Dana Oldfather Talks Painting and Critiquing Others' Paintings

It's been a busy year for painter Dana Oldfather, and it's going to get busier.

This spring, Oldfather had her first solo museum show at the Butler Institute of American Art in Canton. Her exhibit Tap, Crack, Bellow allowed her to translate her abstract paintings onto mural-sized canvases, immersing viewers in a world where queues of blue and lilac shapes inspired by both machines and organisms float through cloudy spaces. Earlier this year, the Ohio Arts Council gave her its Individual Excellence Award. Right now she's preparing a commission for the Horseshoe in Cincinnati and pieces for three showcases over the next half-year, including one at Cleveland's own SPACES.  

Her accomplishments have propelled her to a state where she's sought out not just for her painting but also for her ideas about painting. Oldfather was tapped to be the juror at Lakeland Community College's Cleveland Connection Juried Exhibition presented by the Cleveland Arts League, which is on display now. She brings to bear on the experience her own countless applications to juried shows. Being on the other side of the judge's table comes with a new set of responsibilities.

However, Oldfather isn't letting all this success ruin her. At Lakeland, she doesn't want her own preferences and idiosyncrasies to dictate her decisions, but wants to wants to reward and encourage promising talents whether or not they adhere to her own artistic ideals.

"It does give you a different view. You want to be objective, but at the same time you want to be encouraging," Oldfather says.

And in her own work, Oldfather still works to internalize criticism from her peers and herself.

"For a long time, I had false ideas about my work, thinking it was better than it was. It's important not to be content. Work can always be better. If you're content, there's something wrong," says Oldfather.

She holds herself to a demanding schedule, painting, other commitments permitting, from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in her home studio. At any given time, Oldfather is working on four or five paintings, each with its unique content and tone. A guiding principle in Oldfather's work is harmony, both between the spaces she creates and the objects she fills them with. The emotions, colors and forms are meant to invoke that relationship. Depending on what the artist is feeling any given day or hour, she'll try to express it in paint on the appropriate canvas.

However, this regimen has not always been possible. Like most artists in the Rust Belt, Oldfather has worked outside of her studio to make ends meet. But this September, Oldfather is stepping down from her job as webmaster and PR copy writer for the Bonfoey Gallery, where she's worked in various capacities for the last 11 years.

Besides providing money for brushes and oil paints, Bonfoey furnished lessons for Oldfather, the self-taught artist, about what's interesting in painting, and how to attract the attention of curators.

"You need complete art images and information on pricing right up front. When you bring in art, bring all that with you. You can't just drop into the gallery and have them look at art," Oldfather says.

Even after her departure, Bonfoey will still represent her paintings as it does now, but now Oldfather will be able to put in more nine-hour days in at the studio. However, just as her office-work duties are dropping away, a whole new set of responsibilities are approaching: those of parenthood. In October, Oldfather is expecting her first child with her husband, an engineer in the aerospace industry.

She is clearly happy, but her due-date comes just a month after her Bonfoey departure. She is already steeling herself to the effort to maintain her hard-won identity as an artist even as she takes on the vocation of childrearing.

"It's your life first. I want to care for my child, but I don't want to forget who I am first," Oldfather says.

For the foreseeable future, Oldfather sees herself continuing her explorations of "biomechanical" abstract figures, but remains modest about her own ability to analyze or forecast the present and near-future of her career.

"It's hard when you're so close to what you're making," Oldfather says.