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The World According to Alison OK Frost
Episode 31st January 2021 • The World According To • Michael Carychao
00:00:00 01:14:37

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‍Welcome to the third episode of The World According To, a podcast that explores the unique worldviews of amazing people. In this episode, I had the pleasure of visiting the world according to Alison OK Frost, an artist who takes troubling social and environmental images, and transforms them into delicate watercolors and post-apocalyptic scenes. These haunting and beautiful paintings help her and those who meditate upon her work to process the trauma of our times. We talk about painting in urban encampments, the importance of surrounding yourself with the right colors, teaching art classes over zoom, building a creative practice in isolation, and so much more. I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Welcome to the world according to Alison OK Frost.

Names - 1:11

Michael Carychao: Can you tell us about your name?

Alison OK Frost: My maiden name, or my given name, is Alison Offill-Klein. I found when I was trying to kind of make art—you know, I tried shortening it to Alison Klein. You can't google Allison Klein, there's just too many. And I was having trouble with curators not being able to pronounce or spell my name. So when I got married to someone whose last name was Frost, which is very easy to pronounce, and spell, I took his name. But I wanted to keep some of where I come from. So I shortened Offill-Klein to OK.

MC: How does it feel to try on the effect of different last names?

AOK: That's a really interesting question. I feel like all of my last names have had cultural baggage for them. So if you see that I have a hyphenated last name automatically you're going to assume I'm from a coast, my parents are college educated. There's also something I didn't really think about until I moved to the Bay Area is that Klein is a very Jewish last name. Which I had never thought of one way or another when I was living in LA, or New York, just because there are large Jewish populations in it, it isn't a big deal. And then when I moved to the Bay Area, it seemed like, all of a sudden, there was a little bit of othering that happened. It felt a little weird in a way to change my name to more of a waspy last name. I sort of asked myself the questions, "Am I white-washing myself here?" And, "What, what does that mean?"

MC:   And yet, you've got OK in the middle, which is the opposite of having a normal name, it's actually an invitation, it seems to me, for people to challenge your—you know, you're obviously excellent—and so to challenge your moniker of OK.

AOK: I think it's really funny too, just because I have a lot of friends who are old punk rockers and they've got these last names like Dismal or Landmine, you know? I thought it was so funny to just have a completely value-neutral moniker.

All right, I am gonna put him up.

Rocco - 3:33

MC: So that was Rocco.

AOK: That was Rocco. Yeah.

MC: Rocco seems kind of on the young side.

AOK: He is. He actually showed up at my house last December. He was a very young, very skinny Pitbull, you know, mangy, covered in fleas, under-fed.

MC:  And you took him in.

AOK:  I didn't mean to. I was like, "Okay, you can stay in my backyard for one night." But I didn't want to take him to the shelter. Because there's so many pits there. And I didn't want him to be put down. Yeah, so he's been with me for about a year. I think he might be about two years old, something like that. And he's turned into such a joy. I mean, he's a lot. Especially with lockdown and quarantine and staying in my house. It's really nice to have this big idiot dog who loves me.

MC: I know. Those big idiot dogs are just full of love.

AOK:  Definitely.

MC:  Cats have lots of questions. With their questioning eyes; dogs, no questions.

AOK: No questions. Just unconditional love.

Discovering Watercolors - 5:55

MC: I'm really interested in digging into your artwork.

AOK:  Yeah. Absolutely.

MC: Your artistic expression has gone on for years. Your style is amazingly consistent. I'm really curious how it all started.

AOK: Let's see. Well, I've always painted. You know, I was one of those kids. In some ways, I've had a lot of attention deficit problems my whole life. But when I'm drawing—from the age of like, four—something . . . When I was drawing, I could focus in a way that I can't really on anything else. I've always drawn. I was doing big oil paintings for a while. I started having problems with my vision when I was about 27, something like that. And all of a sudden, the paintings I had been doing weren't working. The way I was perceiving the world, visually, wasn't lending itself to making these large oil paintings. So I started making really terrible paintings. I don't know if you've ever gone through one of those phases where you're like, "Man, I just got to make this terrible painting"?

MC:  All the time.

AOK: So I had a year or two of just awful oil paintings. You know, they were a bit, you know: they're embarrassing. But then, one day, I thought: I think I want to try watercolors. I actually had a show coming up. I had to deliver work for a show in something like ten days, which is the worst time possible to switch mediums. But I was like, "Yeah, I think it's time."

MC: You picked up watercolors just a week-and-a-half before you were going to exhibit those watercolors?

AOK:  I did. Yeah. I mean, it was a group show. But, yeah. And it just clicked. I feel like I was led to this medium. My first painting was terrible. My second painting was pretty bad. And then the third painting, I was like, "I think I'm onto something here." I think it works really well, because my subject matter tends to be really heavy. And watercolors are really light. There's a sort of light joyousness to the medium that I think is a really good balance for what I'm doing paintings of.

MC: Yeah, and just to describe your style, it strikes me as very light. Lots of washes, lots of letting the page come through, lots of blank page, in fact, around the subjects. Very muted colors. Very realistic style. It seems like you have done plenty of work on an underdrawing of some kind. But the rendering is very gentle. At the same time, your subject matter is pretty dark. It makes for an interesting contrast. You have lots of urban camping, homeless scenes, riot police, medical personnel in robes wearing masks. There's one of people in hazmat suits getting washed down in kiddie tubs. There are soldiers farming and the super haunting ballerinas in masks. How did you come to that subject matter?

Collecting Images - 8:25

AOK: Before I actually started painting those pictures, I had been collecting them for years out of newspapers. I work a lot from photographs, so often a big part of my process is just collecting. I mean, we live in such a great time for fetishizing photographs. Because if you're looking for a picture of people in hazmat suits, you can find seven hundred very easily. And then cull them down to your favorite twenty-four. And then, test them out and find like the two or three that are going to make exactly the painting that you want. So I already had these images, just in files. I had files full of these terrible images and a lot of things that were also sort of dark and disturbing, but didn't end up being successful in paintings. I had been drawn to the subject matter, but I just wasn't sure how to address it in art. But I knew that I needed to do that.

MC: So the collecting came first.

AOK: The collecting came first. 

MC: Newspapers, magazines, physical media—like that? Are there places that you go online? Apps?

AOK: I mostly use Google Image Search.

MC: And then how do you collect them? Do you just download them and have your hard drive full?

Painting Process - 10:30

AOK: Yeah, I download them. And then I make them very small. I take all the resolution out of these beautiful pictures and print them up on pretty crappy printers. So I have small terrible pictures, and I print them out and cut them up. I print them out like six to a page or something like that, because I'm really looking to strip the sharpness, strip the virtuosity of the photograph out of it. Because that allows me to reinvent that part on my own. Because I think the way our minds work, whatever information is not there, we're going to finish ourselves when we're looking at something. So I want to give myself as much opportunity to finish things as possible. And then also give my viewers that same opportunity. You know, when you look at them from far away, they look pretty realistic. But when you get close, there are pools of watercolor and sediment separating and you know, drying lines and things like that, which then allows the viewer to sort of insert themselves into the image.

MC: Actually, you're very generous to your viewers in how much you leave to their imagination. Is that difficult to pull off? How do you keep yourself from imposing too much on your pictures?

AOK: I have a really strong desire for people to insert themselves to not "other" these scenes. I've been doing these paintings of people wearing masks, and sort of protecting themselves from their surroundings for however many years and then, all of a sudden, this year the whole world started looking like that.

MC:  I know. It makes me look through your paintings again, and be like, "Oh, okay, what's next?"

AOK: Right, what's next? Yeah. I wanted people to have that experience of, when you look in a newspaper and you see a terrible flood in Malaysia or something like that, you're like, "Well, that that's over there that's happening to those people." And I really wanted to consciously strip away any sort of descriptions that would allow you to say, "Oh, that's someplace else, that someone else."

MC: That's right. There's very little background. It's mainly subject.

Painting Urban Campers - 12:07

AOK: Right. Yeah. And then the other part of that is: I'm really interested in the humanity and the historical moments. Because it's easy, in American history class in high school, or something like that, we're learning about, "Oh, there was this war." And, "There was this army fighting for this, and there was this army fighting for that." But then when you break it down to the individuals, each one has their own story and their own kind of universe that they're living in. And it usually has very little to do with the cause of the war, or the reasons that we're given for why these things are happening.

If you can somehow isolate that humanity, then it's a lot easier to insert yourself into these moments where we don't feel separate from them. A couple years ago, I did fifty paintings of, as you say, urban campers. That was actually a really amazing kind of turning point in my life, just as a human being in the world, because I didn't want to be voyeuristic about it. So I was going into encampments, and talking to people and asking them if it would be okay if I took pictures of their dwellings and in the process I ended up making friends and making connections in different encampments. And bringing Phoenix with me, and she was making friends in the camps. We were just having a really great experience.

I would try to bring water, clean socks, baby wipes, things like that, so that it wasn't just me taking something. That's been really amazing, getting to know people and a lot of people who are living in the streets—and I think there are maybe thirty thousand in Oakland, or something like that—would like to tell their story, would like to explain—you know, not everyone I mean . . . there's not one unhoused personality or something. But showing up and being open to hearing what people wanted to talk to me about was really cool. And I actually ended up, through that project, getting involved with a mutual aid group in East Oakland, where I live.

MC: What group is that?

AOK: It's called East Oakland Burrito Roll. When we started we would just get together a few times a month and make burritos. You know: get rice and beans and everything from the food bank, mostly. Because a burrito is kind of a perfect meal, you know?

MC: Totally. Food tube.

AOK: Yeah. So we would make burritos and then pass them out at different encampments. This year we ended up hooking up with World Central Kitchen, which allowed us to actually buy restaurant meals. Some some days we were distributing as many as one thousand restaurant meals,

MC: How is the artistic urge in those places?

AOK: Sometimes it's as simple as people really taking pride and effort to decorate their camp: putting flowers out, signs out. I remember seeing Warriors flags on tents when the Warriors were in the playoffs. But I met a lot of artists as well, people who are painting in or around their tents, especially in Mosswood, for some reason. Mosswood Park seems to sort of attract a lot of artists. Some people wanted to give me art or trade art, which was really cool. So I have, in my studio, a smal— a very small—art collection.

Empathy Porn - 15:51

MC: Tell me about the difference in taking your own pictures, and working from those sorts of material, versus collecting someone else's photograph.

AOK: Yeah. Well, one thing that's different is, when I'm working from other people's photographs, I tend to have people in the pictures and I'm looking for the humanity in pictures of people. When I was doing the pictures from the encampments there, there are no people in those pictures.

Part of that is I really didn't want to make paintings that were manipulative. I wanted to show ingenuity. I wanted to show pride. I wanted to show humanity without making a painting that would make . . . there's a way of presenting people who have less than you that lets people look at them, see it, feel something, feel some kind of pain or some kind of connection, and then they feel better, they feel let off the hook a little bit.

The one that makes me the angriest is Schindler's List. I've been mad about that movie for twenty-five years, or something, from the first, you know, from when I saw it in the theater when I was sixteen, or whatever. I felt like people could go, they could cry about what had happened during the Holocaust. They could convince themselves that, had they been there, they would have been one. They would have been a Schindler. They would have been someone who helped. And then when they leave, they're off the hook. They don't have to think about anti-semitism. They don't have to think about how prejudice or how these things hurt the world. And they don't have to think about how that's ricocheted down in terms of generational trauma, or how it's still happening behind closed doors today. I don't want to make empathy porn.

MC:  In Schindler's List, where did they go wrong? Do you have a feeling for that? Was it in the art direction? Was it the story? Was it too pat?

AOK:  A lot of it is the music. Music can be really manipulative. If it had been more stark—I just think that difficult subjects should be difficult to watch. I don't think you should be able to have a feel-good experience about a story like the Holocaust, you know? We see it a lot today with urban movies. It's just an exercise into allowing people to feel like, "Well, I'm not like that. I'm not contributing to this problem." And the truth is: we're all contributing to all of the problems every day.

MC: We live in a saccharin society that likes to coat as much sugar around the bitter pills as possible.

AOK:  Yeah, absolutely.

MC:  It's nice to strip that away. The clue about music is really interesting. I can see how, when you leave space in a soundtrack, you're letting the viewer's emotion, the listener's emotion, insert into the story, much like negative space does in a painting. If you crowd it with swell upon swell of symphonic tones, your emotion is on rails. Is there a visual equivalent that could have happened in that movie?

AOK: What if it wasn't shot on beautiful thirty-five millimeter? What if it was shot on Super Eight, or the kind of film stock they used for sports in the 70s. Something where you're taking out that richness and that beauty. Some people who are trying to work with these parameters use black and white, but I feel like black and white can add its own kind of romanticism.

MC:  Totally. I'm in black and white right now.

AOK: You are, yes.

Feeling Big Feelings - 20:00

MC: I felt very romantic when I was putting that up. I've been playing with my setup so much. The filters are fun. But the filters are dangerous, too. Because you don't want to filter out authentic emotion and connection and all these things. So how do you, moving through the world, in this year—a very difficult year emotionally—how do you filter out the difficult emotions and yet stay open enough that you're not disconnected from the authentic experience?

AOK: Hmm. I meditate a lot. I do specific meditations for feeling feelings. Also: I can't feel feelings all day. It's too much for me. So I also read a lot and watch a lot of Netflix. As you know, I have a seven year old daughter, Phoenix, who has a lot of big feelings. I also teach Middle School. So I have about two-hundred-and-fifty eleven to thirteen-year-old students.

MC: Lots of feeling there as well.

AOK:  Right. So, I think part of my work this year is being okay with my big feelings and acknowledging them and sometimes even saying, "I'm uncomfortable and that's okay. I'm going to stay with this discomfort." And then I'm going to move away from this discomfort because I can't stay in it. But then also giving space for Phoenix and also for my students, where I'm not . . . I think there is a tendency among adults, probably more so in our parents generation, to say, "It's okay, you're okay. Don't cry, you're okay." And I think that for me, as an adult being around children a lot, one of my goals or things that I strive for is just saying, "You're having a big feeling. Do you want to talk about that feeling? What do...