In a moment you will meet the woman you see in the portrait below. First, I must explain a few things about myself.
I am not vegan. I was gifted my first-ever pair of Birkenstocks at age 47 (I love them). I do not own a single tie-dye item. I probably would not be able to tell the difference between a tune by the Grateful Dead and Phish. I have never seen Animal House. I have yet to attend a Ducks football game. Yet, I have a fondness for Eugene. I’ll just admit that straight up.
My academic years were spent there and many a positive experience took place there in the years that followed. It is a charming, tangled up in bohemia, earthy, unpretentious place. I might be predisposed to like the people, there too, I’ll forewarn you. Quite a few of the artists I photographed for Connective Conversations were based in Eugene/Springfield: Michael Salter, Colin Ives, Rick Silva, Laura Vandenburgh, Tannaz Farsi, Brian Gillis, Sylvan Lionni, Christopher Michlig, Amanda Wojick, Michael Boonstra, to name a few. Many connected to the University of Oregon, some not.
Writer’s Note: In the summer of 2014, I began my travels around Oregon to photograph the artists who had received studio visits from the curators and critics of the Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014, The Ford Family Foundation and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts Curator and Critic Tours and Lectures program for the years since the program’s inauguration in 2011. I travel light, only one camera, no lighting equipment, one lens. My goal is to show these artists in their environment—authentic, uncontrived, at ease. Learn about the project, Connective Conversations Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014 and the release of the book October 2015 at this year’s Oregon Arts Summit.
In my extensive social media amblings and readings of artistic happenings, I bumbled upon this singular, off-beat, idiosyncratic woman who looked as if she called Eugene home. Based solely on location, I was inclined to think she was fantastic. I had blithely scrolled into a post on Facebook (a friend of a friend had liked or shared or did some such viral-media spreading action), and there it was—this tremendous photograph of a woman with a coal-black, jaws gaping, teeth-bared wolf mask perched on her head. Dazzlingly brilliant platinum blonde hair cascaded out the back of the mask, her skin a pale translucence that seemed a bit otherworldly. The wolf-mask looked papier-mache, PETA-approved. The woman’s name was Julia Oldham, an artist sharing her time between Eugene and New York. OK, so I instantly adored her—here was an appreciation of drama, humor, and brilliant commentary. And, as she would tell me later, she had a love of Eugene, too.
Wolf-mask aside, I was lucky enough that she also happened to be on my list of Connective Conversations artists who had been visited by one of the program’s curators|critics. I was enthused—a photo shoot in Eugene with someone I could fully investigate via social media in the weeks that led up to her photo appointment. So, I did what anyone with a shred of investigative, voyeuristic curiosity would do, I trailed her from afar via her social media presence—which I might add, was nothing short of mesmerizing. Each post progressively displayed her as someone with a distinctively quirky sense of costuming and theatrics. It might have been sort of lurker-like on my part, but it was well worth it.
I discovered a lover of nature, an appreciator of all living things in all forms and some not living things (hello, NASCAR!?), a dog-owner, a collector of small skeletal remains of diminutive, once timorous beasties, an experimentrix, a feral-like waxen wanderer. I stumbled along behind from the vantage point of an Instagram account, feeling less and less interesting myself and more and more self-diagnosed with FOMO (“fear of missing out”) should I fail to see one of her posts. I discovered her adoration of the decomposing and decaying of natural things, the beauty of a swampy field, a spider, insects copulating in a “#sexytime” embrace, simple masked self-portraits of her body wrapped, clothed or integrated into a selfless, fearless expose. In the everyday, Oldham was finding intrigue, drama and beauty. And she seemed to be passionately infatuated with every minute of it, every post, every shared image.
Above all, I was watching an artist self-promoting with social media being utilized at its best intentioned–revealing herself as natural, provocative, seeking indigenous connections to her environment and openly inviting her extended worldwideweb network to appreciate this journey right alongside her revelry. Bravo! It was captivating and I couldn’t wait to photograph her.
Prior to our scheduled photo shoot, I received an email from Julia:
I have two rambunctious dogs. I can keep them penned upstairs of you like, though they are a big part of my studio practice so if you are OK with dogs maybe they could be there too?
When I arrived at her south Eugene residence and studio (a well-foliaged place tucked up in the southeast hills, suitably quirky and down-to-earth), Julia greeted me, as did her two energetic confidantes, Saga and Yarn. Saga is a large, black wolf-like creature; Yarn, a tumble of overly loving black and tan hound. “Shall I put the dogs away?” Julia asked. No, absolutely not. They seemed just as important to the photograph as Julia’s collection of bovine skulls, prodigious computers and film editing equipment.
As she talked to me about her interest in collecting skeletons and observing the natural world around her, I was struck with her sense of compassion and empathy. Each piece of bone, each decaying form was peered at delicately and handled with extreme gentleness with a reverence for what had once been, an ethereal sense for the form and the once living creature.
And, if that is not enough to showcase her deeply ingrained aura of compassion, let me suggest you attempt delving into the work she has done revolving around the Soviet space dog, Laika— this work will catapult you into an emotionally-wrenching cosmic spin.
As our photoshoot drew to a close, Julia talked of her regular NYC trips, and connections and work done on the east coast. I soon found out that love keeps Julia firmly anchored to Eugene as a homebase and for her studio location (her husband is a physics professor at UO), but her professional associations take her eastward. She says “I love living in Eugene because it’s the right place for me and I love nature.” She spends several months a year in NYC doing residences, exhibiting, and making work with her Brooklyn-based collaborator, Chad Stayrook.
Her bi-coastal sensibilities made her only more alluring. In the softly-beatnik south Eugene utopia, striding about her studio in cowboy boots, graphite colored lycra shorts and a silky shirt, a black feather tattoo climbing up her bare shin, she casually chatted– selectively merging a knowledge of and familiarity with New York, alongside a distinct appreciation for things, social interactions, and exhibition opportunities NYC’s urban environment has to offer. All the while Julia maintained a grounded, naturalist-next-door love of nature, proudly adored her affectionate dogs, and described in great detail what she discovers from a simple walk in the woods. As I listened, charmed by her approachable openness, she continued explaining how much she loved Eugene: “I would describe Eugene as a gentle, lush university town with great restaurants, glorious access to nature, and the friendliest, quirkiest people I’ve ever met.” And although we didn’t share the same enthusiasm for sport, (she divulged: “I’ve been to Ducks basketball games and watch Ducks football games out at bars with friends. I haven’t been to any track events yet but plan on it. I had never been a big sports fan before moving to Eugene but am now devoted to the Ducks!”). I still wanted to know more. So, I asked Oldham to tell me a bit more about herself.
Here’s what she revealed:
- She has been professionally trained as a snake handler.
- She likes to collect roadkill and dead birds and clean the bones for her large collection of animal bones and skulls. There are frequently dead birds in her freezer and on a few occasions she brought home dead squirrels in her purse. A friend recently called her because there was a dead opossum in the friend’s yard and she wondered if Julia wanted it. (Julia did.)
- She is exceptionally good at bleating like a goat, but could never do a cartwheel.
- She loves car racing. And movies about car racing.
- She likes to know the end of every book she reads before she starts because otherwise she gets really anxious. Same with movies.
- She loves insects (and other invertebrates) and finds them endlessly fascinating, but she has an irrational and all-consuming fear of wasps. While she was an artist in residence at Bernheim Arboretum in Kentucky, she got so upset about a hornet that had gotten into her cabin that she called the forest ranger. Everyone at Bernheim found out and teased her terribly.
- She tried to learn how to whittle and had such high hopes but gave up after realizing she was only capable of making pointy sticks.
Julia Oldham, Arts Watch readers, surrounding herself in the best of both worlds, Eugene and New York and….a force for nature.