Edie Overturf, Persistant Canary in a Coal Mine, 2017, woodcut and monotype, 36 x 36 in.
Edie Overturf, Persistant Canary in a Coal Mine, 2017, woodcut and monotype, 36 x 36 in.

This interview with Edie Overturf explores her interest in voyeuristic narrative, the value of escapism, and the wide-ranging literature and research that inspires her.

Your work suggests open-ended narratives that give the viewer a share of authority. Why is that? Do you prefer this over more concrete narratives?

The narrative work that I enjoy viewing allows space to forge a bond with the narrative, giving me room to attach myself to that scenario and its implications. More concrete narratives can often feel illustrative, or as a viewer I can feel like a voyeur. The open-ended narratives that I create are not solely illustrative. They allow the viewer to have a relationship with the space represented, the characters developed, or the scenario suggested. I would not go so far as to state that the viewer has “authority” over the narrative, but the viewer as a “reader” is a consideration. I want to take the opportunity to suggest and implicate something larger than what is in the frame.

Edie Overturf, Slate, 2016. Woodcut and monotype, 36 x 36 in.

Slate, 2016, woodcut and monotype, 36 x 36 in. 

How does storytelling affect individuals and societies?

To describe my interest in the effect of storytelling on both an individual level and on a community/society level can be distilled down to intent and authority of the individual or entity telling the stories. Whether the stories being told are “true” is irrelevant but the impact of being felt to be true is at the core of my interest. Questioning the authority of a voice is an important aspect of my interest in history and conspiracy. For the sake of this short interview we can refer to truthiness, which is a derivation of the word truthy. Colloquially it is meant to describe a feeling of a fact, one that is felt instinctively to be true, with no direct connection to actual facts.

Folktales, legends, religions, myths, fables, and rumors have been used to explain the unexplainable. Stories have been used to create social structures through tales of morality and the storyteller is authorized to dictate what is moral. The authority that the storyteller holds allows for embellishment within the form of plausibility. This authority can be used to create dissent, hatred, respect, or admiration. That authority can be used and stretched; it can be manipulated through the guise of education. That authority can forge bonds or break them.

Does the narrative-elements precede the image or vice-versa?

I use both strategies when creating my work. Sometimes I will have a specific subject that I want to address in the work and through sketches and research I explore visual possibilities until I arrive at the best version. Conversely, I have many conceptual ideas with no explicit imagery in mind. Often working through images that are not directed at that idea will yield an accidental arrival and will often be an abstract or metaphoric approach to the original ideas.  

Your work seems to explore ideas of ruin, reset, and utopia. Do you think the idea of utopia is inherently individualized or is a common vision of utopia possible?  

I think there are broad elements of a utopian scenario most could agree upon. A utopia is generally thought to have no violence and equality for all, right? But arriving at those ideals is where disagreements arise.

Edie Overturf, Deny, 2016. Etching and woodcut, 6 x 6 in.

Deny, 2016, etching and woodcut, 6 x 6 in.

You have previously described your work as “escapist.” Since this term has pejorative connotation do you prefer a different descriptor? What is the appeal of "escapist" work?

Escapism does have pejorative connotations but I choose to deny them. There is valid criticism regarding the use of escapist forms of entertainment. However, the consumption of escapist art, literature, television, and movies does not have to be entirely vapid. For example, sci-fi and fantasy fiction allow the reader to escape the world that they inhabit, with its limitations and regulations, for a reality that is only limited by the imagination. Entering an imagined world involves a temporary transference of the mind away from my actual surroundings to imaginative possibilities. Allowing myself to be enveloped by a scenario so outside of my normal state of being lets my creative thinking recharge.

I see the impact of escapist work in stretching the boundaries of possibility. It can break down boundaries and open possibilities in creative thinking that influence everything from art making to scientific advancement. Escapist works have the opportunity to depict or provide criticism in an unexpected delivery mechanism. Many critiques of the “systems” we live in are present in escapist works, buried in vividly rich depictions of fantasy. Is The War of the Worlds really merely escapist? That vision of Earth invaded by Martians is thrilling and riveting but its analysis of human behavior in a sudden crisis is anything but hollow. It reflects the climate of when it was written and predicts the downfall of society if the current situation is not remedied.

Utilizing escapist mechanisms makes it possible to reach viewers that would not take notice otherwise. It’s a mode of delivery that can present a scenario that could otherwise be rejected immediately.

How does teaching affect your practice?

I teach all forms of printmaking and digital drawing at the University of Minnesota. While creating curriculum or specific projects I get excited to present a process or conceptual challenge to my students. I heartily anticipate how they will utilize the processes we discuss. Giving demonstrations, lectures, and creating discussion around these forms of making requires that I revisit my own way of making. In order to anticipate their technical concerns or content issues, I make an effort to take myself back in time to 1999. Projecting myself back to my initial experiences allows me to anticipate technical issues, and as a by-product, I get to re-experience an exciting learning process.

Does research play a role in your work? If so, what does this research look like? What form does it take? 

In 2016, I began researching apocalypse theory and looking at a variety of religious and secular sources. There are many subsets of apocalypse theory, and a recent argument that keeps haunting me is one that Stephen O’Leary builds in Arguing the Apocalypse. Considering the discourse of conspiracy and apocalypse he states, “there is a substantial link between the two. Each develops symbolic resources that enable societies to define and address the problem of evil. While conspiracy sets to define and set apart differences between the evil and the community apocalypse theories locate the problem and look forward to its imminent solution.” This was a key point in my research—when the definite link between conspiracy and apocalypse clicked, it changed how I think about the stories we tell each other and why.

Do you have any non-art-specific influences or inspirations?

Literature, fiction, and nonfiction have a large influence on my work. Narrative structures that are employed in fiction writing become an influence when I work on a series of images. Margaret Atwood and Ursula Leguin both employ structures that rely on creating a historical timeline and utilizes flashbacks. Examining the structure of narration and flashbacks brought me to revisit those theories and scenarios and think about the middle of a story. I am most influenced by fiction that creates a future or alternative universe that predicts a downfall or unpleasant outcome; one which could be avoided if the present situation is altered. I consider literature, fiction, and sci-fi to be a part of my research as well. 

Edie Overturf, Signals, 2017. Etching and woodcut, 6 x 6 in.

Signals, 2017, etching and woodcut, 6 x 6 in.

Has the post-election climate affected how you understand your practice?

I wouldn’t say it has affected my understanding of my practice. If anything, it brings up more questions. I began to question this “truthiness” and agendas with even more skepticism and criticism as many global citizens are doing. I’ve begun to assess my role as an artist and what my images can do to incite change or create discourse. For many, myself included, the election results felt like a tear in our worldview. It felt like a form of apocalypse. We can think of apocalypse as a mythical and rhetorical conclusion to the problem of evil, or as the commonly understood biblical sense, meaning the end of the world as we currently know it. The Greek root of the word apocalypse brings us to “uncovering” or “disclosure of knowledge.” The election results felt apocalyptic because previously hidden truths about America were revealed and the country is now entering uncharted political territory.