Olivia Dryden is an emerging artist and jeweller based in Adelaide. With a particular interest in the Victorian era, her work explores how different eras have celebrated life and explored death. Her jewellery and wall pieces often feature animal matter. Bones, fur and feathers are all used to highlight the beauty of nature and forms retained after death. Olivia is a recent recipient of a Helpmann Fellowship, provided by Helpmann Academy, which she will use to travel to the UK.
Verso: How did you decide to become involved in the visual arts?
Olivia Dryden: I have always enjoyed the arts. Throughout school I was always top of my art class and in year 12 I received the top art award. I went on to do my Bachelor of Visual Arts. I just knew I wanted to be an artist.
Verso: Tell us about your process…
Olivia Dryden: When it comes to jewellery, I make moulds of the bones I collect from different dead animals. I outsource these moulds, simply because it's more cost and time effective. Once the moulds are created they are cast with sterling silver or in some cases gold. The moulds are made through the lost wax casting method.
Initially I was really squeamish and got my Dad to help me with a lot of things. At this point I was only interested in using the bones of an animal to create my jewellery pieces. As time went on I decided that no, I wanted to use every part of the animal. So now I preserve feet and feathers - I stuff animals and use the bones too. Every part of the animal is used.
I work a lot with the original material. I am not interested in carving something out of wax to make it look as if it’s a thorn or vertebrae. I wanna use a thorn! I also work with fresh water pearls and semi precious stones to make these elaborate jewellery pieces.
For my new wall art - which is what I launched recently at Hill Smith Gallery - I use slightly different techniques. I had a lot of feedback from people, particularly males, saying they loved the jewellery but they wouldn't be comfortable wearing it. So I pushed myself to create these wall pieces, which have sterling silver flowers and chains.
Verso: Can you tell us a little more about the Helpmann Academy Fellowship you received?
Olivia Dryden: The Helpmann Fellowships are valued at up to $20,000 for international or interstate professional development opportunities. I am going to go to the UK for three months next year and am going to have my first international solo exhibition.
The exhibition is at Brick Lane Gallery. One of the conditions of this fellowship is you had to organise it all yourself. I looked into lots of different galleries. For me, it had to have the right feel. I wouldn’t have picked a huge gallery.
At Brick Lane Gallery, they don’t usually take jewellers and I was going to take part in a joint exhibition. But in the end, despite the higher gallery fee, I decided I didn’t want to settle for a joint exhibition. If I am going to do this - if I am going to London - then I am going to go all out!
I had always thought I would go for an interstate exhibition first, but I hope with this international exhibition under my belt it will be a whole lot easier to approach galleries interstate.
Verso: How do you think this will affect your practice?
Olivia Dryden: While I am in the UK I will be doing about ten, or more like twelve, different courses. Eight of them are taxidermy courses - learning how to work with European animals like weasels, skunks and crows. I will be learning how to do rouge taxidermy, which is combining different animals. The skills I will be learning in the UK are ones that are unavailable to me here in Australia.
I will also be doing some jewellery courses, specialising in different stone setting techniques, which again is pretty unavailable in Australia. Overall I will be in London for ten and a half weeks and then I will go to Italy for two and a half weeks.
In Italy I will be visiting the Capuchin Crypts, which are the bone churches located underneath Rome. This is right up my alley as I have been recently researching how different cultures, eras and religions mourn or celebrate death. The rituals, which are present overseas, are so different to the ones commonly practiced here in Australia. It’s a dream come true to be able to go overseas. I will really be immersing myself in the culture.
Beyond the courses I will be doing, I think the different cultures will have a real effect on my art practice. I am also a believer in escaping your day to day life for a time. Twice I have been to India and, for me, that’s when I’ve really been able to focus on my art and my passion. Because even now, when I am in the studio, day to day life trickles in. Whether I am thinking about meeting a friend later in the day or work - when you are thrown out of that you can really get inspired and focus. For me, that’s the best time to come up with new ideas.
Verso: What concerns you about the art world?
Olivia Dryden: There are a couple. One is that as an artist it’s very hard to live off your art. I know that having another job on the side can suck my soul a little bit- 'cause all I want to do is make my art.
One of my biggest problems is that people aren’t willing to pay for your time. Taxidermy is really a lost art form in Australia. I mean, I think it’s picked up in the last five years or so, but people still wont pay what the techniques are worth because they don’t understand the time that goes into the processes. I mean, sometimes it takes months to complete a single project. You can’t charge months of work, you can only quote a price and hope the buyer agrees to it. But I think that’s something all artists are concerned with.
More specifically for my practice, it’s some of the critiques I get. People can get a bit weirded out at first. But when they see the pieces in person or are able to speak to me as an artist, they become more intrigued. If people aren’t willing to do that when they find out I work with dead animals, they might think that it’s weird or that the animals have all been hunted, but everything is completely ethically sourced. I think that always concerns me.
I often find when people meet me they are a bit surprised. To make a judgement about me solely based on my practice - people tend to think I am perhaps a goth or a bit strange. But now it’s a joke to those who know me well, I am completely normal - I just play with dead things! It’s because I see the beauty in these animals that other people don’t.
Verso: Do you have any tips for other artists?
Olivia Dryden: Yes, learn as much as you can from other artists. Make use of grants and institutions like the Helpmann Academy. I would not be where I am if it wasn’t for the Helpmann Academy. Through them I was able to take part in a residency in India and that was just phenomenal. That residency really influenced me to use precious stones in my work. When I came back I wanted to bring colour into my work.
You only have five years after graduating to be an emerging artist. As an artist, those are the most important years. If you are going to make it – I really feel that’s your chance – when you’re emerging. Make use of the different organisations who are there to support you.
Also get out there and go to exhibitions, meet other artists, do collaborations, it’s just so important. At Art College they probably told us this but I never really understood, but since graduating I’ve realised how important that is.
Verso: What or who inspires your work?
Olivia Dryden: I have had different people that I admired when I was in art college, which I found through assignments in which I had to research other artists. Julia De Ville was one of those artists who in Art College I definitely admired. But since graduating, the research I do isn’t really on other artists anymore. I research different cultures and religions. They, rather than other artists, directly inspire me. Instead of a person I would say one of my main influences is the Victorian era. I am also very inspired by India too.
Verso: Do you have a five-year plan?
Olivia Dryden: Yes – well sort of – I have already accomplished my five year plan. That’s very exciting! Formulating a five year plan was something we had to do in our last year at Art College and I finished mine in a year and a half.
I though that after being an artist for ten years I would have my first international exhibition – and I will be doing that in my third year after graduating. So five year or ten year plans - I don’t necessarily do that anymore. I do year plans. Things just seem so far away, I will put something on my list for a few years time and then go, well why do I want to do that in a couple of years? Why don’t I do that next year?
So, no, I don’t have five year plans I have one year plans. I am going to Europe next year for this fellowship. I have already decided the year after that I am going to America and I am going to see the day of the dead festival. I have always loved travelling but now I want to go to places I can see having a direct influence on my practice.
Helpmann Fellowships are valued at up to $20,000 each and will be awarded in both 2017 and 2018 to fund substantial overseas or interstate opportunities thanks to a grant from The James and Diana Ramsay Foundation. Helpmann Fellowship applications for 2018 are now open. Applications will close on Friday the 23rd of February.