We traditionally associate the trek up Science Hill with Intro Physics or Issues Approach to Biology. But from Sept. 11 to Dec. 19, 2015, there’s a different reason to make the trip: art. The exhibition “Many Voices, One Song” by artist Ava Orphanoudakis is being showcased in the Environmental Science Center at 21 Sachem Street. In a long hallway with tables and photos of majestic birds, there now hangs a series of intricate works.
The first surprising thing about the exhibit is the size of the works: most of them measure 8’ x 11.5’, the size of a standard sheet of paper. But Orphanoudakis manages to convey grandness independent of size. She manages, through smoothings and scratchings of the surface, frantic uncurling of inked lines and shapes, richness of color, and a myriad of textures, to capture creation. Over dinner at Claire’s, she talked about her inspiration, her technique, and combining natural history with art.
YH: Why is it that you chose to use your art to get across a message about the environment? Or why is the environment what specifically inspired you?
Orphanoudakis: Oh, well, because I have such strong feelings about nature and the environment. I’ve done a lot of work. Environmental education work also. I don’t know if you saw but I got a grant from the Niarchos Foundation and that was a collaboration between the Natural History Museum in Crete and the Yale Peabody Museum. I worked in both places, so I wanted to bring them together. So the collaboration was multi-layered. We had education collaborations between the two, and collaboration between the exhibits department, the construction department. We had Yale students that hooked up with the professors and then they had a team. So the geologists would have a team with a professor from Yale and two students, along with a professor from Crete and two students. And the students would come to Crete for the Yale-Crete Summer School and they wrote papers together and everything else. Students from Crete would then go to Yale for the summer. And then we exchanged exhibits. We had the biodiversity of Crete here, in the Peabody Museum. And the biodiversity of Connecticut went to Crete.
YH: It’s interesting how you managed to combine environmental work within a different sort of museum, natural history, but at the same time you also make these pieces which are very artistic.
Orphanoudakis: Yes. Yeah. For me it’s always about the story. I’ve studied art and I’m of course very interested and it’s very important for the aesthetics to be right too because I don’t think the message can be conveyed if I don’t have all the aesthetics right. I try my best on both levels. It’s real important. You never know, you can’t force people to get the message. And the other thing that has always inspired my work is poetry and writing. So that’s why this time for this exhibition I did a lot of poetry quotes with each painting.
YH: How did you choose? Because I saw that you had Annie Dillard, and you had Rilke, Aristotle, Chief Seattle. Are those just bits and pieces of books that you’ve read and noted down?
Orphanoudakis: I picked my favorite people and I looked them up. I had read a lot from these various people. Some are from books. Some are quotes that I’ve had. Like the Plotinus quote. That was something I’ve treasured. That quote, I have it memorized. Like Tagore, I love Tagore. I love Rilke. Gary Schneider. All the people I picked are people I’m familiar with and that I love.
YH: Some of the poems are by Greeks. Were those written specifically for the exhibition?
Orphanoudakis: One was. It was the one by Francesca Sweeny-Androulakis. She’s Irish, but she lives in Crete. We have a poet’s group in Crete. And she wrote that poem specifically for my exhibition. And then there were two other artists from Crete, but they drew from their poetry. They tried to find poems that could match.
YH: I felt like there were sections of the exhibition that corresponded to certain elements. Is that the case?
Orphanoudakis: Yes. That’s what it was all about. I had the introductory pieces and then it went Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and then I concluded with integrated pieces. “Interpenetration” is one of them. “Many Voices, One Song.” “Earth, Water, Ice.” Those were pieces where I was trying to combine elements in one piece.
YH: I noticed that you had “Lit by Moonlight, Standing Tall,” “Falling Night Rain, Standing Tall,” “Chased by the Wind, Standing Tall,” “Blown by the Wind, Standing Tall.” And those were scattered all around. What inspired those pieces specifically, along with that title?
Orphanoudakis: That was definitely a story, that one. First of all, for me, standing tall means something is present. There is something standing present in the middle of this environment and the environment with all its elements is responding and reacting to what is present. So it’s a sort of interaction between something and everything else. And I have a thing for trees. I did a lot of work about trees. I have a real love for trees. And my father and I, he used to plant trees everywhere. And when I was young he always—I have scoliosis, and he would always take me and pull my shoulders back and say: stand up, tall. Stand tall. And he was a guy that was always present, always standing tall in a gentle way. And so I realized that all these paintings, they came after the death of my father, so they were really about my father. What he taught me really came through in the paintings.
YH: The vast majority of your pieces were exactly the same size. I thought it was going to be a huge work, but then I got there and it was modest. How do you fit so much detail into this small space?
Orphanoudakis: It isn’t that I’ve always worked small. I have in the past three years, but I change my process all the time. I used to do installation work and those were huge. I used to have to hire a truck to do that, so it just depends on the theme, what I’m working with, the materials I’m working with. So this is on recycled paper because those papers are done from magazines that I dissolved. I used a solvent and I dissolved the inks on calendars, magazines and things like that. And so my process is first dissolving, and as it’s dissolving I will either print things into it or use tools to make marks into it, and then I let it dry and do ink lines. It’s a slow, very slow process. It takes like three years.
YH: Within some of the paintings, almost all of the paintings actually, I saw that you had borders, or you created some sort of border with shapes and movement. Why did you do that?
Orphanoudakis: I’m really working a lot with edges. This is an aesthetic, compositional thing I’m working with. Because rhythm, pattern, and movement are very important to me. So, in the composition, if I have a lot of movement even if it’s a small space, I have to stop the movement so that it doesn’t just fly off the page. And so I have a counter-movement. There’s a counter-movement on one side that kind of integrates the side that’s going to go flying off with the rest of it. It’s a compositional thing. It’s a way of keeping the story in. Keeping the story in but creating, I hope, a sense of movement and relation from one side to the other.
YH: You said that some of the questions you are most interested in are: Can we listen to the music of the Earth? Can we hear many voices as one song? How would you respond to those questions yourself?
Orphanoudakis: Well, you know, I hear the music of the Earth all the time. And I think we can hear the music of the Earth. I think people do feel connected… if we feel that way, I think we will have a more caring and protective attitude. That’s what it’s all about. I hope the paintings will inspire people to think more about that if they haven’t thought about it, or to feel it more deeply if they do feel connected.
YH: Your final piece, “Many Voices One Song,” was the only one that was split up. Why did you choose to individually frame each of those pieces but still hang them together?
Orphanoudakis: I think the pieces themselves, even though they are really little, had a lot of work and detail in them. I think that giving them the space around them gives more of a rhythmical feel. And then “many voices”: I thought it was better in terms of the theme. It showed many voices, but if you look at them all together, it’s one song. So. I thought that was the way I wanted to do it.