Irene Hardwicke Olivieri combines natural world, magical realism

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri’s work combines the natural world with magical realism and a dusting of fairy tales

“Petting you, petting everyone in the forest,” Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, 2022, oil on wood, 28.5×33 inches. (Courtesy of Evoke Contemporary)

Diminutive agave palmeri, soaptree yucca, Gambel oak, and datura sprout from seeds Irene Hardwicke Olivieri collected in the wild.

Her Santa Fe greenhouse developed as a reaction to the pandemic, an attempt to grow her own food during a time of shortages, infections and, most recently, inflation.

Today that pleasure garden of succulents, flowers, herbs and cacti knit and twine throughout her paintings in both symbolism and metaphor.

Part magical realism with a dusting of fairy tales, Olivieri’s work is available at Santa Fe’s Evoke Contemporary.

It’s a fitting title for describing both Olivieri’s process and life.

An inveterate nature lover, collector and researcher, the artist grew up on a McAllen, Texas, farm near the Rio Grande, where her father cultivated a connection to the land and creativity among his three children.

“I was always so interested in different species, snakes, coyotes, bobcats, insects,” Olivieri said from the greenhouse of her Santa Fe home. “As a kid, that was a huge part of my life.”

She learned to make her own toys.

She and her siblings made costumes from discarded “carrot tape,” the kind of tape used to wrap carrots. One Christmas, he came home with a truckload of what they called “carrot dirt,” soil from the farm’s harvest. The kids made tunnels and little rivers all over it and planted rows of orange and lemon seeds. They built tiny houses from cereal boxes. Olivieri’s mother sometimes came home with end rolls of newsprint from the local newspaper.

“We would roll it out on the living room floor and just draw for hours,” she said. “Drawing was a way to work out stuff – like if I was mad at my sister. I would work out stuff that was bothering me. I would try to draw my feelings.”

“Gato Montés,” Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, 2017, oil on wooden door, 76×34 inches. (Courtesy of Evoke Contemporary)

In high school, she took home orphaned baby possums and nursed them as she read about them.

Olivieri keeps a school portrait of her second grade self hanging in the studio.

“I don’t want to let her down,” she said.

That little girl’s soul permeates her paintings, where humans mutate into animals, agaves transform into girls and vegetation and bark crisp and cascade into hair locks.

Olivieri earned her bachelor’s degree in art at the University of Texas, where she formed an all-female punk band. She also worked in the biology department. She kept a terrarium in her apartment, where she studied beetles, walking sticks and praying mantises.

“I’m still exactly like that when I’m sad about the news,” she said. “I just love to read about animals.”

Although she lost both her parents some time ago, their spirit still surfaces in her work. Some of her imagery pairs human figures with skeletons.

“It made me think about when you lose someone you love so much a part of you dies,” she said. “It can spark something and make you feel that your time is limited.”

While she was attending graduate school at New York University, she worked for a botanist at the New York Botanical Gardens. She gathered more information for her paintings. She also worked in the medieval gardens at The Met Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“I read the longest surviving oil paints are on wood,” she said.

Today she often paints on old doors, rusty metal, revelling in the textures of distressed canvases.

A regular hiker, she collects footage from hidden wildlife cameras to observe forest residents. She’s created entire works of rodent bones found in owl pellets – regurgitated masses of hair and bone that owls are unable to digest. The final pieces resemble lacework.

“I decided it would be really fun to make alluring women,” she said. “You get up close and they’re made up of dead mice and dead rat bones. They’re a lot like our bones.”

Her painting “Petting you, petting everyone in the forest” depicts her in bed with her cat. Her paintings wallpaper the walls behind her.

“I was petting my cat and suddenly I felt he was a portal allowing me to pet all the animals in the forest that I’m never going to get to pet,” she said.

At 55 by 79 inches, “I drop everything when I see you” is her largest painting to date. It grew from her time in Oregon observing pack rats.

“We built a tiny cabin in Oregon and it had pack rats,” she said. “I started looking at all the things they collect. The more I learned about them, they make these nests that go back to the Pleistocene era. (Researchers) will find plant species that don’t even grow anymore. They’re like time capsules.”

Her next project will go to Netflix.

Olivieri’s sister Catherine is a film director. Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Nightmare Alley”) hired her to direct his latest production, an episode from “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities” called “The Dreams in the Witch House,” written by H.P. Lovecraft. Del Toro noticed Olivieri’s paintings on the walls of her sister’s house during a Zoom interview. He commissioned five pieces to use in the show.

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