrad. I’m still thinking about my family’s bakery, my love for science fiction and brutalist architecture, an odd obsession with the color blue, and the interactions I have with clay - I’ve just now been able to add a more personal connection to the work. To figure out why I’m making what I do and give myself freedom to feel vulnerable in the process. Grad school has given me the chance to be more confident in what I make, to have to really dig deep and think through what I’m doing. The psychological aspects of my making. Acknowledging that clay has saved my life. I’ve started using myself as a reference. Measuring out my body proportions to use as a guide. I’m building taller works. Letting my sculptures take up space instead of making something that is easy to put on a typical white pedestal.
How has the pandemic affected your studio practice?
Honestly, it hasn’t affected much. Given the fact that I primarily work with clay, I’ve always had to rely on a physical space to work in and being around glaze materials and kilns. I’ve always worked in a private or semi private space. I have to be “in the studio” for my sculptures to exist. I enjoy having a “work” environment. It keeps things separate. I do some drawing and reading related to my art practice at home but that’s pretty much it. Honestly, it’s harder to motivate myself to leave my apartment when it’s so cold outside.
Work in progress image provided by Olivia Gallenberger, 2022.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a few things, I’m making some pinch pots that are going to have some weird glazes on them. The color theme is going to be related to an album of one of my favorite bands. They’re coming here in March and so I’m planning on giving them a set as a gift. I wouldn’t have found inspiration for the glazes I’m using if I wasn’t listening to that album on repeat at the time I was glaze testing last semester. It seems fitting to make something for them.
I’m also working on a new series of coil built ceramic “limbs”. I’m working on two at a time with the same proportions as my arms. Then I’m distorting and manipulating them in various ways - ripping, throwing, cutting them and then trying to suture them back together. I’m taking the foundry class here at the U. I’ve made alginate molds of my fingers and tongue and cast them in wax. I’m planning on arranging them in various ways and casting them in metal. It’s totally experimental and like nothing I’ve done before. Hoping to incorporate some of them into the ceramic sculptures I make. Also excited about just having them exist on their own.
How can we help? (this is a general "we", it could mean the gallery, individuals, institutions, charitable organizations)
Paying artists what they're worth. Acknowledging hard work through compensation. As much as I hate to say that, unfortunately we all need money to not only survive - but to exist in society. The bare minimum is not enough to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and pay for vital medications among many other living expenses. I hate the term “starving artist” - I want food security in my profession and I’m sure most people in other lines of work feel the same way.
The Suzy Greenberg MFA Exhibition runs from February 26th to March 26th, meet the artists at the opening reception of this show from 6-9pm on Saturday the 26th, and stop by the gallery during normal hours to see this work by Olivia and their talented cohort!