Karin Olah has just a few weeks left in her cheerful, fabric-filled studio at the Redux Contemporary Art Center. For the last hour, she's been standing over a canvas topped with layers of fabric shapes, rearranging them until they seem just right.
"I just make it up as I go," she says of her art. "It's fun playing with intuition and moving all the shapes around. I've been moving shapes around on this unfinished piece deciding if the highlights are going to be right. It's funny to find highlights on an object that doesn't exist. I'm not working from a still-life. I'm making it up as I go."
Since moving to Charleston in 2003, Olah has developed a unique brand of fiber art that combines printmaking, quilt-making, collage-work, and painting. "I cut out my brushstrokes instead of painting them on," she explains. "It's unusual. I've never seen anyone do this. I've seen people use some fabric in their work, but not use it as a main ingredient. So I think I fall into some strange category between painting and quilt-making, but not really either. I'm floating in between."
Over the years she's refined her process, creating various series inspired by the shapes and colors of Charleston. At the end of the month, she'll say goodbye to the Holy City to move to Colorado with her husband.
"I'm going to miss Charleston so much. I love the palette of the Lowcountry, and that was one of the reasons why I moved here," she says. "Just the colors in the marsh, in the ocean, in the stucco homes. Historic colors, cobblestones, the magnolias. It's going to be wild to see out in Colorado how my palette changes. Everything's different. I'll see the mountains from my studio, and what a difference, like the Flatirons and that big blue sky, so different than Charleston. I'm excited to see what happens, and it'll definitely change the way I approach a painting as far as my shapes and colors go."
Olah's farewell show at SCOOP Studios will include "a little bit of everything," from her current series of "unusual fruit" to past series exploring flowers and abstract shapes. "The shapes that I use in my work subtly change with each series that I do," she says.
Growing up in Lancaster, Pa., Olah was strongly inspired by the work of Amish quilters. After studying fiber art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she moved to New York, where she worked at a textile studio and made quilts to ward off the cold in her Brooklyn loft. After moving to Charleston, she spent time experimenting with paintings and found herself turning to quilting to release her frustrations.
"All of a sudden, one day I realized, I like quilt-making so much, why can't I do that? Why do I force myself to be stuck in the world of painting? So I started concentrating more on quilt-making and making up abstract square designs and shapes and things, and I did a real small little study where I just glued all the squares down on a piece of paper," she says. "I looked at all the squares, and it worked, suddenly. From there I started experimenting with glues, fabrics, surfaces, paints, and colored pencils to get the right feel and bring all the materials together in the right way."
It took about a year to completely develop her current approach. "I start with a rough outline, a drawing or a little under-painting, and then I start layering fabric," she says. "I layer sometimes five to 12 layers of fabric." She soaks each piece in rice starch and then squeegees it on to the canvas. "I use opaque and transparent fabrics so you can see a little history underneath in building up the shapes and background."
The all-natural fabrics, which she has sorted by color on a big shelf behind her table, are a mix of donations, purchases, and samples from her interior designer mother-in-law. "Just like a painter will squeeze out all of their paints onto a palette, I'll sort of pick out my palette too," she says. "So I choose from my rainbow of fabric shelves and pick out just the perfect sampling of what's going to go into this piece.
"I love the way it feels, I love the multitudes of what it can do," she says of her chosen medium. "It's everything from a little shirt to a hot air balloon."
SCOOP will host a "bon voyage" reception for Olah at the gallery just a few days before she leaves Charleston. By the time the show officially opens in August, Olah will be settling into her new home in Colorado, soaking up the shapes and colors of the Flatirons for what is sure to be an exciting new body of work.