"I'm not sure why I'm so drawn to communication and interaction, but I've noticed that a lot of my work focuses on that aspect," says artist Nathaniel Osollo. "I want people to participate. I always want to have a party with my artwork."
Osollo is part of the Inland Empire art collective Collaboration X. He participates in a number of art events, like the Riverside Art Walk. His work as shown at Division 9, a popular gallery in the area, and in the "Off the Wall" show at Riverside Art Museum. Currently, he is part of Riverside Art Make. This is a project organized by Riverside Art Museum to bring public works of art to neighborhoods across the city. As part of the program, Osollo held residency at the Cesar Chavez Community Center, where he built three papier-mâché sculptures, titled Are Real True (ART) Friends. The residency was two weeks, but it took closer to a month to complete the works. Osollo headed to the community center after work every day and spent a few hours creating the ART Friends. Anyone who wanted to pitch in and help could. His wife and mother-in-law assisted. So did some friends and community volunteers. This was only part of Osollo's art party.
ART Friends are named for famed painters. There's Pablo, as in Picasso, and Vincent, as in Van Gogh. Magadlena is named for the artist we know as Frida Kahlo. They were created as three friends with varied interests who headed to Riverside for Art Make. Pablo likes music. Vincent is interested into papier-mâché. Magdalena enjoys making comics. Each character has its own cell phone number. When visitors call, they can select a prompt that will reveal new information about the characters. There are bits of story that are revealed after listening through all three of the phone chats. For example, Pablo is concerned that his friend, Vincent, seems unhappy. Vincent is a little melancholy because he wants to ask Magadelena on date. She, however, is oblivious to his interests.
Osollo was inspired by a visit to a sculpture garden in St. Louis. He was impressed with the audio tour, which visitors could hear by using their cell phones. "I wanted them to do more with that," says Osollo. "You could push this farther, maybe."
This prompted Osollo to think about how he could implement the technology. He had an idea that, instead of someone talking about the piece, the art work could tell its own story. "A statue that's been climbed on might have some cool stories," he says.
The statues were unveiled on April 1 and were intended to stick around until Art Make ends on May 17. At first, the pieces were displayed at the entrances of the community center. "They're here to greet people," says Osollo. "They're here, essentially, to challenge people because it's kind of like a weird thing when people see that message, Call the statue and they'll talk to you." The phone system also has functions to allow people to leave messages for the statues. Some of the messages are filled with giggles. Osollo surmises that this is because people may not think that the phone numbers are functional. "When they see that it's real, they giggle and hang up," says Osollo.
Other times, people answer the questions that the statue's pose. They'll fill in one character on the story of another character through the voicemail system. "They understand the game," says Osollo. "They get the message and they play along." Most of the interaction has come from adults so far. "I don't know if kids call people on the phone anymore," says Osollo. "I started realizing that we maybe have done a text message thing or Snapchat."
Not all of the interaction with the statues has been pleasant. Late in the second week of the exhibition, vandals beat up Pablo. He was left severely damaged, with large pieces of chicken wire, newspaper and wood exposed. Osollo had the team at the community center bring Pablo inside and leave the other two outdoors. Unfortunately, when we met up the location a few days later, Magdalena and Vincent had also been vandalized. "We knew from the get-go that something might happen," says Osollo.
On Sunday, April 13, the pieces were displayed inside a corridor at the community center. Since then, they have been moved back to the studio where Osollo was working. Magdalena has since been repaired and will likely turn up inside the community center before the event ends. Vincent is set to re-appear at the Riverside Art Museum on May 25 for Riverside Art Trade. According to Osollo, there are "no solid plans" to repair Pablo at this time.
There's a conceptual element to ART Friends that is in line with some of Osollo's previous work. Back when he was a student at California State University San Bernardino, he made a five-foot canvas and left it blank. "It was the cleanest canvas I had ever made," he says. "I spent way too much time just on building the canvas." He turned in the project with the title I'll Paint This When You Buy It. In another instance, he had recorded a wrestling event at the university and, long story short, the cassette was confiscated when he was caught roaming around backstage. He presented the empty cassette case with the story of his adventure and the title, You'll Never See This Video. More recently, Osollo has put together photo booths at art walks and is talking about building the "world's tiniest gallery."
Osollo's main passion, though, is for comics. He's a regular at Long Beach Comic Con and related event Long Beach Comic Expo. His self-published effort Dark Mouse is available at a number of shops throughout Los Angeles and the Inland Empire. Osollo drops a three-line pitch for the comic. "He drinks. He fights," says the comic book creator. "He likes lady mice."
Dark Mouse has been at the center of Osollo's attention recently. It sells well when he sets up a booth at local events. It's something that casual readers can digest quickly and easily. "They know Dirty Harry, crime movies and TV shows," says Osollo. Dark Mouse has its roots in the crime genre. People get it.
But, Osollo has experimental comics as well. So far, he has released three issues of the 140, a comic based on Twitter conversation. "The Twitter comic is an exercise in communication...and interaction," says Osollo. In that respect, it's similar to ART Friends.
140 was inspired by Osollo's own experience with Twitter. The social media platform gave him a means of communicating with the artists that he admired. He recalls one instance when the comic book artist Ben Templesmith (30 Days of Night) asked if anyone wanted to hang out with him in Los Angeles. "I drove an hour and a half to go meet him," says Osollo. They discussed art and comics. Through that event, Osollo met and saw other artists who he hadn't seen outside of convention halls prior to this night. "I wanted to make art with that," he says of the experience.
Osollo collected 140 character correspondences. Many came from Twitter. Some came from Facebook and other outlets. He got permission from the people who sent the messages. Some are named in the books. Others are credited as anonymous. Osollo developed a story, and the art, surrounding those statements. "It was going to be random at the beginning," says Osollo. "Slowly, but surely, the stories started connecting."
Connections are at the center of Osollo's work. Whether it's a comic based on Twitter or statues who speak through cell phones, his work encourages the audience to be a part of the process. "I think on a real basic level it's more fun to have people involved," he says, "so I try to draw people in."
Top Image: Magdalena of ART Friends at Cesar Chavez Community Center in Riverside. | Photo: Nathaniel Osollo.
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