Closer to Wildness: Interview with Oregon Artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

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Trevor | 2009 | oil on wooden rising bowl | 24 x 15 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


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El Tecolote | oil on wood | 40 x 31 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


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Wildflowers grew while I waited for you | 2009 | oil on wood | 36 x 18 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri



e have come to the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on this unusually warm day to view works by the equally unusual Oregon artist who winds text in and out of her portraits and incorporates into other pieces such found objects from nature as porcupine quills and tiny bones extricated from owl pellets. How apropos that it was a friend from our local birding group who urged us not to miss this “Contemporary Oregon Visions” exhibit. After all, this is what Irene Hardwicke Olivier’s work is about, and what her new artbook, “Closer to Wildness” is about: art and creative imagery as a path that leads us deeper and closer to not only the wild around us but to the origin of our own natures, to that which waits to be discovered within. Under Olivieri’s care, wildness is not to be feared, but rather where we yearn to return. As if our very soul depends upon it.


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri's new artbook, Closer to Wildness

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s new artbook, Closer to Wildness



Off the grid in the foothills of the Cascade mountains: the Tumalo Winter Deer Range in central Oregon ~


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Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Irene, please tell me about your piece, Mercy on the Rio Grande.

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: I have such a deep connection to that river and spent so much of my childhood in it, living in South Texas. I was even baptized in the river!  Mercy on the Rio Grande is a painted prayer for the heartbreaking situation on the border of Mexico and the US. Growing up on the Texas/Mexico border, there was always conflict and pain on the Rio Grande, but recently things have become unbearably difficult.  Mercy is what is needed in this crisis: mercy, compassion and love. The main figure symbolizes the desperation of those making the trip across the river. The small figure above is like an angel blessing the agonizing journey.


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Mercy on the Rio Grande | 2013 | oil on clayboard | 45.7 x 91.4 cm (18 x 36 in.)


Deanna Phoenix Selene: I’m curious to know where you got your thirst for adventure and for putting yourself so directly at the helm. It’s one thing to say you want to travel, but quite another to engage so actively in the environments you enter. Who were your heroes and heroines growing up?


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Wendy and Pato go boating | oil on wood | 46 x 11″


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: My childhood experiences in the mysterious workshop of nature really inspired the path I take today. When asked to name a hero, the first to come to mind is my father. He lived life to the fullest in every way; he was creative and eccentric and made his living farming along the banks of the Rio Grande. I was a child completely embedded in nature.

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Big tree that he is | oil on clayboard| 72 x 48 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


When he dies he wants to be cremated
And have his ashes placed at the base of a bonsai tree
Then he’ll live another hundred years

Perfect that he’d think of that,
The big tree that he is,
Roots going deep, a long line of farmers

A strong and happy heart, blue eyes, broad shoulders
Walking upside down for miles,
His strong arms carrying him along
There goes my father, living a big life


~ excerpt from the painting of the artist’s father, Big tree that he is.


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Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: I loved walking barefoot along the river, catching frogs, cicadas and caterpillars, making things out of whatever I found.


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Encantada | 2011 | Bones and porcupine quills in copper tray | 26″ circle | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Exploring the vast volcanic landscape where I live, I often come across owl pellets.
The owl catches its prey (usually a mouse, vole, or wood rat) and swallows it whole.
Owls cannot digest fur, teeth, or bones, so the following day, before it goes in search
of its next meal, the owl coughs up a pellet. I collect the pellets, dissect, clean, and
sort the bones, and make paleo mosaics from them. I love that from a distance a
paleo girl appears to an alluring seductress, but when you get up close you see she
is made out of rodent bones.”


~ from Closer to Wildness, the new artbook by Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: [quote]We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and that helped us to find our own ways to have fun and be creative. My father didn’t like for us to have store-bought toys; he and my mother encouraged us to make things instead. One Christmas, he brought a truckload of carrot dirt from the farm and dumped it in our backyard. [/quote]Carrot dirt is the rich, dark, fertile soil that is left behind when the carrots are harvested. At first it seemed like a disappointing present but after a few days, my sister, brother and I started making little trails and villages in the mountain of carrot dirt, creating rivers and ponds and caves and miniature farms. We planted tiny seeds and made it come alive. It turned out to be the best, most inspiring present ever.


Handful of earth | oil on wooden door |30 1/2 x 75 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Handful of earth | oil on wooden door |30 1/2 x 75 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Often instead of celebrating Christmas at home, we would all get in the car and drive across the border into Mexico, picnicking along the way or stopping for chalupas at little roadside stands or cafes. We would explore out-of-the-way places, and I always loved the old cemeteries and churches, the handmade, heartfelt ways of expression inspired me endlessly. The mummy museum (Museo de los Momias) in Guanajuato was one of my favorite places to visit. We always smuggled papayas and mangoes back across the border so we could plant the seeds in our backyard, after eating the fruit.

My father grew everything he could get his hands on, and for me seeds became a perfect metaphor for creating. A tiny seed, if taken care of, watered and nurtured, can become a plant or a tree, producing flowers and fruit. I think of the bits of sketches and notes within my sketchbooks and how each one is like a little seed, waiting to be developed into paintings.

These early experiences of travel and growing things lit the way for the rest of my life.


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Some kind of wilderness | 2010 | oil on panel | 57 x 57 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your paintings themselves feel like stories, both figuratively and literally, from the intricate details you put into each narrative (frequently a picture inside a picture) to the actual text you write and insert, sometimes filling up the entire space within and around the person you’ve captured. The consequence is that the viewer cannot just pause briefly in front of one of your paintings and then quickly move on. Your work demands that the viewer take time. Was this all very deliberate? A response to our tendency to consume without thought or reverence to what we’re taking in?


Subterranean Family | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Subterranean Family | Oil on Wood | 35×30 inches | 2013 | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


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Tail for blanket and pillow | oil on wooden panel | 22 x 19 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: My way of painting with text and layers of images developed naturally over time. I never intended for it to be demanding and I really don’t think about the viewer or how they might experience it. I never censor myself when making something or worry about how people will respond to it.

Painting the tiny text helps me remember what I’ve learned as well as add texture and another level of meaning to the piece. I love this part of making my painting. [quote]Physically, I love painting the letters of each word and seeing it cover the surface of the piece. When the paint is dry, I love to gently run my fingers over the miniscule lettering.[/quote]


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Helpless October | 2007-2008 | oil on panel | 56 x 56 inches | Irene Harwicke Olivieri


[quote]I realize that many people might never read what I write in a painting, but I like knowing that if they do, they might find something interesting, like the text in one painting describes how to raise caterpillars, another describes aphrodisiac recipes from around the world. When I’m working on a painting about something deeply personal like family secrets, the text happens organically – I’m feeling, thinking, painting.[/quote]


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Helpless October (DETAIL)

Deanna Phoenix Selene
: After all your world traveling, it feels like you have now come full circle, creating a life for yourself that in many ways mirrors your childhood. Is this your sense also?

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: I like the way you describe this and actually never considered it until now but I’ve always felt happiest in nature. I currently live in the Tumalo Winter Deer Range in central Oregon, where I’m actively involved in helping protect wildlife and wildlife habitat in my area. I will always be passionate about speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves.


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Who will save the secrets of the creatures? | Oil on antique steel headboard | 52 X 38 inches. | 2013


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: After living on the east coast, I began yearning to live in a wilder place, to be closer to nature in a more ancient and vulnerable way.


Supper for the Spotted Skunk | 24 x 24” | oil on clayboard | 2014

Supper for the Spotted Skunk | 24 x 24” | oil on clayboard | 2014


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: So ten years ago we moved to central Oregon, bought a small cabin in the high desert and added onto it to make our home. We live “off the grid,” meaning we are not connected to the power grid or any public utility services. We have eighteen solar panels, a battery pack, an inverter, a back-up generator and our own well.


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Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s own off-the-grid system


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: It’s an exciting challenge producing all of our own power, and maintaining the system through the seasons ~ especially winter! ~ but I love it and can’t imagine living on the grid again. Nature plays a more important part in my life now and I’ve become much more aware of the way the sun rises and moves across the sky during the different seasons. I’ve definitely become more conscious of not using electricity when I don’t need it. About the same time we went off the grid, I became a raw vegan and began growing lots of greens, so hopefully in time we will become more self-sufficient.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: How did painting fit into your journey? How does painting feed your spirit now?


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Lamp unto my feet | 2013| Oil on wooden door | 196.9 x 71.1 cm (77 1/2 x 28 in.)


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Making things has been a constant part of my life since I was little. Creating has become my natural reaction to being alive.


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Providing the pollen (DETAIL) | oil on wooden door | 64 x 24 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Deanna Phoenix Selene: What would you like the viewer to take away from your artworks? Is there a question you’re inviting us to ask of ourselves? Or is your process wholly one of self-discovery?

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: I’d love to think that my paintings might lead people back to the natural world if they have gotten away from it, or inspire people to follow through with their creative ideas and not let things like perfectionism or procrastination hold them back. And my desire is that someone might fall in love with some creature that they previously didn’t like, perhaps a vulture or a packrat. I love celebrating the animals nobody loves. I always hope viewers might feel deeper love for our wild animals and be inspired to care for them and their habitats.


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I drop everything when I see you | 2008 – 2009 | oil on wood | 55 x 79 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


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I drop everything when I see you (detail)


Neotoma cinera | oil on wood | 44 x 22 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Neotoma cinera | oil on wood | 44 x 22 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is there a “story” you’d still like to tell but just haven’t so far found the entry point to paint it?

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Too many to name. I’m working on new paintings about families and how its been for me to have some of my family members upset with me for painting about the secrets in our family.


One hundred bright smiles (for my mother) | 2009 | oil on clayboard | 72 x 48 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

One hundred bright smiles (for my mother) | 2009 | oil on clayboard | 72 x 48 in. | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: My reaction to their anger is what I always do: paint about it. It’s the only way I really know how to deal with things that are upsetting.

I’m also developing ideas about being a girl, being feminine and being a tomboy at the same time. The various messages we get growing up female and how we react to it, to be who we want rather than who our culture tells us to be.


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Valentine for a cougar | 31.5 x 74″ | oil on wood


Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: I’m interested in painting about women in history who are true individuals. I recently read Hundreds and Thousands- the journals of Canadian artist Emily Carr, and am reading a biography of Gene Stratton-Porter whose book, Girl of The Limberlost I just finished and feel a robust connection with. I have many ideas I want to explore and am sure I’ll be painting until I’m dead.


Better is the Ready

Better is the Ready | Oil on wooden door | 188 x 78.7 cm (74 x 31 in.) | 2010 | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Greatest advice you’ve ever received?

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri: Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.


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Farewell | oil on canvas | 20 x 26″ | Irene Hardwicke Olivieri




Further Notes

irene in studio not 700.jpgIrene Hardwicke Olivieri was born and raised on the southern tip of Texas, spending much of her childhood on the banks of the Rio Grande River, where her father, a farmer, grew onions and cabbage.  At 17, she moved to Brazil and lived as an exchange student in Rio de Janeiro.  She went on to catch a ride on a cargo boat and travel up the Amazon river, eventually making her way back home through south and central America.  She studied art in Mexico and Austin Texas, then moved to New York where she received an M.A. from NYU.  Irene worked as a gardener/lecturer at the Cloisters and at the New York Botanical Garden, where she created drawings of neo tropical palms and the insects that pollinate them.  She now lives off the grid in the high desert of central Oregon.  She paints and draws, makes things out of bones, raises caterpillars, waterlilies and succulents and keeps a dermestid beetle colony.  Irene is one of the founding members of the activist arm of TrapFree Oregon, a non-profit dedicated to banning animal trapping.

Contemporary Oregon Visions

Contemporary Oregon Visions:

Contemporary Oregon Visions:

Ms. Olivieri’s work is currently on exhibit in the “Contemporary Oregon Visions” show at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art which runs through August 3rd. Orion Magazine is also featuring her work in their summer issue.

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s new artbook, Closer to Wildness, is now available for purchase directly from the publisher, Pomegranate, from  Random House. and at Barnes & Noble Bookstores.

Or visit the artist’s website.



Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. Rebecca Christie on December 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Irene’s paintings are transcendent. Her book is lovely.

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