Meet an extremely talented, inspiring, and powerful creator who incorporates a strong sense of culture in her works of art. Meet Elena Øhlander.
[RADX:] You are a multi-talented artist in modeling, painting, and photography. Tell us first about your modeling background.
[Elena:] Modeling was not something I aspired to do. Actually, my degree is in Photography which incidentally led to modeling. I have a lot of friends that are photographers and they would use me as a test for their lighting techniques. People then started to notice and began asking me to model. I just said yes, as we only live once and before I am too old and my look is less desirable.
[RADX:] Let’s dive into how you got started with Photography.
[Elena:] I’m going to share with you a short story. When I was a teenager, I always drew and painted. I never took formal classes until high school and fell in love with it. I was troubled which led to a series of unfortunate decisions. I was madly in love with a boy at the time that was a bad influence on me. I got into a terrible car accident when I was 17 and couldn’t walk for over 6 months. Despite the troubles I went through, it took me a while to realize just how precious life is. What is most important. I got kicked out of high school and had no direction or guidance. My single-mother worked long hours and struggled financially, so I began working in the restaurant industry.
A few years later, I had my daughter and spent the pregnancy on bed-rest. A year after giving birth, I figured it was time to go back to school. With no formal test scores and a GED, my options were limited but I knew I wanted to be in a creative field. Photography seemed like it would offer a more sustainable living to support a family so I chose that path.
My work explored the facets of the photographic medium while developing my voice in my work. I took conceptual self-portraits that explored narratives of identity, individuality, space and place. I graduated but postponed my photography career as I still felt something tangible was missing. All the while still working in the restaurant industry to make a living. A few years ago, I made the bold decision to quit my job and pursue art full-time. I hadn’t drawn or painted for an extended period of time because I would work such long hours. Sometimes, I would get off work between 2 and 4am. There just wasn’t any creativity happening, just survival.
[RADX:] Is this life changing story how you began painting and drawing again? Share more.
[Elena:] Yes, my daughter came of age to attend elementary school with a regimented routine. I made the decision over one summer to say; while my daughter is in school, I will have more time and I am equipped with art supplies I’ve amassed over the years but haven’t done anything with, so I should make work. I made a dedicated space inside my apartment for creating.
I started a Twitch channel. Twitch is like a YouTube platform. Live streaming, primarily used for gaming but they also have a section for creatives. I began doing live-streaming sessions, five days a week, making art while my daughter was asleep. I quickly realized that streaming wasn’t for me. It was distracting and less focused but I continued creating these illustrated girls. I didn’t have a specific intention or direction, they just organically took shape.
I always had an inexplicable and deep connection with Japanese culture. My daughter is half Japanese. I took 2 years of Japanese language in high school. I visited Japan in 2008 for 5 weeks and totally fell in love. I watched tons of anime, way more than anyone should (I still do). I enjoy Japanese video games, import vehicles, and eat most Japanese cuisine at home every day. It’s an integral part of my life. I began introducing elements of Japanese culture into my work as a way to have fun and be more self-reflective. I thought about my daughter who I’m surrounded by all the time. I realized there is an opportunity to connect with her and preserve her heritage, in a fun and whimsical way. Thus was born the overarching body of work, entitled “I Think I’m Going Japanese.” It just exploded and I haven’t turned back.
[RADX:] What was your original influence growing up that inspired you to start drawing/ painting?
[Elena:] It was definitely watching Japanese animation. In comparison to Western cartoons, there was so much depth of characters and more details. I was fascinated by this. How characters would be more anatomically correct. I would create my own comics and draw my favorite characters all the time. One motivation to create art was bullying. It was my way to take my mind off reality.
[RADX:] How old are you?
[Elena:] I’m about to turn 31.
[RADX:] What advice would you give your younger self?
[Elena:] Persevere through anything that happens in life. It will always be hard work. Don’t be afraid to take risks and go after whatever it is you want to do.
[RADX:] Where are you from?
[Elena:] I was born in Duluth, Minnesota. I moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was 10. I consider myself a Floridian and Jacksonville my home.
[RADX:] What is your Ethnicity?
[Elena:] My mother is from Norway and my father is Chinese but from the Philippine Islands.
[RADX:] Share with us about your work you had a while back at MOSH (Museum of Science and History.)
[Elena:] The curator for the MOSH gallery attended my solo exhibition at Space 42 back in September 2018. He loved my work and thought it would be great if I showcased during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. My work exhibits a lot of Japanese culture, mythology, and history so it was deemed an ideal fit. We even had a family-friendly workshop that resonated with the community. More people wanted to attend but we had limited seating.
[RADX:] What’s next for you?
[Elena:] That’s a question I get very often. I have some things lined up into 2020. The next upcoming event is CoRK Art’s District Open Studios Day on Saturday, November 23 from 12 to 8pm. I will be next door at Space 42 with new works on display, as well as a mural on the patio.
[RADX:] Where does your inspiration come from for your mixed media illustrations?
[Elena:] It’s sometimes different. My show last September at Space 42 was called Endless Dream. A lot of times my dreams are super vivid. Maybe the accumulation of anime and the way I see the world are uninhibited when I’m asleep. Often times, some of my work are things that I recall in my dreams. I try my best to translate that into 2-dimensional form. Most of the time I try to work in series of work. Something as simple as color can be an influence for the body of work. It can sometimes be from mythological narratives that I often read. I start with the eyes, and I allow that girl to tell me who she is. When I approach the work that way, it’s based off my emotions and how I’m feeling that day.
[RADX:] What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue becoming a multi- talented mixed media artist?
[Elena:] There is no equation to get to your definition of success. It’s always good to know what’s going on in the art world. It’s also important to not compare yourself to others. Instead, compare yourself to your past self. That’s when you are going to realize how far you’ve come and grown. It gives you a great snapshot of where you are going. It’s never too late to change your direction. You don’t have to get stuck in a fog or creative block. It’s absolutely okay to change. Show up to work every day and something good is bound to happen.
My goal is to inspire others. I recently did a workshop with Don’t Miss a Beat. They are a wonderful local non-profit that works with kids. I never imaged working with children. I didn’t think I was qualified to teach someone else what I do. I fell in love with all the kids. Kids coming up to me saying, ‘I never thought I could do something like this.’ It’s like wow, I might have just inspired someone to discover their dreams or calling in the world.
[RADX:] Do you have any additional ambitions?
[Elena:] I don’t think I have any room for any other ambitions at the moment. I think the only other ambitions would be missed callings. It would be anything dealing with restaurant or food. I love cooking and eating. If I could dedicate more time outside of my artwork, I would open a restaurant.
[RADX:] What kind of restaurant?
[Elena:] Probably a restaurant defined as New American Cuisine incorporating asian flavors into the unique southern palate. Combining those flavors to create something new is exciting to me. It’s what I naturally make in my home kitchen.