Self-taught, Portland-based artist Aleksandra Apocalisse started painting on a whim when she was 21. “Before that I wasn’t even much of a doodler,” she says. “I don’t know why. I just didn’t really engage in that when I was a kid.” It started when she decided to play with an unopened paint set she bought as a gift for her partner. Astonished by how much fun she had creating images, Apocalisse started to teach herself basic art skills with pens and pencils. Her friends, many of them artists or musicians, encouraged her at this crucial point of development: “They were telling me I should be an artist professionally before I had ever even considered that.”
After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?
Talking with Apocalisse, I was struck by the profound importance of connection in her work. In her paintings and drawings, she highlights the links between humans and nature, Earth and the cosmos. Her work is infused with an almost magical or mystical reverence for the wonders already present in the world, balanced with an imaginative sense of possibility. Selling prints of her work at art fairs, festivals, and pop-up exhibitions across Oregon and Washington is the core of Apocalisse’s business, but connection is present, here, too. The artist speaks warmly about the importance of in-person conversations; she treats exhibiting and selling as a platform for engaging with the community.
The Portland Saturday Market was the catalyst that allowed Apocalisse to establish herself as a professional artist. “I had decided that I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t really know how to do it…I set up an Etsy shop and I was getting commissions, but it was nowhere near enough to make a living…it didn’t turn into a real possibility in my mind until I moved to Portland and I found out about the Saturday Market.” Founded by Sheri Teasdale and Andrea Scharf, the Portland Saturday Market opened in 1974 and has grown significantly over the decades. A juried market ordinarily attracting one million visitors a year (like other large gathering attractions, it’s closed now because of coronavirus restrictions), Portland Saturday Market says it is “the largest continuously operating weekly open-air crafts market in the United States.” One of 350 members, Apocalisse has been exhibiting there consistently since 2016.
The Market is specifically a showcase for local and regional talent but it is also an opportunity for the artists, who are also the vendors, to connect with customers. It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people. “I really enjoy the conversations with people at the market, even if they’re not customers,” she says. “Fellow vendors, people who are just stopping by just to talk, they might not have any interest in buying anything, but it’s really nice to connect to people over my work.”
Apocalisse’s 2019 portrait of the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is one of her bestsellers, and one that has sparked a lot of interaction. The work beatifies Bourdain, depicting him in a loose white garment and golden halo against an indigo background dotted with golden orbs. “I loved him and that’s why I wanted to paint him as a saint,” Apocalisse says. Bourdain overcame drug addiction to become a successful chef, writer, and television host. Like many others, I thought of “Tony” as my simultaneously sardonic and charismatic guide through food’s complicated relationships with history, politics, cultural identity, and globalism. His 2018 suicide was shocking, sending waves of grief and loss well beyond the foodie community. For some viewers, Apocalisse’s Saint Anthony provides an avenue for connecting through shared grief. The artist says some people have been moved to tears at her booth, while others still seek to understand how someone who achieved so much could end his own life. “I think it’s good to have that opportunity, that platform, to have conversations with people about suicide,” Apocalisse says, “because people have a lot of questions . . .and it’s something that we don’t really talk about. But a lot of us have been affected by it in one way or another. So, I think it’s really good that that painting in particular opens the door to therapeutic conversations.”
Not all interactions around Apocalisse’s work are quite so serious. Many of the works are lighthearted, and joyfully express themes of connection and balance. Her interest in the natural world is clear, as combinations of humans, animals, and plants are her most frequent motifs. In Blue Eye, one of six works in the series Eyes of the World, the blue of the iris is transformed into abstract waves in which large goldfish swim. One seems to leap out of the water, its body gracefully curving over the pupil into a space that dissolves into black and blue rectangles. The pupil itself is not simply a black pool, but a landscape filled with densely packed, overlapping mountains that fade to a misty gray. Apocalisse writes of this series, “We discover that while we are beholding, we are also beheld, and there is no boundary between us and nature.”
In Kingdom, oversized hands gently cradle an entire village, the spires and towers of multiple buildings compressed higgledy-piggledy into one architectural unit. One hand is stacked atop the other, creating a stronger foundation, while the palms remain open. It is a gesture of strength, but also care and gentleness. Below the hands, roots extend into a space of washy gray watercolor, and ultimately into the blank white of the paper. The affairs of the tiny kingdom are shown for what they are: small parts in a larger system. What that system is and how it operates is up to our imagination. Kingdom, like the rest of The Human Touch series, asks viewers to consider “the impact that humans might have on the world if we stopped identifying with being a destructive force, and instead think of ourselves as creative and integral to the Earth’s ecosystem as a whole.”
Apocalisse has created a successful career through alternative circuits, exhibiting artwork at Portland Cider House’s SE Hawthorne tasting room and the Cruz Room Annex on NE Alberta. She has sold her art at events in Oregon such as Pancakes and Booze, Rose City Comic Con, Siren Nation, St. John’s Bizarre, and Buckman Art Show & Sell, as well as the Washington events Urban Craft Uprising, U District Street Fair, and Fremont Fair. Apocalisse favors the art fairs because, she says, “It’s really important for me to also be able to talk to people. I have some of my art up at . . . bars and cafes around town. Whenever I hear that I sold some art through those places, I’m always really happy, but I wish I knew who the art was going home with and get to chat with them a little bit.” One of Apocalisse’s busiest events of the year is also her favorite: the annual, three-day Oregon Country Fair, held just outside of Veneta. Apocalisse loves this event because “everything is just beautiful. The booths are built with wood into the forest. And people are in costume and they’re so happy and there’s music everywhere and art everywhere.” Apocalisse says the ambience allows people to make “more of a visceral, emotional connection with me than normal.” This year may be an experiment in fostering connections at a distance, as the Fair has cancelled the on-site gathering and is looking for “ways we can come together as a community virtually.”
Although Apocalisse admits that “ it’s kind of weird right now to not be out there in the community” right now due to social distancing, she’s making the best of it by finding longer stretches of concentrated time to create new work for a forthcoming exhibition at Blind Insect. Run by artist Pepe Moscoso, Blind Insect is “a community exhibition space focusing on the artwork of multicultural artists and creatives who don’t otherwise have access to show their work in the mainstream.” The gallery regularly features a mix of Portland-based and international artists. Apocalisse’s exhibition was originally scheduled for June, but the domino effect of the coronavirus-related closure has pushed back several shows. Apocalisse’s is now slated for July, and the gallery will provide updates on its website as well as Facebook and Instagram accounts.
The new work for Blind Insect is Apocalisse’s attempt to create a clearer visual relationship between her interest in science and her growth as an artist. “I kind of see myself as a scientist as part of my history, not part of who I am presently,” she says, but she is still keenly inspired by the natural world and fascinated by “the way that we are structured and the way that other beings are structured and the relationships between organisms.” For this exhibition, Apocalisse will let herself do something she has resisted so far: offering text accompaniments to the artwork that shed more light on the scientific research that informed them. In both the artworks and the texts, fact and fantasy will merge: “This series is inspired by symbiotic relationships and the theme is cosmic connections. So, I’m putting this romantic spin on it, like species that have symbiosis between them are kind of like soulmates and their connection is written in the stars.”
When we spoke, Apocalisse was working on an image of clownfish and the anemones they inhabit, infusing the background with elements to turn the familiar underwater world into a galactic one with threads or strings literalizing connections between beings. “I think it just gives me a great sense of comfort knowing how everything is really part of one system and I’m not separate from the world around me and nothing really is separate from, from its environment,” she says. “And I think that it’s comforting, but it also keeps me on the right track to know that everything that I do has an effect. And just to think about how the things around me are affecting me too. And just to appreciate that. It’s all kind of a beautiful dance that’s happening. It gives me a lot of peace.”
In this moment of global pandemic, we are perhaps more keenly aware on a daily basis of how we are inextricably linked. We are connected through shared vulnerability, but connection has also proven to be a source of tremendous strength and resilience. We see it in mutual aid networks. We hear it in stories about people talking with friends and family more frequently, or after long periods of silence. We use technology to share information about resources, to stay socially engaged while physically distant, and even to talk about the traumatic effects of isolation. In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world. Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?