10 Questions with Oriana Fenwick
A Study of Bio-Natural Curiosities and Oddities
Oriana Fenwick is an illustrator from Zimbabwe who currently lives and works in Frankfurt, Germany. Her drawings express her extreme love for detail. Often embedded in abstract contexts, her imagery’s intense realism brings unusual meanings to the mundane.
You live in Frankfurt, but you are originally from Zimbabwe. How long have you lived there? How does that influence your work?
Yes, that’s right. I moved to Frankfurt with my mother when I was 14 years old after having spent my childhood in Harare, which is the capital of Zimbabwe. I think my drawings started as a form of self-distraction, seeing as it was rather difficult to develop much of a social life in a city like Harare especially as an only child. I, however, can’t really say that living in Africa had a specific impact on my creative expression, but I know for sure that my mother was a huge artistic inspiration to me. She had her workshop at home, where I remember sitting for hours on end watching her sketch, paint, design jewellery, and make music. This fascinated me and I think that—at least on a subconscious level—I aspired to be as good as her, especially when it came to drawing with a pencil.
Have you always enjoyed drawing and painting?
It is almost cliché to admit this, but I was holding pens and pencils from the day I could hold anything at all. Much to my parents’ despair, I practiced my drawing skills on every available surface. There wasn’t a free scrap of paper or tabletop that hadn’t been marked by my creative expressions. I would say that I was almost obsessive about drawing—not so much painting. I would also always attempt to make my drawings as believable as possible: my drawing would only please me if it bore some resemblance to its real self, and that urge to capture detail has remained to this day.
Your works often seem to mix real subjects with fragments that have a surreal, dream-like quality. Can you tell us something about that?
I suppose I have always enjoyed combining various fragments taken from my surroundings, and bringing them into new and unexpected contexts with each other. I especially love discovering unique and unusual shapes and structures in the unexpected banalities that surround us: a lump of butter, a piece of gum, a strand of hair. My foremost fascination, however, is in organic shapes: the human body, for one, never ceases to spark my curiosity. The dream-like quality that you mentioned probably comes from the fact that I will almost invariably use pencil to reproduce these shapes and structures. The soft black and white contrasts of the pencil tones tend to underline the atmospheric feeling even more.
How would you describe your own style?
That’s a tough one. I would prefer to avoid categorizing my work, even if it quite obviously references photorealism. “The study of bio-natural curiosities and oddities” would probably best describe my stylistic intentions.
Does a new piece start with sketching at your desk or with research and collecting material?
I tend to gather all my information beforehand, which means that I like to have everything planned and structured—at least in my head—before I start to work on the final image. Admittedly, I rarely ever make sketches, as I find much greater satisfaction in perfecting an image straightaway as opposed to having intermediate sketches along the way.
What are your favorite places to unwind and gather new impressions?
I don’t think could pinpoint a specific place in which I gather the most impressions, I am generally a great collector of images and I have gathered folders upon folders of pictures of shapes, people, structures, things, things, and more things, mostly based on photos that I have taken myself. I mainly find inspiration just by looking through these pictures and thinking of ways to combine objects with each other to create new entities.
Imagine you are offered an inquiry that makes you over-the-top excited. Where and from whom would it most likely come?
Regardless of where an inquiry comes from, I think the sort of inquiry that really makes my heart happy is the kind that gives me total freedom to interpret the subject matter myself. But I am generally always excited to have people express interest in my work.
Do you rather see illustration as an art form or as a matter of visualizing content?
I don’t see why both shouldn’t apply. Illustration is a wonderful medium for being explicit about things that need visualizing, and illustrations can—to some extent—be even more accurate than words. Because of this, illustration can be seen as an informative art form that is not readily compromised, not easily swapped out, and holds an aesthetic value at the same time.
Do any other illustrators inspire you? Whose work do you personally enjoy?
I would have to say that I am more inspired by a combination of other disciplines rather than illustration on its own. I have so much respect for the Old Masters, for example, and used to be obsessed by the likes of Botticelli and Michelangelo: their love of detail, anatomical perfection, and storytelling always got to me in a special way. However, I also love the combination of graphic design and handicraft that you can find in the works of Mario Hugo or Jules Julien. Given my soft spot for the absurd and strange, I find the paintings of Swiss artist Leopold Rabus very appealing, as he really has the weirdest fantasies.
The printed page of newspapers and magazines is disappearing, giving illustration more purposes on smartphones, apps, walls, GIFs, etc.. What’s your opinion on that change?
I suppose I like to be as neutral as possible towards change, and I try to take everything with a grain of salt. I will always be a fan of good handicraft, whether this happens to be presented digitally, as an original art piece, or as a beautiful print in the context of a book or magazine.
Images © Oriana Fenwick