It is hard to see Phoenix Ostermann as anything but an artist: her life embodies art in every facet, not only generally but through an aesthetic that those who know Ostermann understand as a distinctive part of the unique reality she lives and works in. Every inch of her house is covered with bright color, no wall is devoid of eclectic art and arranged curiosities; everything is one of a kind and everything is the past brought back to meaningful life … the essence of “Reclaimed Sentiment,” the artist’s professional sobriquet.
“As soon as I became a mom and I realized that this little person was in the world I knew that I wanted to be a stay at home mom,” says Ostermann, who is exhibiting a suite of collages this month at Nox Contemporary. “But after three children it is fair to say that I also desperately wanted to be an artist.” In college, Ostermann says, she studied art history and plugged away at her studio practice, desperate to find something she was good at, but never satisfied. “After college I took up photography . . . I was always searching because I always wanted to be an artist, thinking, ‘How can I invent myself?’”
As we talk over the crooning of Rufus Wainwright, one of her many innocuous obsessions, Ostermann explains how she came to her present studio practice: “Collage has always been just for fun and it never occurred to me that collage was the answer until about six years ago when Brad Slaugh and Tracey Strauss moved Poor Yorick Studios.” When she mentioned to Slaugh that she might want a studio, he asked her if she knew what she wanted to do. “I asked, ‘Do I have to tell you now?’ And he said ‘Absolutely not!’ So I talked to Mike [Ostermann’s husband] and the kids were probably out of diapers and I was going crazy as a stay at home mom… I had no creative outlet! This was going to be some sort of sanctuary for me. I was going to go and I didn’t care if I stared at the wall, I just needed some time away.”
That time away brought her back to her early art training, past art school to her childhood. Ostermann recalls fondly, “I did my senior year of college abroad and studied in France and my professor was a respected art historian. I love the Renaissance but I think my number one influence was from my Dad. He took an art history course in college and his text book was on our shelf. He never cracked it once, but I did. This is where I first saw Richard Hamilton’s piece “Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” [Collage 1956]. That single piece moved me so much. I thought ‘That is art, that is fantastic!’ Others were doing collage but this single piece as a very young child influenced me greatly and I tucked this image in the back of my head. So when I was sitting in my space at Poor Yorick Studios thinking ‘What am I going to do?’ I knew I was going to do collage… and I brought my scissors.”
Collage was not new to Ostermann, and the signature “mid-century” style she developed also came naturally and early. “Mid-century is an aesthetic that speaks to me on every level. They don’t illustrate like they used to. There is nothing that lets you see anything but perfect in this artificial mid-century world. I don’t know what that says about my home but it is what I am drawn to. It wasn’t a choice, it chose me. I think it came, which spills over into what I do now, to me when I was 16. I got a job, which means I got to buy my own gas, clothes, my own music, but at $4.20 an hour that doesn’t go very far. So I ended up at the thrift stores and that way I honed my self-expression … then always through clothes … I mean, I have toned it way down [Ostermann says in knee-high argyle red-and-blue socks], but $4.20 goes a long way at thrift stores, a way to invent whoever I wanted to be.”
Ostermann produces collage at the level of high art. “For me, when I find an image I want to work with I like to think of them as actors, I put them in one scene or another… it is kind of like making movies. I think because I studied painting a lot and art history that I bring a painterly eye to what I do. I am really mindful of the light in the piece and the shadows. I like to play with scale, sometimes I use scale to be funny but for the most part scale is important to me and if the image I have cut isn’t the right size I am not going to use it. There are a lot of things coming together and I would like to think that my art history background is coming into play.”
This is certainly the case, and this knowledge, along with pure artistic skill, integrity and brevity separates Ostermann’s collages from many mundane assemblages of pieced imagery. Ostermann uses replicated objects, adhering strictly to her library of mid-century children’s books and her scissors. She begins with prints and frames from local thrift stores. She says that the ideas usually come to her instantaneously and if they do not there probably will not be a result. The result is a frame with a print and cut imagery from the books forming a witty narrative in keeping with the current theme she is working on. Her works now on exhibit at Nox Contemporary are a cycle of prints with animal subjects and sly comments on vegetarianism.
The fine quality of Ostermann’s art, and what makes her an extraordinary collagist, goes beyond witticisms and is a result of Ostermann’s keen eye and her training. The final image is, as she says, “seamless” and might be one total rendered image if it were not known the disparate pieces were brought together. The effect is a quality of fine art not commonly seen in collage, which too often can be clumsy, crude or pedestrian. Ostermann is a master, and in addition to being carefully composed, her canvases have the ability to engage visually and cognitively, most frequently through Ostermann’s abundant and refreshing humor.
Ostermann no longer makes these collages at Poor Yorick, where she first found her artistic voice. Three years ago, she says, traveling to the studio became increasingly difficult, so she moved it all back home to her basement. Ostermann’s basement is not dreary, or simply a cost-saving option, but her aesthetic reality intensified. There are her vintage scissors, frames and a large library of “mid-century” rare children’s books, themselves valuable collectors pieces that contain a massive wealth of images awaiting the discerning eye and brevity of Reclaimed Sentiment. Having the studio close at hand has been beneficial, she says. “It was there for me when I needed it and if I needed to sneak in for 10 minutes… fine… but I wasn’t forced to be creative as soon as I walked through the door. You can’t turn on creativity.”
This may be true of many but it is hard to believe in Ostermann’s case. It is a challenge to find some area of her life that is not creative, some mode of expression, be it physical or verbal, that is not creatively charged. Her blue tile bathroom is a masterpiece of design, and her Campbell’s soup can oven vent — an ode to Andy Warhol, who is an inspiration to Ostermann — is campy yet practical. Her home is its own “Factory,” while maintaining the respectability of a three-child household. Although Ostermann’s reclaimed aesthetic is “mid-century,” her life has a very current and vibrant 21st-century appeal.
So who or what is “Reclaimed Sentiment,” the name Ostermann uses professionally? According to Ostermann, “When you hang something on the wall, you put it there because it reflects you, whatever your aesthetic. When you hang some mass-produced thing behind your couch, somehow that reflects you. It tells people who come into your home about you. But, it might eventually be discarded and I give that a new feeling and tell a new story with it.” That is Reclaimed Sentiment, something that is at the very core of who Phoenix Ostermann is and what Phoenix Ostermann does … with just about everything. The two are a dual personality and it is apparent that the names are used separately for pragmatic purposes. “People ask me all the time ‘What’s the deal with Reclaimed Sentiment.’ I think it explains the brand and I am trying to be savvy.” Phoenix Ostermann and Reclaimed Sentiment are essentially the same, while Osterman runs the show and Reclaimed Sentiment keeps it true to its nature.
Ostermann is smart, and in her parallel universe she maintains checks and balances for herself and those she is responsible for. “I have self-imposed constraints and I am limited to my library of images and that’s OK. This is challenging, because there are limits, because of the way I choose to tell stories. I might find the perfect image but the light is wrong or the scale is wrong. If I can’t find it in my library then I hit the thrift store immediately. I have close to a photographic memory. It can be limiting, it is always challenging… but it is self imposed. I have had four shows and have chosen themes I have wanted to work out. When I need to push past fear, humor is what is important. My work tends to be very personal and tends to work on what I am working on internally and for me it is therapy.”
“I want my art to mean something to people. I want them to have a connection with it or an understanding. It is true that I like to tackle issues that are meaningful to me, like the current show that speaks of animal rights, but I think in the future I want to push the envelope and make subjects that are difficult but still approachable through wit. This is not to say that you have to like it but I want you to have a reaction to it.” Whatever avenues Ostermann chooses as Reclaimed Sentiment, she is a willful and intensely creative artist with an uncanny eye for composition, a big heart full of soul and wit and a mind and sensibility that is strong and secure. Driven in her work, she will certainly find an important place among us as an artist.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.