Alison OK Frost is an artist who takes troubling social and environmental images, and transforms them into delicate watercolors and post-apocalyptic scenes. These haunting and beautiful paintings help her and those who meditate upon her work to process the trauma of our times. We talk about painting in urban encampments, the importance of surrounding yourself with the right colors, teaching art classes over Zoom, building a creative practice in isolation, and much more . . .
Michael Carychao: Can you tell us about your name?
Alison OK Frost: My maiden name, or my given name, is Alison Offill-Klein. I found when I was trying to kind of make art—you know, I tried shortening it to Alison Klein. You can't Google Allison Klein, there's just too many. And I was having trouble with curators not being able to pronounce or spell my name. So when I got married to someone whose last name was Frost, which is very easy to pronounce, and spell, I took his name. But I wanted to keep some of where I come from. So I shortened Offill-Klein to OK.
MC: How does it feel to try on the effect of different last names?
AOK: That's a really interesting question. I feel like all of my last names have had cultural baggage for them. So if you see that I have a hyphenated last name automatically you're going to assume I'm from a coast, my parents are college educated. There's also something I didn't really think about until I moved to the Bay Area is that Klein is a very Jewish last name. Which I had never thought of one way or another when I was living in LA, or New York, just because there are large Jewish populations in it, it isn't a big deal. And then when I moved to the Bay Area, it seemed like, all of a sudden, there was a little bit of othering that happened. It felt a little weird in a way to change my name to more of a waspy last name. I sort of asked myself the questions, "Am I white-washing myself here?" And, "What, what does that mean?"
MC: And yet, you've got OK in the middle, which is the opposite of having a normal name, it's actually an invitation, it seems to me, for people to challenge your—you know, you're obviously excellent—and so to challenge your moniker of OK.
AOK: I think it's really funny too, just because I have a lot of friends who are old punk rockers and they've got these last names like Dismal or Landmine, you know? I thought it was so funny to just have a completely value-neutral moniker.
All right, I am gonna put him up.
Rocco - 3:33
MC: So that was Rocco.
AOK: That was Rocco. Yeah.
MC: Rocco seems kind of on the young side.
AOK: He is. He actually showed up at my house last December. He was a very young, very skinny Pitbull, you know, mangy, covered in fleas, under-fed.
MC: And you took him in.
AOK: I didn't mean to. I was like, "Okay, you can stay in my backyard for one night." But I didn't want to take him to the shelter. Because there's so many pits there. And I didn't want him to be put down. Yeah, so he's been with me for about a year. I think he might be about two years old, something like that. And he's turned into such a joy. I mean, he's a lot. Especially with lockdown and quarantine and staying in my house. It's really nice to have this big idiot dog who loves me.
MC: I know. Those big idiot dogs are just full of love.
MC: Cats have lots of questions. With their questioning eyes; dogs, no questions.
AOK: No questions. Just unconditional love.
Discovering Watercolors - 5:55
MC: I'm really interested in digging into your artwork.
AOK: Yeah. Absolutely.
MC: Your artistic expression has gone on for years. Your style is amazingly consistent. I'm really curious how it all started.
AOK: Let's see. Well, I've always painted. You know, I was one of those kids. In some ways, I've had a lot of attention deficit problems my whole life. But when I'm drawing—from the age of like, four—something . . . When I was drawing, I could focus in a way that I can't really on anything else. I've always drawn. I was doing big oil paintings for a while. I started having problems with my vision when I was about 27, something like that. And all of a sudden, the paintings I had been doing weren't working. The way I was perceiving the world, visually, wasn't lending itself to making these large oil paintings. So I started making really terrible paintings. I don't know if you've ever gone through one of those phases where you're like, "Man, I just got to make this terrible painting"?
MC: All the time.
AOK: So I had a year or two of just awful oil paintings. You know, they were a bit, you know: they're embarrassing. But then, one day, I thought: I think I want to try watercolors. I actually had a show coming up. I had to deliver work for a show in something like ten days, which is the worst time possible to switch mediums. But I was like, "Yeah, I think it's time."
MC: You picked up watercolors just a week-and-a-half before you were going to exhibit those watercolors?
AOK: I did. Yeah. I mean, it was a group show. But, yeah. And it just clicked. I feel like I was led to this medium. My first painting was terrible. My second painting was pretty bad. And then the third painting, I was like, "I think I'm onto something here." I think it works really well, because my subject matter tends to be really heavy. And watercolors are really light. There's a sort of light joyousness to the medium that I think is a really good balance for what I'm doing paintings of.
MC: Yeah, and just to describe your style, it strikes me as very light. Lots of washes, lots of letting the page come through, lots of blank page, in fact, around the subjects. Very muted colors. Very realistic style. It seems like you have done plenty of work on an underdrawing of some kind. But the rendering is very gentle. At the same time, your subject matter is pretty dark. It makes for an interesting contrast. You have lots of urban camping, homeless scenes, riot police, medical personnel in robes wearing masks. There's one of people in hazmat suits getting washed down in kiddie tubs. There are soldiers farming and the super haunting ballerinas in masks. How did you come to that subject matter?
Collecting Images - 8:25
AOK: Before I actually started painting those pictures, I had been collecting them for years out of newspapers. I work a lot from photographs, so often a big part of my process is just collecting. I mean, we live in such a great time for fetishizing photographs. Because if you're looking for a picture of people in hazmat suits, you can find seven hundred very easily. And then cull them down to your favorite twenty-four. And then, test them out and find like the two or three that are going to make exactly the painting that you want. So I already had these images, just in files. I had files full of these terrible images and a lot of things that were also sort of dark and disturbing, but didn't end up being successful in paintings. I had been drawn to the subject matter, but I just wasn't sure how to address it in art. But I knew that I needed to do that.
MC: So the collecting came first.
AOK: The collecting came first.
MC: Newspapers, magazines, physical media—like that? Are there places that you go online? Apps?
AOK: I mostly use Google Image Search.
MC: And then how do you collect them? Do you just download them and have your hard drive full?
Painting Process - 10:30
AOK: Yeah, I download them. And then I make them very small. I take all the resolution out of these beautiful pictures and print them up on pretty crappy printers. So I have small terrible pictures, and I print them out and cut them up. I print them out like six to a page or something like that, because I'm really looking to strip the sharpness, strip the virtuosity of the photograph out of it. Because that allows me to reinvent that part on my own. Because I think the way our minds work, whatever information is not there, we're going to finish ourselves when we're looking at something. So I want to give myself as much opportunity to finish things as possible. And then also give my viewers that same opportunity. You know, when you look at them from far away, they look pretty realistic. But when you get close, there are pools of watercolor and sediment separating and you know, drying lines and things like that, which then allows the viewer to sort of insert themselves into the image.
MC: Actually, you're very generous to your viewers in how much you leave to their imagination. Is that difficult to pull off? How do you keep yourself from imposing too much on your pictures?
AOK: I have a really strong desire for people to insert themselves to not "other" these scenes. I've been doing these paintings of people wearing masks, and sort of protecting themselves from their surroundings for however many years and then, all of a sudden, this year the whole world started looking like that.
MC: I know. It makes me look through your paintings again, and be like, "Oh, okay, what's next?"
AOK: Right, what's next? Yeah. I wanted people to have that experience of, when you look in a newspaper and you see a terrible flood in Malaysia or something like that, you're like, "Well, that that's over there that's happening to those people." And I really wanted to consciously strip away any sort of descriptions that would allow you to say, "Oh, that's someplace else, that someone else."
MC: That's right. There's very little background. It's mainly subject.
Painting Urban Campers - 12:07
AOK: Right. Yeah. And then the other part of that is: I'm really interested in the humanity and the historical moments. Because it's easy, in American history class in high school, or something like that, we're learning about, "Oh, there was this war." And, "There was this army fighting for this, and there was this army fighting for that." But then when you break it down to the individuals, each one has their own story and their own kind of universe that they're living in. And it usually has very little to do with the cause of the war, or the reasons that we're given for why these things are happening.
If you can somehow isolate that humanity, then it's a lot easier to insert yourself into these moments where we don't feel separate from them. A couple years ago, I did fifty paintings of, as you say, urban campers. That was actually a really amazing kind of turning point in my life, just as a human being in the world, because I didn't want to be voyeuristic about it. So I was going into encampments, and talking to people and asking them if it would be okay if I took pictures of their dwellings and in the process I ended up making friends and making connections in different encampments. And bringing Phoenix with me, and she was making friends in the camps. We were just having a really great experience.
I would try to bring water, clean socks, baby wipes, things like that, so that it wasn't just me taking something. That's been really amazing, getting to know people and a lot of people who are living in the streets—and I think there are maybe thirty thousand in Oakland, or something like that—would like to tell their story, would like to explain—you know, not everyone I mean . . . there's not one unhoused personality or something. But showing up and being open to hearing what people wanted to talk to me about was really cool. And I actually ended up, through that project, getting involved with a mutual aid group in East Oakland, where I live.
MC: What group is that?
AOK: It's called East Oakland Burrito Roll. When we started we would just get together a few times a month and make burritos. You know: get rice and beans and everything from the food bank, mostly. Because a burrito is kind of a perfect meal, you know?
MC: Totally. Food tube.
AOK: Yeah. So we would make burritos and then pass them out at different encampments. This year we ended up hooking up with World Central Kitchen, which allowed us to actually buy restaurant meals. Some some days we were distributing as many as one thousand restaurant meals,
MC: How is the artistic urge in those places?
AOK: Sometimes it's as simple as people really taking pride and effort to decorate their camp: putting flowers out, signs out. I remember seeing Warriors flags on tents when the Warriors were in the playoffs. But I met a lot of artists as well, people who are painting in or around their tents, especially in Mosswood, for some reason. Mosswood Park seems to sort of attract a lot of artists. Some people wanted to give me art or trade art, which was really cool. So I have, in my studio, a small— a very small—art collection.
Empathy Porn - 15:51
MC: Tell me about the difference in taking your own pictures, and working from those sorts of material, versus collecting someone else's photograph.
AOK: Yeah. Well, one thing that's different is, when I'm working from other people's photographs, I tend to have people in the pictures and I'm looking for the humanity in pictures of people. When I was doing the pictures from the encampments there, there are no people in those pictures.
Part of that is I really didn't want to make paintings that were manipulative. I wanted to show ingenuity. I wanted to show pride. I wanted to show humanity without making a painting that would make . . . there's a way of presenting people who have less than you that lets people look at them, see it, feel something, feel some kind of pain or some kind of connection, and then they feel better, they feel let off the hook a little bit.
The one that makes me the angriest is Schindler's List. I've been mad about that movie for twenty-five years, or something, from the first, you know, from when I saw it in the theater when I was sixteen, or whatever. I felt like people could go, they could cry about what had happened during the Holocaust. They could convince themselves that, had they been there, they would have been one. They would have been a Schindler. They would have been someone who helped. And then when they leave, they're off the hook. They don't have to think about anti-semitism. They don't have to think about how prejudice or how these things hurt the world. And they don't have to think about how that's ricocheted down in terms of generational trauma, or how it's still happening behind closed doors today. I don't want to make empathy porn.
MC: In Schindler's List, where did they go wrong? Do you have a feeling for that? Was it in the art direction? Was it the story? Was it too pat?
AOK: A lot of it is the music. Music can be really manipulative. If it had been more stark—I just think that difficult subjects should be difficult to watch. I don't think you should be able to have a feel-good experience about a story like the Holocaust, you know? We see it a lot today with urban movies. It's just an exercise into allowing people to feel like, "Well, I'm not like that. I'm not contributing to this problem." And the truth is: we're all contributing to all of the problems every day.
MC: We live in a saccharin society that likes to coat as much sugar around the bitter pills as possible.
AOK: Yeah, absolutely.
MC: It's nice to strip that away. The clue about music is really interesting. I can see how, when you leave space in a soundtrack, you're letting the viewer's emotion, the listener's emotion, insert into the story, much like negative space does in a painting. If you crowd it with swell upon swell of symphonic tones, your emotion is on rails. Is there a visual equivalent that could have happened in that movie?
AOK: What if it wasn't shot on beautiful thirty-five millimeter? What if it was shot on Super Eight, or the kind of film stock they used for sports in the 70s. Something where you're taking out that richness and that beauty. Some people who are trying to work with these parameters use black and white, but I feel like black and white can add its own kind of romanticism.
MC: Totally. I'm in black and white right now.
AOK: You are, yes.
Feeling Big Feelings - 20:00
MC: I felt very romantic when I was putting that up. I've been playing with my setup so much. The filters are fun. But the filters are dangerous, too. Because you don't want to filter out authentic emotion and connection and all these things. So how do you, moving through the world, in this year—a very difficult year emotionally—how do you filter out the difficult emotions and yet stay open enough that you're not disconnected from the authentic experience?
AOK: Hmm. I meditate a lot. I do specific meditations for feeling feelings. Also: I can't feel feelings all day. It's too much for me. So I also read a lot and watch a lot of Netflix. As you know, I have a seven year old daughter, Phoenix, who has a lot of big feelings. I also teach Middle School. So I have about two-hundred-and-fifty eleven to thirteen-year-old students.
MC: Lots of feeling there as well.
AOK: Right. So, I think part of my work this year is being okay with my big feelings and acknowledging them and sometimes even saying, "I'm uncomfortable and that's okay. I'm going to stay with this discomfort." And then I'm going to move away from this discomfort because I can't stay in it. But then also giving space for Phoenix and also for my students, where I'm not . . . I think there is a tendency among adults, probably more so in our parents generation, to say, "It's okay, you're okay. Don't cry, you're okay." And I think that for me, as an adult being around children a lot, one of my goals or things that I strive for is just saying, "You're having a big feeling. Do you want to talk about that feeling? What do you need right now?" Or even just acknowledging, "There's a lot of pressure on you right now. We're asking you to do more than is appropriate this year. How do you feel about that?"
Teaching Art Over Zoom - 22:26
MC: So how have your students done this year?
AOK: It's really hard. I've been teaching one hundred percent online, and I'm an art teacher. So that's crazy.
MC: What kind of exercises do you give them?
AOK: I've been really focusing on just drawing and rendering with my seventh graders. With my sixth graders, it's being a little more of a celebration all about color and shape. Then with my eighth graders—I'm supposed to be teaching graphic design—I'm going a lot into branding, and the psychology of what we see, which I think is super interesting. I wish someone had told me when I was thirteen, how everything seemed weird, and mysterious and terrible. If someone had given me clues for decoding the visual world. I teach like this on Zoom, but then I set up a second—I set up my phone on a tripod, so I can have sort of—
AOK: Yeah, exactly. I spent a lot of time drawing with my students. As I'm drawing, I'm explaining what I'm doing. But I'm also explaining to them what the process does for me: "Sometimes things get really overwhelming for me, and I can slow my mind down this way." You know, sort of explaining what the process does for me, emotionally. And try to give them that tool. I know I seem like this silly woo-woo art teacher who tells you everything you do is good. But that's also who I am. It's fine.
MC: Well, there is a huge emotional process to drawing and rendering and getting into that space of just following a line, letting your pencil tip lead, or guiding it. I've felt so many hours of peace doing that. I think that's a wonderful tool to give these kids who are—they have a lot more emotions to process and a lot less community to process it with. And the community that they have is also overloaded.
Process Emotions With Art - 25:00
MC: So how else can art help us process emotions?
AOK: For me a real saving grace this year has been Instagram. I'm not a huge proponent of social media. I think that it can be really dangerous in a lot of ways, but I love being able to have access to people's studios all over the world. When I see beauty in paintings, when I see people doing the work to get vulnerable in their studio, and then putting it out into the world, I feel really connected in a way that I don't feel with anything else. I also get a lot of release from memes. I've never been a meme person, but this year, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I think that we're really lucky in a way to live in theBay Area where, with all the pain of this year, there's also been an explosion of art out on the streets. The school I teach at is in downtown Chinatown, Oakland. If you just walk around that neighborhood, it's like you can see so much, just so much of people making art for community and making art as a way to connect. I talk to my students about this. I say, "What is the role of an artist in a community? What can an artist do?" And one thing that my students say a lot, is that art helps the artist and the people looking at the art, to feel their feelings. And I don't even know why that's true. But I think the fact that, at eleven years old, kids who have never been to a museum can make that connection is really powerful.
MC: What kind of art are the kids drawn to? Is it all over the place? Are there any themes?
AOK: On their own, when I give a Free Draw, or something like that, they're all drawing manga. Anime characters. They love figurative art. They love sort of figuring out, unpacking figurative art. I've made a goal for myself. I'm not showing any white artists, because I think that art teachers have to challenge the idea that white art is the default. Once you just refuse to operate from that standpoint, you find out that, actually, you're just being kind of lazy. There's so much art out there, once you start looking for it. I really like that, being able to show art from all over the world, people from all different kinds of circumstances making art. Because then, for my students, they don't have to feel like art is something that other people do, that I can look at, you know? Art is something that everyone does, and I can too.
MC: Who are some of the artists that you are showing them?
AOK: I've been showing a lot of Jordan Casteel to students for a couple years. She had a show this year at the New Museum, and usually for a show that I'm that excited about, I'll fly to New York. Stay with friends and spend some time with it. And then, right when the show opened in March, the whole world closed down. I haven't actually seen her work in real life but I love showing her work and I like showing Kehinde Wiley. Kids really like him and then I can flex that I went to high school with him. Tyrone Ballon is another really great one that kids connect with. Jennifer Packer. I believe she is, for me personally, just the best painter working today. And I love sharing her work with students even though it's a little bit more difficult because it is so much about the media and about the paint.
MC: Can you describe her work?
AOK: Well, first of all, she's drawing with paint, which I think is really interesting because I think that paint is really about this lusciousness and this viscerality that's rich, in a way. I think that drawing is a little bit more like stripping things down, almost like peeling the skin off and getting to the bones and the guts, the viscera, and I feel like she's really doing that with her painting. She does. You can see the underpainting coming through. She does oil painting so you can see where the turpentine is dripping down through the oil paint and making it crack and then some parts will be more built up, but she's doing a lot of scraping and a lot of wiping away.
MC: It sounds like you can really see the human behind the work.
AOK: Yes, absolutely. I love that about art. One of the most amazing things to me about being a process nerd and being—like, the paint equivalent of a gear dude, you know? I get really close to the painting, like an inch away, until the guards tell me to move and I'm like, "You see that cobalt violet in there?" I like breaking down the process and then stepping back and seeing the whole thing together and then getting close and having it all fall apart again.
MC: Another way that I've loved seeing the human in art is watching someone sketch live or paint live. I guess art streaming—I'm not sure what it's called. But I've seen that there's plenty of that on Instagram. Is that something that you've gotten into? You're doing it with your students. You're doing some streaming with your students. Do you watch artists streaming?
AOK: I do. Yeah. I especially like time lapse, I like seeing it kind of come together. I watch demos as well, both with my students, and then . . . it's just because it's a good way to learn new skills. I used to do a lot of live drawing events. I started doing that when I had been in Oakland for just a year or two. So that was how I got connected to an Oakland art community. You know, you're sitting around a bar, or whatever, or a gallery even and just drawing and talking and getting to know each other and looking at what other people are doing and asking questions and borrowing materials. It's really cool.
MC: How are artists making a living these days?
AOK: Well, I teach. A lot of artists teach. It's a great gig, if you can get it. A lot of artists make public art. I actually worked for a long time for a public artist. I'm not crazy about that. I was assisting on a project for Facebook or whatever. They have all these great murals. They pay really great artists really well to come in and do these murals and give talks and even do prints and stuff, which I love. The part I don't love is the conversations that happen between the artists and the Facebook suits or whatever, where they're like, "That seems a little harsh. Is there a way that we could make that a little more palatable? There was an artist there, Jessica Sabogal. And she's wonderful. She's amazing. She wanted to do a mural of someone breastfeeding. And Facebook said, "Well, you know, we already have some breastfeeding. Swoon did some breastfeeding." And, you know, we can have one breastfeeding in the building, but—
MC: It's not BreastBook.
The Psychology of Color - 33:00
MC: So, the psychology of what we see. Let's go back to that.
AOK: I always sensed as a child that there was some kind of code that I just wasn't, I wasn't quite privy to which, which was correct. I think that was a correct assumption. But I'm also just the way I am neurologically. That means that it's a little bit harder for me to kind of pick up on, maybe, social cues or what's being unsaid. And I always liked or felt more comfortable when I could break things down into a code. Yeah, like math was much more comfortable to me than English in school, if that makes sense. I think a lot about lighting, for example. I think all painters do, it's a huge part of painting. But if you go back, for example, to the 1950s, there was a genre of movies called Weepies or women's movies. And the real master is Douglas Sirk. He was a really serious filmmaker in Germany before the war and then he was only able to get work after the war in the United States making what was considered a lesser art form, these Weepies, but you watch them, and the women don't say much, as it was the 50s. Everything that these women were experiencing, had to happen in facial expressions and in the lighting and in the way he's using colors. That was so hugely instructional to me. I recommend anyone who's a painter should watch Douglas Sirk's whole color catalog, if possible. And that's what I like to show students as well—not so much middle schoolers, like I'm teaching now, high school. I just show Douglas Sirk, a scene from maybe All That Heaven Allows, and just break it down. Like, "Let's look at the warm colors. Let's look at the cool colors." If you just look at the scenes for warm colors and cool colors and press mute . . . you don't have to listen to the dialogue. There's not a whole lot there. That can be really fascinating. And I also think it's important to look—like what I'm teaching now is more from a design standpoint. So I'm asking, "What is Amazon trying to make you think when they use that orange smile? Let's break it down. Let's break down the psychology of the color orange."
MC: What are they trying to foist on us with that smile?
AOK: The positive attributes with the color orange are warmth, sunshine, just a really warm, inviting feeling, even, like fall, even even though fall is cooling down, you get a cozy feeling. So you've got that side. And then then the negative side for some brands of the color orange is it makes things look a little bit cheap. But for Amazon, I feel like they're really trying to combine this idea of the warmth: the customer service, "We're your friends, you can trust us," with, "By the way, you're going to get really, really great deals here."
The one that my kids really can see is we talk about the color yellow, and I say, "The color yellow, what do you think of with the color yellow?" and they start saying, happiness. I talk a little bit more about how yellow is another color you see on like, thirty percent off signs and things like that. And it can also make you think "cheap," sort of like orange. I was like, "What is an example of a brand that's using yellow to convey both happiness and cheapness?"
AOK: McDonald's. A hundred percent of the time, a twelve-year-old can come up with McDonald's when facing that psychology, you know? I'm asking them, "When you're in the car, riding down the street or riding on the highway, look at the colors on the sides, and ask yourself, what they're trying to make you feel." Not every kid is going to take that, and do it or go anywhere with it. But there are those kids who are going to be like, "How are my emotions being controlled by the things around me?"
MC: And how are your emotions being controlled by these little icons? We live in such an iconic time. Let's try blue. What are Twitter and Facebook trying to do to us?
AOK: Well, blue is really trying to build trust. There's like a calmness and a trustworthiness. So Facebook, Twitter, MySpace—for those of us that are very old—have these blue icons, because they're like, "Hey, you can trust us. We're here for you." You see exactly the same colors being used in financial institutions and credit cards. You got the blue visa logo. The fact that financial institutions are using the same color schemes as social media, I think should make us pause for a moment.
MC: Is there just a dark side to this? Or is there any uplifting news in the psychology of colors?
AOK: Absolutely. I mean, especially now this year, when we're in we're all spending so much time indoors, we can think about how to create a space that is going to affect our emotions in a positive way. Sometimes, for me, it feels like the walls are closing in a little bit. I'm working from home and Phoenix is schooling from home and all the things, but you can flip it around and say, "Well, if the walls are closing in on me, what's a color that might make me feel like things aren't so bad?" I fill in my space with a lot of plants.
AOK: Green, for me, is health and wellness and positivity. I haven't had the time to repaint my space, but I've definitely thought a lot about like, "What would that look like? What colors could I use in here?" And you know, Phoenix? She was going through sort of a goth phase last year and she was like, "Can we paint my room black?" and I was like, "No."
MC: That's kind of a one way ticket, isn't it? It's very heavy.
AOK: It is. Yeah. Yeah, I think so.
MC: Although it'd be pretty awesome. You could get some glow in the dark stars and just have like a sensory deprivation area.
AOK: Definitely. I think it could definitely be done right.
Accidentally Raising an Artist - 40:20
MC: How do you raise an artist? If you could raise yourself, would you have done anything different to support the unfoldment of your art?
AOK: Yeah, that's interesting. Because I feel like I'm accidentally raising an artist.
MC: That may be the perfect answer.
AOK: I think emphasizing values over achievement is a really good way to nurture an artist.
MC: How do you get around all that judgment? Oh, my goodness, there's so much out there, you know? You show someone a piece of work that you've done, or you see a kid show their parents and right away, they have to say, "I love it." Even if it's positive, there's just judgment, judgment, judgment, as soon as someone sees it. It's almost like we're rushing to judge. For me, it always introduces some new element that I wasn't meaning to bring. I'd love to hear what you think the role of judgment is in art.
AOK: That's really interesting, because with my kid, and with my students, I always—as soon as they show me something—I say, "That's fantastic." But I think that a good thing to do, maybe, instead of saying that I love it, or "That's fantastic," would be to sort of emphasize, "That's really brave. I can really see your feelings here. Thank you so much for sharing that with me." You know, you can be proud of someone for making something even if it isn't high quality or something. I try to be pretty specific, but it's always like, "I love how much personality that line has," like, "Look how much you are able to convey with that single line. That's incredible." But what if I took out the value judgments and just said, "You conveyed so much with that line? Look how much personality is in that line?" Is that helping to not create the good/bad binary or the need to achieve?
MC: You sound like a great art teacher. Have you ever thought about doing an online art class, letting more people tap into that? To you as a teacher?
AOK: I have a little bit. Like everyone else, I don't have enough hours in the day to do everything. Phoenix asked me what if I could have a superpower what it would be, and I said I want the energy and the time to do everything that I want to do. And she was like, "That's not a superpower!"
MC: That's just working all the time.
AOK: I really like doing adult education. I do a lot of enrichment classes with adults through CCA and CCSF. I could see that turning into some kind of an online class, but I also let—when artists tell me they want to sit down on my classes I'm like, "Yeah, totally." I don't care.
MC: How many students do you think you could handle on a Zoom call?
AOK: The most I've had is fifty-four. That was back when we were first figuring out how to make classes work. The problem with Zoom is: kids just fall between the cracks, you know? There are a lot of kids who can't follow along. There just isn't enough interaction. I know that I'm losing kids. That's such a terrible feeling. I don't know if there's a number. I think that for me, my average class has about thirty and I know that that's too many for me to have a meaningful interaction with all of them.
MC: What would be a more ideal size?
AOK: I think Phoenix's classes have about ten. That would be awesome. You know, with ten kids, you can really address each one of them and their specific needs and make a class that can work for each and every person.
Visceral, Figurative Artists - 45:00
MC: Going back to your collection. Images. What are some of the first artists or the most influential artists for you? What of their particular works have stayed with you all these years?
AOK: I still remember seeing Cindy Sherman film stills for the first time at the Hirschhorn in, in Washington, DC and just being totally blown away, like "What is this?" and thinking about the idea of using almost, like, tropes and transplanting them into some kind of self-expression. I was, like, fifteen. I miss how when you're fifteen, you can see something or you can hear something and you can be like, "The world is never going to be the same again."
Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Really gross visceral, figurative artists hit me really hard, pretty early. Eric Fischl. Jenny Saville. When I first saw Jenny Saville's paintings, that was like, "Wow," You know? Cecily Brown. The gross, visceral, figurative painting.
MC: Can you describe what this gross, figurative, visceral style is?
AOK: I think that when you're painting the figure, you are, in some ways, meditating about the experience of being a human being living in a body.
And I think a lot of people, artists especially, find that to be sort of a troublesome experience. There have been a lot of times in my life where I've been, like, "Yeah, I just want to be a brain in a jar with hands, so I can draw. But then, you have to eat and you have to pee, and, there's just a heaviness to the experience of living in a body: it's flabby and angular, and there's skin and skin is such a weird texture. A lot of people eat meat and that's also like a body. What does that mean? We have to not think about our own flesh, so that we can consume someone else's flesh. There are painters who can put all of that into a painting and do it by making the paint an inch thick and make the colors feel like skin, but then also feel like the inside of the body and the experience that you have from the inside of the body: of your heart beating and the blood moving under your skin and your stomach digesting things and your teeth clenching together. The experiences are so intense when you stop to think about them. And then the idea of spending three months in your studio translating that experience into paint is so moving—and kind of disgusting.
MC: It's this magic act of synesthesia, where you're taking all the other senses and jamming them into the visual channel. How do you get these visceral senses into a picture?
AOK: A lot of it is color choice. I spent a lot of time with pigments, learning the ins and outs of pigments. It is the color, but it's also: how much can you see through this pigment? What happens when you mix it with other colors? What happens when you mix it with different mediums? Does the sediment hold together? Or does it fall apart? And how can I make it hold together more or fall apart more? Not trying to force the media too much.
I do a million experiments to see how the paint's going to act if I leave it alone.
I have these careful petri dishes all over any given painting where I'm letting the painting paint do what it's going to do because that is a lot more authentic to me, to the experience of life: stepping back, knowing when to force it—and what that feels like—versus stepping back and letting it unfold.
That is how I translate. It would be cool to do more art that can be seen by more people. Maybe taking it outdoors. I don't really know where to start . . . big brushes . . . but then also messing around with spray paint and seeing what that process is like. It's a media that I enjoy a lot looking at, but I just don't have much experience in it.
MC: You could totally pioneer the watercolor mural.
AOK: That would be awesome. What if you got in there—
MC: You just have to tilt the wall—
AOK: Right? Or, you know, just fill squirt guns with washes, and just let the whole thing fall apart. And then watch it change and disappear over time. Check up on your watercolor mural, as it self-destructs.
MC: I love that about sand castles. That's one of my favorite forms; and always building them close enough to the shore that it's just a matter of time before the waves get to them.
MC: Imagine that an artist, a young artist, let's say, who's just discovering that they love making art. Yet they're not in a school or their school doesn't really have art classes, and they're kind of disconnected from a community of artists. They're on their own. What would you recommend to them to build their craft and generate the support necessary to keep that going?
AOK: The first thing I would advise, would be to experiment and find the parameters of your art practice.
Some ways that I like to break it down is: what's the longest tool you can use? And what's the shortest tool? And what's the wettest tool? And what's the driest tool? Find where the limits of your tools are and how you can expand those limits. As much time as you can, spend sitting on the floor of used bookstores flipping through whatever art books they happen to have at that used bookstore. It'll change your practice and it's a very solitary thing to do. But it's a way to connect to art and to artists, all over the world and all throughout time.
MC: In writing, there's this idea of this big circle of all the authors having this timeless conversation. You could imagine the same thing: a gallery with every piece of art in it that's putting on a timeless show.
What about self doubt, with art?
AOK: Yeah. It's terrible. The one that I get up against is: why would what I have to say be any more valuable than what anyone else has to say? In that way, it feels self indulgent to make art. I can really hit myself with the stick of being self indulgent. Pretty much all of the problems that you can have in art, including self doubt, can be solved by actually just doing the practice. Another one I have is: my art isn't big enough. It doesn't change enough. It should be getting grander and more something and more something. And if I get into that headspace enough, then I stopped painting. Because why would I paint if it's not going to be the best painting ever made? Why? Why? And in both cases, I'm thinking about myself too much. The antidote—whether I'm saying I have nothing to say, or if I'm not going to make the best painting ever made why would I paint like those are both pretty self centered places to start.
I can sort of cancel out my ego, if I'm actually putting pencil to paper or putting pigment on the page.
MC: So if you're not thinking about yourself, if you can get beyond your ego, are you thinking about nothing? Are you thinking about the work? Are you thinking about the potential audience?
AOK: A lot of time I'm thinking about what the pigment is doing. Watching or following the brush stroke. It's a little bit like—not a trance state or something— but like things happen naturally without me thinking too much, which is really the best. The best feeling for me and you know what, one reason why I can't stop making art is because it's really hard for me to get into that state or space where I'm not thinking.
Supporting the Practice - 55:06
MC: What kinds of things support doing the practice?
AOK: Input of information is really important. I think it's just fine to stop painting for a while and look at art for a long time. Or for some people, it's not even looking at art. I read a lot. That helps feed a reservoir of pictures and ideas, by looking at art, by reading, spending time in nature, having zone practices.
MC: What's that?
AOK: So, I like to walk Rocco. I like to wander around for a couple hours and get a little bit lost, but then get un-lost. And not have headphones on and not look at my phone and be where I am, which is no place important with no time constraints. Another one I like a lot is driving to LA, just doing like the seven hours on Five.
MC: Very meditative.
AOK: Exactly. Showers can be great for that kind of thing. Not doing anything.
MC: That sounds like a real gift to give to yourself, to go on one of those walks.
AOK: It's not easy. The way I'm able to do it is by saying, "Rocco needs it."
Reading Influences - 57:00
MC: Okay, so you're drawing a lot of inspiration from books, they set the scene, they activate your internal visual mechanism, your inner daydream. What are some of the books that have really resonated with you that are particularly good, are there authors that are particularly good, or genres that are particularly good at inspiring you?
AOK: I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. The Parable of the Sower is a really amazing book. Just dismal, post-apocalyptic fiction in general. I like M. R. Carey. Let's see, Claire North. Before that, it was psychedelic magical realism. Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, even dizzying painting with words like Milan Kundera. I like reading memoirs about things I'll never do: surfing memoirs, or mountain climbing memoirs. I like reading about "untouched civilizations." I guess the common denominator of all of this is living outside this day in, day out grind of capitalism, all those things we have to do every day that that don't feel connected to what we're trying to get out of life.
MC: If you had to pick one book, and then illustrate it up and down, what would you pick?
AOK: Okay, so there's The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey. They made a movie out of it, which is actually pretty good. If you like zombie movies. It's a post-apocalyptic, post-disease world that's crumbled. I also thought of Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, which is about the same Mulan as the Disney movies, but very different, and this journey she takes into the mountains, an ascetic hermit type journey. And then when I was thinking about that, I started thinking about The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. And I was thinking specifically about where someone's climbing a mountain without oxygen, and they're tumbling down and you can't tell if they're hallucinating from the lack of oxygen or if they're having some kind of spiritual experience.
Images as Warnings - 59:00
MC: The subjects that you've chosen are very post-apocalyptic. Can you lead us through how you discovered some of your subject themes?
AOK: Sometimes when I see certain images, they feel like warnings to me. There are these images that people see when they're flipping through the newspaper, scrolling through New York Times on their phone, or whatever it is. This has happened my whole life, where I see an image and I'm like, "Wait if people see this image then everyone would stop what they were doing, because this is more than we can live with. Why isn't the whole world shutting down so that we can deal with what we're seeing here? And then I started thinking, "Well, if I'm gonna live in a world with these images, the best thing for me to do is to process them in paintings." Then after the painting is finished it's not that I don't remember the image, or it doesn't stick with me. But I've been able to process it through my body.
When you see something like people wearing masks to go about their daily lives, that feels like too much to me. So then I started painting that. I just sort of kept painting them the more that I was seeing them. People started telling me this year, "You're a prophet. You can see the future." But I was drawing, I was painting the present. Or what does it mean when the police start dressing like the military and attacking their own people? How can we live through this? How can we not—everyone—stop, put our heads together and figure out a solution or some way for this not to be. 10 years ago, in the South, all these crows started falling out of the sky, dead. I watch a lot of horror movies and read a lot of Stephen King and if that happened in a horror movie, there would be the sequence of events afterwards. And I'm like, "Why are we not following the script here?"
MC: So are there any images that are haunting you right now, that you're processing right now?
AOK: A lot of the ones I'm sitting with in my studio right now are the Camp Fire. It was one of the ones where the air changed color. The scenes of people in this air, in the hazmat suits, digging through the rubble. There will be nothing but ash and then a chimney or something. And people trying to look for survivors. Even though it's been a couple years, I've been trying to deal with it in images and keeping it on my drafting table.
MC: Yeah, unfortunately, we keep getting these horrible fires in California. I think we all need to process that. That's definitely one of the gifts of the art that you do. I'm sure it's very cathartic to make it, but it also is super awesome to look at it. It does do some of the alchemy. So I'm looking forward to those. Are there any other images?
AOK: Some of the Standing Rock stuff is almost too painful for me to even bring into my studio: the people trying to defend land and drinking water and being treated like criminals and being beaten or firehosed or anything like that. A lot of the legacy of the civil rights movement in this country is something that I'm always collecting images on, and I'm always trying to deal with. That one's actually pretty hard for me, because I don't want it to feel like I'm trying to put my pain into images of black Americans suffering, but I hope that when I do sometimes create those images—I did a mass lynching scene a few years ago—
MC: I remember that piece.
AOK:—we need to all stop and figure this way out. Because how can we live with this? And then also hold myself accountable. As an American, this is not something that somebody else did to somebody else. This is part of my legacy, just by virtue of living in this country, and having to experience the repercussions, even if I'm not the victim of them. In some ways, I'm the perpetrator. And in some ways, I'm a silent accomplice. And in some ways, this is built into my DNA, trying to wrestle with that rather than to say, "Oh, look at look at the pain of these people. Is this giving you a feeling?"
MC: You mentioned the Holocaust as a particularly potent source for you. Would you ever visit that in art?
AOK: I feel generational trauma from that. I think about the fact that Sam and Vivian, my grandparents, spoke Yiddish, but never taught their children. What ends up happening with that is you end up a whole language dies, a whole mode of expression dies with this language in that generation, They were having their kids in the 40s. Would you teach your kids this language that's tied to oppression? Or would you let that die with you? There is a part of me that wants to have some sort of connection. Or the fact that Sam and Vivian wouldn't ever talk about, where people came from. And now the family's done a lot of research after they passed to try to figure out where they came from, and where their family is from and what they did for a living and what cities they lived in, and what that was like. I feel a sort of personal pain. When I think about that disconnect from where I come from . . . I guess I'm a little afraid of broaching topics where I'm talking more about a personal pain than existential, if I'm being honest. I do see something happening where, when I was a child—and it might just be that I grew up in a morbid Jewish family; whatever, Sam and Vivian were morbidt—but by the time I was four years old, I was imagining where I was going to hide when the Nazis came. It was part of my consciousness.
MC: I just have to jump in, because you reminded me of this, that there was this way my mom would bend over to pick something up, where her leg would come out, to balance her. Counter-balance her. And when I was young, it really disturbed me because I imagined us hiding behind a box. And then she had to pick something up, and she would give us away by having to counterbalance her leg out. I was nursing these nightmare scenarios as well.
AOK: I don't know if kids nurse nightmare scenarios and just attach it to whatever information they have, but it seems like the Holocaust feels to a lot of people almost like something that barely happened a long time ago. Like it's far away in a way that it never felt like to me growing up. And that makes me wonder if I should explore that more. Maybe it's time for those images to resurface a little bit in people's consciousness. How do you move on from that?
Pre-Processing Future Images - 1:07:43
MC: I think you move on with that. Some things you can never put down. Can you imagine any images that might come up in the future that you could pre-process?
AOK: Climate change comes to mind. I'm thinking about lush vegetation being replaced with a more desert, dry situation. We're gonna reach a point in not too long from now where we have to choose which of our coastal cities we would like to save. Won't that be just awesome, from a visual standpoint, when we start seeing the cities that are half submerged? And the decay and the rest and the change over time?
MC: You've got this one piece that's kind of like that, with a house jutting out above beach dunes.
AOK: Yes, yes.
MC: Climate change will be an awesome visual experience, and will take a lot of processing. Do you think that pre-processing difficult images could work?
AOK: I'm wondering if this year would have been harder for me as a sensitive person, if I hadn't already seen all these scenes and kind of dealt with what that means when the air isn't safe and we have to protect ourselves from breathing in what other people are breathing. It's probably possible not that it would make you immune. New Orleans is a beautiful city that I have a lot of really great memories of and it's still there. I can go up in New Orleans, but for how much longer? I would save New Orleans, if it was up to me, but that's because I value culture and art and weird ephemera over capital. If they put me on the committee, I would be like, "Let's get rid of Houston and save New Orleans." But I don't think I'm the majority. And I'm definitely not coming from whatever point of view people who are in charge tend to come from.
MC: Which cities to save. That's chilling. In a way, all this mask wearing and social distancing and quarantine is just practice for what we'll have to live through if we can't curb the climate change. And if we can't curb our own behavior towards each other. And art plays a beautiful role in helping us avert—and overcome the things we couldn't. I thank you for doing that. I think it's awesome. And more people should see your work. So where can people go to see your work now?
Shows and Galleries - 1:10:00
AOK: I have a painting up at a wonderful show, which is called 10xTEN at Faultline Artspace in East Oakland, it's one hundred ten by ten artworks by a hundred Bay Area women artists. There's an absolutely fantastic online version of the show, or you can make an appointment to see it. Go to the Faultline Artspace website to either schedule a visit or to see the online version. I have a website which is AlisonOKFrost.com, and I'm on Instagram as @AlisonOK. And if you follow my Instagram, you get a little bit more of the work in progress stuff. And also a ton of my fringe anarchist socialist political views.
MC: And what about supporting you? Do you do a Patreon? Or do you sell prints?
AOK: I don't do a Patreon. One thing I really want to do is start making prints that I can sell on Etsy for people who liked my work and would like to do a more long term meditation on it, but don't have a thousand dollars for a painting.
MC: And what about originals? How would someone go about getting your originals?
AOK: You can contact me directly on my Instagram or through my website. My email address and phone number are both on my website and I'm happy to let anyone know what's available. And there's The Fourth Wall Gallery in Oakland which I believe is open on Saturdays, even throughout everything. They have some of my artwork available in an art bin you can flip through. You can get some of my paintings there. Susan, who runs the gallery, is someone I've worked with a lot on sales. So if you don't want to go directly through me, you can talk to her and she's great about figuring out what's available and what you might be looking for and helping with that process.
MC: Great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat and share your process and your vision. Thank you. I wish you all the best in your future visions.
AOK: Thank you too, Michael.
MC: Thanks for joining us and exploring the world according to Alison OK Frost. For show notes and links to recommendations that came up in conversation, visit TheWorldAccording.to/AlisonOKFrost. This is your host, Michael Carychao, wishing your world the very best.