The new year gives birth to 'An American Sunrise' at the Vanderelli Room

Andy Downing

Coming out of art school, Olivia Barney favored realism, painting hyper-realistic portraits rich in detail. Gradually, though, her technique has loosened and simplified, the painter embracing a quicker, more stylized approach she described as “gestural.” 

“A lot of my stuff has this sense of movement, where there’s curves and bold lines,” she said during a late December install at the Vanderelli Room, where a collaborative mural between Barney and Stephanie Rond is currently on display alongside works by more than two dozen other artists in the AJ Vanderelli-curated“An American Sunrise” (click here to schedule an in-person viewing). “Even if something is not moving, even if [the subject] is sitting down, there’s this gesture that creates almost a sense of movement. … It’s more like getting a feeling down.”

It’s a style Barney stumbled on during her senior year at the Savannah College of Art & Design, initially taking to it as an escape from the more detail-oriented work that consumed much of her time. Through the years, the artist has incorporated additional details into the paintings that have since become hallmarks of her work, including textured borders that can mimic the look of charred wood, a technique that Barney adapted from college-era master copies in which she recreated paintings by Blaine Fontana, as well as recurring patterns and geometrical shapes that she traced to her Navajo roots.

“These symmetrical, cross-shaped patterns you see in the weavings my people do,” said Barney, gesturing at the patterns painted on the wall at the Vanderelli Room, which surrounded a turquoise cutout of the artist created by Rond. (A smattering of turquoise cacti and yucca plants, as well as a small horned lizard, would later complete the mural, which takes up most of an east-facing wall inside of the gallery.) “The symmetrical cross is a reference to a Navajo belief, to this figure called Spider Woman, and she taught the Navajo people how to weave, so you’ll see this cross pattern a lot, particularly in more old-school designs.”

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Barney said she wasn’t raised with these traditional stories but has since searched them out, researching the meanings behind specific patterns as a way of better understanding her cultural roots. “These aren’t patterns I was raised with, and it wasn’t around me all of the time,” said Barney, who was an artist before she was even old enough to draw, recalling how she used to tape together ripped up pieces of construction paper to create imaginary figures as a toddler. “But my dad did grow up on the reservation [in New Mexico], and my grandparents were raised there, so we would visit pretty frequently. … So I was pretty connected, and I always knew I was Navajo and experienced life as a Navajo. But it’s me wanting to go deeper, to learn all the parts of the art and the culture.”

Some of this drive, Barney said, stemmed from her own interests, while part of it is born of a deeper, internal sense of responsibility she feels to preserve the culture for future generations. “When I’m older, I can let the younger people know about it, too, so it doesn’t die out,” she said. “I can’t speak for all Native people, but the younger ones, the ones my age, we want to continue that [culture] because we know how valuable it is.”

Beyond Native culture, Barney takes inspiration from the desert landscapes of New Mexico and the American Southwest, incorporating sandy browns common to the Adobe buildings and golden, sun-kissed desert hues alongside pops of bright blue, which can at times read like an expanse of sky above the desert. “So it can be based on that Southwest scenery, rather than my tribe, or another tribe,” she said.

One thing that has remained consistent in Barney’s work, however, is a focus on Indigenous people, whether she’s recreating cultural scenes or simple snapshots lifted from everyday life. 

“When I was doing Urban Scrawl a couple of years ago, there were other Indigenous people but also Black and brown people who were very interested in what I was doing,” Barney said. “I do it partially for myself. It’s personal. But when I see other brown or Indigenous people appreciate something, or see something that connects to them, that makes me want to continue the work. It’s like, ‘Oh, they’re happy they’re seeing this in the world,’ and that’s important.”

A painting by Olivia Barney from Virtual Scrawl


A mural created by Olivia Barney and Stephanie Rond