Often composed of individual paintings pieced together to form a cohesive image, Mat Ollig’s work reflects upon fragmented memories and constructed narratives. Ollig illustrates ideas and subjects understood by a communal consciousness, retelling the stories of previous generations. By depicting scenes and themes of history, adventure, and innovation, Ollig aims to propel the viewer towards the future through an understanding of the past. We are thrilled to have Mat Ollig as our Artist of the Month and enjoyed gaining greater insight into the concepts and techniques behind his practice.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Was being an artist always a part of your plan?
For me, there was never a doubt that I was going to be an artist. I was able to draw before I could walk. I grew up watching art documentaries on PBS and was fascinated by everything around me.
All throughout school, I engaged in every artistic endeavor I could. I painted theater sets and murals. My junior and senior years of high school were spent at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, MN. After graduation, I spent three years studying traditional painting techniques, which landed me at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. There, I took the opportunity to study in Italy for a semester at the Accademia di Bella Arti in Florence.
After college, I was fortunate enough to begin selling my paintings at a fairly regular pace and became a full-time artist a few months afterwards, and ever since.
Conjunction of Ganymede, oil on panel, 45×40 inches
Describe your art in one word.
Tell me more about your choice of medium. What is the best and worst thing about painting?
I chose oil paint because it allows more control than any other medium. Having painted in oil for over half my life, I’ve learned to control the thickness, texture, and drying time of the paint, allowing me to fine tune the effect I want. Oil paint also carries with it a sense of history and importance that I appreciate, especially in connection with my thesis regarding nostalgia.
For me, the best thing about painting is that you are able to transport a person into an entire universe. Unlike sculpture, which connects you with a location and interacts with it’s surroundings, painting opens a door into another reality and presents you with new ideas and new concepts.
The worst thing about painting for me is its allure. I get lost in it, and I become enamored with its look, feel, and sensation as it glides onto the canvas.
A few years ago, too many hours spent in front of the easel resulted in damage to most of the tendons in my painting arm. It took nearly a year of intense physical therapy to undo the damage. Thankfully, I’ve nearly recovered and now take precautions to prevent injury.
Can you describe your creative process? What is an average day like in the studio?
Friends and family all agree that I spend too much time in my studio! A typical day has me arriving at the studio around 9am and leaving around 11pm. I begin with some quick warm-up oil sketches and then continue on whatever painting I’m currently working on. With my headphones in, I become engrossed in my work, and I’m often surprised by how quickly the hours pass.
My paintings all begin as digital sketches, which I find to be easier and quicker than drawing them by hand. Using a computer allows me to tweak the images and move panels around until I’ve created the perfect composition, saving me endless hours of time that I could otherwise be spent painting. I’m also able to Photoshop concepts into the spaces where they will eventually be hung, allowing collectors the ability to see how a painting will look on their wall before I pick up a paintbrush.
Memories and collective consciousness are key themes in your current body of work. What inspired you to pursue these ideas in your art?
Being of my generation, I grew up only hearing stories about the great accomplishments the previous generations had done and experienced: landing on the moon, massive construction projects, Arctic explorations, etc… These are things which seem to be lacking in my generation, and I fear that the only thing we have to look forward to is the next iPhone or new season of television programming.
Nostalgia is a strange concept to me, especially when it’s about things that I’ve never experienced or lived through. There’s an entire history that I’ve only experienced through second-hand memories. These memories have pervaded into our culture and have formed a subconscious narrative that underpins much of our society. While it’s easy to fall into the Norman Rockwell false-history of hyper-sweet nostalgia, the shadow of our sins still leaves a bitter after-taste; civil discourse and societal malice are easily obscured through the rose-tinted lenses of yesteryear.
I grew up with a 1960s encyclopedia that I practically memorized. I felt like I had missed out on all the things other generations were able to be excited about, and the promises of space exploration, super-sonic rocket planes, and other ambitious projects meant for my generation all died in committees before they could be fully realized.
Even our entertainment is uninspired, and we live in an era of sequels, reboots, and remakes that are meant to exploit our feelings of nostalgia, designed for mass-appeal by profit-driven producers and focus groups.
My multi-panel paintings are very labor intensive, and rightfully depict the architecture, constructions, and massive effort of past generations. A single painting can take hundreds of hours to paint, but the effort and dedication to craft is as important to the process as the overall concept. They are an attempt to once again become excited about what can be done, by depicting what has been done. They serve as a catalyst of story telling between viewers: to share in the personal sagas of adventure, discovery, and the innovation that we as a society value.
The Reds Go To The Moon, oil on canvas 38×39 inches
Always Open, Never Closed, oil on canvas, 62×86 inches
Is there a cohesive narrative between your bodies of work? Or does each piece stand individually?
I tend to work in series, but I do feel that there is an over-arching narrative that underpins my work. That being said, each piece is intended to stand on its own as an element in the larger story I’m trying to convey.
During my exhibitions, it’s very interesting to see all my paintings at one time. They relate to each other and begin to form their own storyline, almost like individual panels in a comic. They conjure a sense of déjà vu, or familiarity. I like to think that I’m depicting subconscious elements that we all know yet rarely experience.
Turing’s Ghost, oil on canvas, 76×164 inches
If you could have dinner with any artist, dead or alive, who would he or she be?
I would really enjoy talking with Chuck Close. After his spinal injury, he continued to paint colossal paintings, despite being wheel-chair bound and unable to hold a brush. That level of dedication and fortitude in the face of adversity is awe-inspiring, and illustrates how one can accomplish anything through perseverance.
History of MN Brewing, oil on panel, 57×120 inches
Where were you born and raised? How do you think that has influenced your creative growth?
I grew up in Waverly, Minnesota, a rural sleepy-eyed town of 600 people an hour west of Minneapolis. I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ old defunct farm, which was strewn about with old farm machinery and hidden relics. It was a generational farm, but no longer in use. All the animals were gone, but my grandfather and uncles still planted and harvested the few hundred acres that was their livelihood.
Their farmhouse contained many relics from bygone eras, and we would be occasionally treated to silent home movies that depicted the grand road-trips my grandparents would take their children on. Images of giant rockets from the 1960s, mystery spots, and retro cars from the clacking film projector left an impression on me. It made the world seem very big, and very old to my younger self, and imbued me with the sense of nostalgic history that left me feeling both connected and removed from it. That was the initial spark of awe and wonder that I continue to feel to this day.
My paintings can, in a sense, be seen as an attempt to convey that feeling; the fractured nature of history, and the yearning to feel connected to something that is grander than myself.
Man of Invention: Mechanical, oil on canvas, 32 x 32 inches
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently creating artwork in conjunction with a grant from the MN State Arts Board that explores ten small-town diners and the histories they’ve witnessed. These include a cafe near Hubert Humphrey’s home-town, and the last remaining Ember’s in existence (the story of which is incredibly fascinating). These paintings will be the basis for a state-wide art hunt that will reward travelers with a free postcard of each diners’ painting and description of the histories they’ve witnessed.
I’m also working on several commissioned pieces for private collections, and beginning the conceptual work for two solo exhibitions at the Phipps Galleries in Hudson, Wisconsin for 2017 & 2018.
Building On Our Past, oil on canvas, 30×35 inches
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I really enjoyed my time in Florence, Italy, where I studied for a semester. Being surrounded by so much history, and seeing the massive buildings was both humbling and awe-inspiring. Florence embodied many concepts and ideals I cherish: massive generational projects like the Duomo, epically sized buildings built without the aid of modern equipment, artwork on a grand scale that has nothing to compare to in the United States, and a history that spanned thousands of years.
Godly Judgement Over The Waters, oil on canvas, 57 x 82 inches
A fun fact or two to share?
I collect, and am very fascinated by, objects with history, be it factual or not. My hobby is to take modern objects and imbue them with false narratives. For example, my box easel is plastered with replica luggage labels and customs stickers from legendary hotels, and long-defunct ship lines. This seemingly antique relic is artificially aged to look like it has traveled the world for the last century, and possibly used by great artists spanning the last century. Yet despite many cries to have my “antique” easel appraised, any perceived value or history it has witnessed is purely in the imagination of the onlooker.
All images are courtesy of the artist.