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Art & Life with Olga Koumoundouros

Today we’d like to introduce you to Olga Koumoundouros.

Olga, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
My kind grandparents were immigrants from Greece and were an integral part of my upbringing in Yonkers and Flushing, NY. They terraced their backyard and grew all sorts of food to eat there. My grandmother would pick dandelion leaves in the front yard for our dinner. My sister and I grew up with them and the diner they owned. I loved the chrome, vinyl and faux classical motifs on everything. Heavy dish-ware filled with large portions of American and Greek specialties is my comfort zone. People coming together around food, regulars and new customers, those wanting fast service and the solo person lingering over a long cup of coffee, all equally belonged. And my grandparents, stepfather and uncles all owned diners as that was a solid economic chain for many uneducated Greek immigrants in 20th century NY. My family was from various places in the Mediterranean and through their relationships to the islands and Alexandria Egypt, a comfortable relationship with the sea was nurtured. My parents divorced, so my extended family was really important to me. Being the first one to graduate college in my family, it took a minute to learn to participate comfortably in the academic system. Eventually, I went to the University of Vermont and received a BA in Environmental Studies focusing on ways social systems and cultural dynamics inform our physical environment. I still draw from such an expansive ecological view in my work as a professional artist.

Can you give our readers some background on your art?
I came to art from a place of activism. I was involved in feminist and GLBTQ movements and particularly was active in efforts to dismantle racist policies and bias’ on campus. Once out of school, I joined the Youth Greens, a social ecology study group and worked as a low income advocate at a local food shelf and soup kitchen. I got into making silk screened posters and was part of a collectively run, not-for-profit community space called The Last Elm Café, where extraordinary bonds of friendship and care were formed as we worked together to run the place. The power of creativity to affect communities we live in turned my world around. I loved how the generative impulse to make art also could nurture social change. Eventually, I moved to the LA area to attend Cal State Long Beach for printmaking. This program allowed me to pay for part of my tuition with my waitressing tips. Its accessibility resonated with my working class background, but I started to break the rules in my art practice. By building artworks from my printing plates, I started geeking out on the physical and communicative qualities of the materials themselves. My tools became the content and my art. Joining materiality with the marks made by my body, I developed a love for making sculpture. I no longer was content practicing the discipline of printmaking alone, so I applied to Calarts, where ideas were of most significant concern. There I was introduced to all sorts of different critical theories and lenses useful to making sense of our world through art and culture and happily finished my MFA there.

I worked for a number of years as a professional artist, making some large sculptures and installations on the subjects of the American Dream and class mobility. These works often dialoged with architecture and the politics of the apportioning of space. Although I was relatively skilled at construction, I started to run into physical limitations as that kind of work required enormous amounts of heavy physical lifting. I developed multiple sclerosis. But instead of adapting my practice to my health, I still kept working large, physically carrying heavy loads and often being in over my head. So I just adapted my work flow around my bouts of ill health. This, coupled with the problem of storing large works and its environmental impact with the waste generated, eventually made it clear that my artwork was no longer sustainable. This led to a personal crisis. I separated from my child’s dad, went into somatic therapy for trauma and started to interrogate my art practice. I learned I was making work from the adrenaline of my trauma. This turned into a deep dive into my healing journey.

Any advice for aspiring or new artists?
I am unsure of my ability to give meaningful advice to anyone. As a survivor of multiple traumas that continue to inform my world view, I am still learning to navigate life with those wounds. Instead of leading with my wounds I want to share my efforts to move though the gateways and portals they created, towards a place of liberation. It is one thing to express the beliefs verbally but its another thing to apply the growth in real time life and with people. This path keeps revealing itself and is perpetual. Although the sharpness of the past has softened, my eyes keep opening wider. Thriving after experiencing multiple forms of violence is a lifelong task as it informs my body, how and what I see, how I talk to folx, what I laugh at and what makes me cry. It took me years to arrive at the ability to grow into the new skills and capacities that allow me to cope and find comfort. To recognize when my wounds are aggravated in the moment so I may act and speak from my best self, is the work I am most challenged by still and hold most dear. And finally, learning to love myself while seeing my shadow seems to be the ticket to lightening my load. Every step closer to self love brings me buoyancy and freedom.

What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
I’m making smaller works now, more adaptive to the needs and limitations of the natural and built environments around me. I am trying to keep my practice earthbound and track the different materials of the earth and how they are processed or joined together into a composite. I still think about economics through labor, the body and energy. How the brutality of the exalted and the disposable occupy the same space. Accessing critical analyses and fantasy through my emotions and socio-political understanding of gender, sexuality, Greek identity, family narratives riddled with violence, upheaval and trauma, my art work synthesizes ancient and contemporary mythology into a tactile lived present. You can see my work at the gallery Commonwealth and Council. Here is their web address http://commonwealthandcouncil.com/ and of course, please check out my own website olgakoumoundouros.art.

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Image Credit:
Christopher Cichocki
Ruben Diaz

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