The cerebral musings of Dana Oldfather paint profound pictures with ‘universal’ appeal

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Emerald City 03,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic and pigment on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Emerald City 03,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic and pigment on panel, 16 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Crouched down on the paint-splattered hardwood floor of her home studio in Newburgh Heights, Dana Oldfather pauses from pouring a diluted acrylic over a raw Belgian linen to consider what’s next.

How will the blues and golds in this painting interact? Where will they settle on an uneven canvas, the result of a janky floor in her 1920s house? What factors should she try to control? Which should she let go of?

The 37-year-old admits that sometimes she isn’t sure exactly what she’s looking for during those creative exhales, describing the process as a “weird flow thing where you’re not really in your head.”

Truth is, Oldfather actually spends a great deal of time in her head – and once you fully absorb the colors, shapes and designs that provide a sort of concrete splendor to her abstract art and graduate to contemplating what’s underneath it all, her work will spend a great deal of time in your head, too.

Rooted in Oldfather’s recent works are tenets of string theory, which, in short, explains how both large objects like planets and small objects (think subatomic particles) move and interact in the universe. It explains things for which quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity can’t account.

“I am blown away by the idea that tiny particles we originally thought were points or spheres may actually be a loop of string crunched down into a sphere,” she says. “It’s a completely different shape, vibrating and moving and allowing for possibilities previously unthought of.”

Heady stuff, to be sure, and not the sort of thing many immediately associate with art. But at the theory’s core is the idea that matter and energy are comprised of strings that split and combine, emitting and absorbing one another – actions depicted by the physical elements created during those creative pauses in Oldfather’s work.

Intellectually, one then ponders possible parallels between dimensionality and the many layers of her paintings, and by extension, the layers of one’s own life journey. Skipping brush strokes in her work that suggest the passage of time amplify these thoughts.

Matters of science go beyond fascination with Oldfather. In the same way they inspire and inform her art, she hopes her art ignites something meaningful in others.

“I’d love for one of my paintings to spark something in some person – regular person, scientist, mathematician, anyone – something latent, something that sits in their brain, nothing that they could even trace back to my work but that helps them to think of something to better humanity,” she says.

Point of origin

Oldfather knew she wanted to be an artist at a young age, but not before considering an alternative career path.

“For a short while, it was either to be the first female professional baseball player or an artist – until I realized I was terrible at baseball and that was never going to happen,” she says, smiling. “Baseball is really fun, but man I sucked at it. I was really bad.”

Oldfather was born in Berea, and she recalls her first oil painting came at age 6 – which might’ve been expected considering her father, Mark Oldfather, and aunt, Gretchen Troibner, are both artists. In fact, both were award winners at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show: Oldfather in 1977, and Troibner in 1981 and 1983.

She was 7 when her father and mother, Paula Brain, an accountant, divorced, after which she and her brother, Nick, lived with her father in Mentor. The elder Oldfather often relied on the tools of his trade to entertain.

“He was like, ‘You guys are being crazy?’ or ‘You’re bored? Here, here’s some sidewalk chalk. Go outside,’” she recalls. “He’d give us this big tin of really great pastels. He’d always set us up with watercolors – you know, nice ones. Artists’ stuff – way too nice for kids to be using.”

Dana Oldfather works on “Frothing” in late September at her home studio in Newburgh Heights.

Dana Oldfather works on “Frothing” in late September at her home studio in Newburgh Heights.

Her Mentor High School art teachers were quick to pick up on her homegrown artistic talent. After two days in an accelerated class, they wanted to put her a grade ahead in art class.

“By the time I was a senior, I had my own open studio class, which was awesome,” she says. “That was a really big encouragement for me, having such a high honor in such a big school like that. I really felt like … it was some kind of validation.”

Oldfather’s mother supported her art, too, but when graduation time came, she wanted her daughter to go to college to get a “real job.”

“She always wanted me to be an engineer, but she started being supportive after I took a job as a paralegal, and it was crushing my soul,” she recalls. “The work was so hard and I was so stressed out that my mom was like, ‘Just get into the art market. Whatever you have to do. Clean the floors at the museum – anything you can do just to be around that environment. You need to meet these people.’”

Starting line

After about three years as a receptionist/paralegal, Oldfather, by then 21 years old, heeded that advice – at The Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland.

“I remember her coming in the door and hiring her to work here,” recalls Olga Merela, gallery manager and art consultant at Bonfoey. “To see her go through the period of rudimentary drawing and struggling to see whether there was something there for her, and to see where she is now, it’s an evolution. The fact she’s come so far is a wonderful thing.”

“We usually don’t see that. By the time an artist gets to us, they already have a career – or they’re not as young,” says Marcia Hall, gallery director and art consultant at Bonfoey, adding that the gallery has handled Oldfather’s work for about 10 years now. “We’ve been able to watch her grow, which has been a great experience.”

Bonfoey provided Oldfather, a figurative realist at the time, an environment in which she could learn and focus more on her art, though working by day and painting by night proved exhausting. After a couple of years, she obtained a second job – as a bartender at Frank & Tony’s Place in downtown Willoughby – that helped relieve that exhaustion.

A relatively lucrative gig, bartending meant she could work part-time at both jobs, thus affording her full days to paint in her studio. The arrangement worked so well that in 2009, her art was on display at Bonfoey – in what she considers her first “real” exhibition.

That ascendancy isn’t to say Oldfather didn’t struggle along the way. When she did, she found it helped to turn to the printed page.

“I read a lot of memoirs when I was struggling with finding my own work, and I was struggling to find my place in the art community and place in the market. I mean, we’re always struggling with that, but I was really struggling,” she says. “It helped me to read memoirs of other artists who were successful, especially female artists. To see somebody who looks like me doing what I wanted to do gave me the drive to keep going.”

A memoir of note was that of abstract painter Joan Mitchell, who like Oldfather grew up in the Midwest and had an artist father.

“My dad was a figurative realist, and he’s a very, very good one. I really identified when reading Joan Mitchell’s biography because her dad was a realist, too. She felt like she wasn’t as good as he was, so she went into abstraction. That way, she couldn’t be compared to him,” she says. “I really identified with that, big time. It’s sort of like when I learned I couldn’t be a baseball player because I couldn’t stand up to all these other kids who are a lot better than me. Same thing. My dad is so good. That’s why some people don’t like to look at Picasso too much, because they’re, like, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this like this.’ So, you just have to find what you can do.”

Learning process

Absent from Oldfather’s career is any sort of artistic training via higher education. She’s completely self-taught, following a path suggested by her father, who went to the Kansas City Art Institute but lasted only two semesters.

“He felt the teachers were trying to make him be like them instead of him finding his own artistic voice,” she says, explaining that his advice to her was to bypass college to spend time in a studio learning from what she was painting.

“It only worked for me because it fit the way that I work. I think most people really need to go to school to get that critical feedback that’s necessary to make it to the next level as an artist,” she says. “For me, it didn’t make sense to go get an MFA, but I think those programs are really important to the arts community – and to keeping the work that’s being made at a certain level. I have to compete with people who are in that realm as well, and that’s important to me, to keep me pushing and keep me trying to get better.”

So who then provides that critical feedback to Oldfather? Friends who are fellow artists, like Amber Kempthorn, Amy Casey, Sarah Kabot and Mark Keffer.

And then there’s Carrie Moyer, a New York City-based painter whom Oldfather met during a 2011 residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt. Oldfather credits the encounter – and a few “simple” words – with “blowing my practice wide open.”

“You can be so close to the images you’re making and thinking about different things that you can ignore something that everyone sees but you. She pointed something out to me that I didn’t notice. She said, ‘Yeah, this is great, and you have a lot of confidence, but where are all the big shapes?’ Like, so simple,” says Oldfather, explaining her work up to that point featured a lot of “tiny, little, itty bitty” elements.

“It was one of the ways I could make the abstractions look more real, and it was something I totally didn’t get at all,” she says. “I was using the negative space as the big shape, but it wasn’t really enough. Everything was just kind of hovering out there, so applying the big shapes really allowed me get more depth into the work – and it helped me build up my layers.”

The finished product: “Frothing,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic, pigment and spray paint on linen, 38 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The finished product: “Frothing,” 2016, oil, ink, acrylic, pigment and spray paint on linen, 38 x 48 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Reaching for stars

With big shapes in place, Oldfather has hit the big time.

She’s won awards, like the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2013. Her work is represented by Bonfoey and Zg Gallery in Chicago. It graces the walls of places like The Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and is included in both the Pizzuti Collection and The Progressive Art Collection. In 2013, she had a solo show at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, which Bonfoey’s Hall and Merela agree was a big deal.

“Given Dana’s relative youth, the show at the Butler was amazing in that she’s someone who’s a self-taught artist and risen by the merits of her work,” Merela says. “The exhibition was a vote of confidence in the work she’ll be producing and has already produced.”

In 2016, she’s had two solo shows: “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet” at Zg Gallery and “Sugar” at Red Arrow Gallery in Nashville. This year’s saccharine themes are inspired in part by her own sweet tooth – she describes moving wet paint around with her brush like “spreading cake icing” – but also that of her and husband Randall Darling Jr.’s 3-year-old son, Arlo.

Oldfather admits she didn’t feel prepared for motherhood.

“I read a lot of books, and I talked to as many young moms as I could, but … people don’t want to scare a pregnant lady, you know? So, people don’t say stuff like how hard it is and how alienating it is,” she explains. “And not even alienating like no one wants anything to do with you, it’s just like the way you have to be to keep an infant alive. Just to get through, you have to do and become all of these things that are not natural.”

Attempts to reconcile these feelings pushed Oldfather into her studio. “I was in such a depressed, drastic, desperate state that it really let me get weird and messy with the work. It pushed it to a new level,” she says. “I can’t tell if it was from the kid or just because of the time, you know, like it was time for that to happen, but I can’t help but feeling the desperation I felt was the emotive push I really needed.

“I’m kind of riding the wave of what I learned when my son was an infant, and it’s turning into something else already. My work changes so fast, I’m pulling apart ideas all the time.”

Her mind perpetually creating, mining human experiences while exploring the intersection of psychology and cosmology, she’s an artist continually hoping to inspire through her creative pursuits.

“My grandest hope is that (my) invented, multidimensional images could play a small, unnoticed part in sparking a scientific idea or concept pertaining to dimensions, our existence or the theory of everything,” she says. “I don’t know how they will or could do this. I don’t know enough about the theories or the math to nail that down. As my friend Amy Casey likes to say, ‘I’m just a painter.’ But … I’m reaching for the stars. Quite literally, I suppose.” CV

On View

Dana Oldfather

• “Thump … Dump, Clump, Lump … Bump!” is on view through Nov. 19 at Bonfoey Gallery in Cleveland. Oldfather curated the exhibition, which features art from Andy Curlowe, Amber Kempthorn, Amy Kligman and Erik Neff.

• Oldfather’s work will be part of “Colors|Lines|Layers,” a group exhibition opening in April 2017 at CASS Contemporary Art Space in Tampa, Fla.

• “The Replicant & The Rotisseur,” a two-person exhibition featuring Oldfather and Mark Keffer, will be on view from Oct. 27, 2017 through Dec. 9, 2017 at The Galleries at CSU in Cleveland.