Elena Ohlander is all about representation. Her work explores identity, individuality, gender issues and social justice. She utilizes a contrived scenario, characterization of her own likeness, intentional use of semiotics, and the psychology of color to build her vernacular. Her emphasis of hyphenated American identity is used as a comparative lens that focuses on Asian diaspora awareness and unification to society at large – investigating issues surrounding cultural preservation and historical memory.

Where did you grow up?

Technically, I was born in Duluth, Minnesota and spent my earliest years there and moved to Jacksonville, Florida when I was ten years old. My most formative years were spent in Florida so I would say I grew up here.


How did you get into art and when did you know it was something you wanted to pursue as a career?

I got into art as many children do by drawing and coloring with whatever materials were around at the time. I think it felt like the most comfortable form of expression or maybe even the most accurate. Most of that expression was a catharsis to deal with my home environment and a lot of negativity surrounding that space. I didn’t really look at artwork as something of a career or to be taken seriously. In my teenage years, an elder sister encouraged me to take my craft more seriously and I did. It wasn’t until I was 28 years old that I felt compelled to pursue this path full-time.


How do you define your style of art?

I certainly struggle with defining my style but the best descriptive I’ve found so far is that I work with mixed media illustration with an emphasis on the female form – in both small and large scale.

What are the main themes you explore with your work?

Cultural identity certainly plays a main role in my work. I would say it is the defining thread that ties it all together. Cultural preservation, historical memory and allegory with emphasis on Asian diaspora awareness.


How do you feel art can impact society?

What is a world without art? I shudder to think. Personally, I think my art has the power to impact others in social, political and intrapersonal ways. Representation is very important to me and certainly matters. I attempt to hold a mirror to society, not really defining any specificity of right or wrong, more or less, left to the viewer.


How does your Norwegian and Chinese heritage influence your work?

I definitely feel that my Scandinavian and Asian heritage informs my work through highlighting folklore, heritage, culture, mythology and history from all the heritage that makes up who I am. I look back in order to be present and look forward.


You recently participated in the Morikami exhibit “Beyond the Wall: Visions of the Asian Experience in America” along with an incredible lineup of other artists. What did that experience mean to you?

This particular exhibition is certainly a highlight of my career thus far. Having such a narrative showcased on a large-scale is so meaningful. I have had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall – visiting the museum since its opening reception – to hear the organic feedback as viewers interact and have conversation around the work. Their words are fulfilling and reinforce that the work I make matters. That the work WE make matters.

Do you have any projects/pieces you are most proud of?

I feel very fortunate to have worked with entities and companies so closely. One such occurrence was with Pilot Pen USA for a campaign showcasing their Enso line of artist materials. I titled the body of work Kyouka Suigetsu (Flower in the Mirror, Moon in the Water). It is a Japanese company and I felt it fitting to title the work as this metaphor, meaning something you can see but cannot touch and something you can feel but cannot explain with words. Each piece was inspired by one of the colors of their sumi inks and titled as idioms. Another project would certainly be the Morikami piece, not just for the sheer scale but how truly meaningful it is for my daughter. I only hope to be a positive role model for her and other young artists to pursue their dreams with vigor.


What other creative endeavors do you spend your time doing?

I honestly spend all my time making art. If I am not in the studio, I am applying for residencies/grants/fellowships, looking for calls to artists or making murals. I spend a hefty amount of my time researching for each exhibition or project I take on. I think the only expression I enjoy beyond making art is making food. Cooking is far beyond sustenance for me, it is pleasurable and necessary. If I wasn’t a visual artist working in this medium, I would certainly pursue some kind of career as a chef.


What is your favorite way to spend a day off?

I like spontaneity. I don’t get a lot of that because most of my time is very rigid and strict to the calendar (if I want to get things done). So picking up my daughter from school and saying, “Hey, you want to just go watch a movie at the theater?” or since I don’t particularly schedule around work weeks it’s just a day by day situation I could spontaneously drive somewhere out of town. See a friend in another city and catch up. Even in the same city it’s hard to make time for my close network of friends or quality time with family. That’s how I would like to spend my day off.


What are you currently working on?

I am currently working toward several projects but in the most immediate sense, I am working on a mural at a new anime/karaoke bar opening up in Jacksonville called Nakama. While also working on a body of work entitled, Journey to the West East – I thought it would be fun to have a pun referencing both Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East and Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West.

A tale of inner pilgrimage and an allegory of human desire, A Journey to the East attempts to deconstruct the Asian diaspora experience in the Western World. Chinese folklore and mythology are the foundation, where the literal and symbolic meanings come together to form a visual language. From peaches and melons, to dragons and tigers – the modern interpretation of those traditional elements typify cultural preservation and historical memory.

The exhibition is set to open this Fall at one of the campuses for Florida State Community College at Jacksonville.


Any shameless plugs? Where can we check out more of your work?

My most shameless plug is my Instagram – it is my most active social media platform @elena_ohlander and if you want to keep up outside of social media I recommend my website: www.elenaohlander.com