Q & A with artist, Oriana Poindexter
What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
The most artistically inspiring book I’ve come across lately is Archiving Eden by Dornith Doherty - a gorgeous, well-researched monograph exploring seed banks around the world in several mediums, including cyanotypes and x-rays. It’s sort of a terrestrial analogue to these marine collections I’ve spent so much time inside, and the representation of these spaces and the priceless life forms they protect is very significant to me. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century (Kirk W. Johnson) and The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (Christopher Kemp) are both gripping non-fiction stories from natural history collections that have motivated me to look deeper into the stories behind each of these specimens. In terms of music - I’m usually inside my headphones when I’m creating, and The Black Angels at high volume are my favorite choice to get my creative production flowing.
What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the art world?
One of the biggest challenges for me has been finding the time and mental space to create art and pursue opportunities in the art world with a full time job and a surf habit. The collections at Scripps contain literally millions of specimens, and there is no way I could ever photograph all of them - sometimes making me feel like I’m not working hard enough if I’m not photographing in there all the time. The ocean itself is even bigger, obviously, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of attempting to illustrate something so much larger than yourself.
What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter?
I use photography to illustrate the marine realm, both in and out of the water. I see this project as a type of contorted underwater nature photography -- I’m photographing animals that were found somewhere in the world’s oceans, and now live on in the libraries of the sea at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I am also a diver, and take a more conventional approach to underwater photography by actually immersing myself and my camera in the ocean.
When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I’m an artist and a scientist. At the moment, my scientific work is more of my ‘day job’, but the art and the science are intertwined and informed by each other and I wouldn’t be as productive or motivated without a foot in both worlds.
Describe a childhood memory that has influenced your artwork
I was lucky enough to grow up near the beach and spent more than my fair share of time poking around in tidepools. The experience of finding new creatures all the time and being able to pick them up, poke them, or chase them around set me up to remain curious about the different shapes life can make. I also spent a lot of time in libraries as a kid, wandering around in the quiet hallways, pulling out books that caught my attention. My approach to selecting specimens in the collections at Scripps is sort of similar -- there are millions to choose from, so I choose a hallway for the day and pull out jars that catch my attention.
Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
When I moved back to Southern California after four years at college in Princeton, New Jersey, I saw the ocean with a fresh perspective. While I had previously only really thought about the ocean as a recreational area, when I returned from a four year hiatus, I felt the pull of the ocean in a new way, and saw the potential for a career in the marine realm as well. I finally started photographing underwater, and began working as an intern in the collections at SIO, which was the beginning of the journey I’m on now. I view my artistic work as more experiential than autobiographical.
What is your personal message to your artwork and how does that connect to a communal and universal message?
I hope the message people receive from my work is a renewed sense of wonder and curiosity about the ocean and the life it holds. If they’re motivated to get in and explore for themselves, even better! Universally, any increase in awareness and respect for the ocean is a positive change with the threats it is facing today.
Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
People fear the unknown - and as the least explored area of the planet, the ocean elicits fear and anxiety for many. While a healthy respect for the ocean and the power it contains is critical, I want my work to challenge people to see the ocean in different ways - as a place of infinite wonder. On a simpler level - I was expecting it to be challenging to get these images of pickled dead fish & sea spiders onto walls, but have been pleasantly surprised by the interest in this work!
Is the creative impulse driven by a personal need to ease pain and/or satiate desire?
My creative impulse is driven more by the desire to satiate my personal curiosity regarding the types of life below the surface of the ocean. Luckily - that life is nearly infinite and still very much unknown, so the font will not run dry any time soon.
What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
Getting in the ocean, a plate of fresh fish, and a good book to get lost in.
What’s your motto?
Mostly salty, pretty fishy.