AFRICAN BOTANICS

IN CONVERSATION

MICHELE OKA DONER

Michele is a kind creative human being, who is full-spirited  and perceives beauty deeply. Her work is both very natural and cosmic at the same time, bringing us to far away galaxies, every time telling us something we already know and have forgotten.  something buried within… But there’s also that lightness, that simplicity, that frankness about her that touched me and inspired me deeply. I just love how she thinks and lives. fully alive. in all senses. I feel like she has found that 'totem' I am searching for right now, in this 2018. By hearing her voice I was getting goosebumps, by hearing her thoughts I was sailing into the mystic... 

 

Read this soulful and genuine talk with Michele oka doner. Forget about the world and what it wants you to be. take a closer look at essentials, at simple joys in life. Think  of the big picture. embrace change. embrace yourself.

Take a deep plunge into the mysterium... 

This interview is devoted to life itself.

'To perceive deeply, you need stillness. a place where it is quiet. that is the greatest commodity in luxury today, a place of tranquility. the moment you can hear your own voice.'

Portrait of Michele Oka Doner

Illustrated by Katarzyna Jagielnicka for Noir Catcher

Mrs. Oka Doner, your work to me is like a haiku.

You use several elements combined with evocative images from nature to convey a Zen-like sense, ultimately leading to sudden inner enlightenment, reminding us of something we already know, but have forgotten…

 

Is your creation’s purpose paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to?

 I think this is completely accurate. I am reminded of a childhood moment. When it used to rain, semi-tropical rain.. I am from Miami Beach.., We would sit and watch the birds come and drink. I think I always stop to see and to notice from early on. When other things came and directed my life (school) I always remembered the birds. I think, what you said - haiku, it made me flashed to that memory.

I agree that childhood memories evoke the real you within, bringing very vivid senses – pure happiness or opposite feelings…  I have a memory of fishing with my grandfather and this image evokes true joy within. Do you believe this transcendence of moments in time, it shapes beauty?

 

There is an essay, from Perez Art Museum, where I had an exhibition, appropriately to our conversation, titled How I Caught a Swallow in Mid Air. It is really related to memory. It has a lot of reference to childhood, transcendence, beauty.

 

Speaking of memory, fragments of time... Do you think your work is a collection of pieces of human collective memory or cosmic knowledge? A glimpse into that wholeness…

 

It is yin yang in a way… When I was a student, it was pointed out to me and then I had to learn what it is. In 1964... Long time ago… I had to understand the collective consciousness and what the endowment was, the gift of all the ancestors to bring us into that moment, and now we join them with hard work to pass it on… This is essentially what civilization is.

How does art ingrain mindfulness in our daily life?

That’s very well put off. You clearly have picked up the motive, which has driven me. Art has taken the dialogue, in the last 50 years, of colour, shape, form, line, price. No body is talking about it in the old way, the Shamanistic meaning – to do what is called portray the collective hopes and dreams of a culture, of a tribe, of people. 

Art, like truth, equally evades definition. What is Art for you?

 

It is an expression; I don’t believe it’s just mind… I believe I take golden threads from many cultures. And express it with imagery, objects. Some people express this in different way – words, dance et cetera. It is beautiful.

 

What is your advice on perceiving deeply?

 

To perceive deeply, I think that you need stillness. A place where it is quiet. That is the greatest commodity in luxury today – a place of quiet, the moment you can hear your own voice.

Where do you get this very moment and how do you escape?

 

I can escape even in my own studio. It gets quiet around the edges of the day and on summer weekends, especially when everybody leaves the urban center and goes to the country, then the city for me is quiet. I do my best work ironically in August, when the city is empty, or in January, when the city is exhausted from the holiday season. It is nice to be here and have a sanctuary in your own nest.

Your `nest`, reminds me of an enchanted forest, a museum of artifacts. How did you start creating the environment of your studio?

 

Day by day. It is a build. Last night I saw The Flying Dutchman in The Metropolitan Opera and I heard many scenes in it from the ring cycle. I got reminded the time it took to make scenes, how many opera he had to create before writing the masterpiece.

michele oka doner at her studio

courtesy by vogue italia

Details from michele's work 

shot by Bruce Weber for Vogue Italia, June 2013.

You have so many works in different creative spectrums. The first work of yours I discovered was your curious candelabra. What does it mean to you, what about fire?

 I love light and fire. I am used to have a beautiful light, having been raised in South Florida. We had an extraordinary light because it is a peninsula . It is not in a land mass. We have water all around and the light plays with the water all the time. The moisture makes the air hold light in a very special way. It is really extraordinary. From youth I was aware of the beauty reflected in prismatic light. I have always been enchanted by fire. When I travel to Africa or India I am amazed, I see fire everyday as a part of life. To cook, to keep warm et cetera. The last day I was in India I said to myself ‘’Òh, I am going to return to the U.S and I am not going to see fire for a while.’’ The chandeliers remind us of our ancient past, it is only recently heating technology the source of our heat.

I agree. We both live in well developed cities, they gave us a lot but they took away from us too. Don`t you think so? Especially the human scenes and understanding of his correlation with nature and enjoying the small joys of life. Sometimes in the city we are on an autopilot…

 

I think more and more people are returning to that agrarian moment. Their grandparents had it. This country is returning to Farmers market, to farm, to table restaurants all over. Including the central of the country, homemade, from pickles to fermentation, going out in the woods for finding a meal… From what I am learning is that it is not so buried inside of us, young people are returning in the multitudes.. When I wake up in the morning and receive my papers I read teach as how to cook local, in a farm way… If you have ever read DH Lawrence, he talks about all these things.. How the industrial revolution took us away the Earth…the mind… and put them in factories. In his story Lady Cahetterley’s Lover. the most famous… He was a gardener, he had dirt in his nails, so once he asked: ‘’What is it to be a man?’’ and What do we love? We love our dirt, we need our dirt. I have a small monogram in my library by him that has the image on the front of a seed. Seed that is breaking the chains of a machine. So beautiful. He  knew over a hundred years ago, when he wrote. He sent the message. You asked what art is all about. It is a coat of arms, to remember are deepest selves, to confront our hopes and confront our fears..


Artists play a vital role in society. Do you think they should address more often certain global issues, ultimately evoking a positive social change?

 

I think we need the right Punch. The climate change is a social issue. They need to gather a right and a left hand in the body of the future.

You have the possibility your voice to be heard in the world. What is the message you try to convey? What would you like to install in people’s hearts and minds?

 

The name of the book was not supposed to be Everything Is Alive. It turned to be. That’s my message. Respect the trees, the grass, the world… The soil is alive. Everything around us. We have to look again. Respect life itself. Get rid of the guns. Pick them away from men and statues and public squares. Pick them out of movies. Pick them away.

Your friends call you a Renaissance woman? 

Do you think that creatives in general have these multi-layered abilities and they shouldn’t limit themselves just in one field and explore more what’s beyond?

 I think for myself, I set myself what I called a Noble Experiment and I set up a home and studio, which I called a Laboratory for Living. So I gave myself latitude. I gave myself a license of seeing what life wanted to be, create and write for myself.

Is this way of living, doing what you truly love, keep you happy along the way? 

Very. I take my drawings from things that are universal and eternal. I saw here at Farmer’s Market on Union Square last Sunday the most beautiful flower branches, an ancient farmer told me they were cherries but there were apples. Watching them all week open up, it is so beautiful. So I had a beautiful week. Everyday waking up and going, checking their water, looking at the buds opening to flower. We need to plant ourselves in something that has that transcendence and remind us of how temporary we are in the scheme of things. Then you are out-selfed, you are out of yourself. There’s where the joy is.

Appreciating beauty at its very moment leads us to spiritual and emotional equilibrium...

 

Exactly. After that, when we face problems, all daily things, it helps to tackle them. Life has been here before we arrived and will be here after we are gone. It is always changing. In different forms. We need to embrace change.

How do you perceive your artistic evolution?

 I see it as a continuum. I work small, and I work large. I never ask myself to do large in a small amount of time. I take my time. This doesn’t frustrate me at all.

From your large-scale works I love the ‘’Walk On the Beach’’, it is simply magical. Can you tell me more about this project?

 

This was a 20-year project. It started small. Miami Airport kept expanding, so we kept expanding it. It was wonderful project to work on because it allowed me to really delve into the mysteries of what was on the beach – so many fragments washed up, we see them bits in pieces.

 

 I had the time to explore them. I have two books out. One just came out. You can find it on the internet, called Intuitive Alphabet. I made a language from the things I picked up from over the years. I think you would really enjoy it. I found a museum university in Miami called Miami Invertebrate Museum. It has been there since 1951 and it has almost a million sea creatures from the region. You can find more in my book Into The Mysterium, which became an exhibition this fall.

What is the favorite curios object from your collection, and the one you are mostly emotionally connected to?

 

There Is one ancient goddess from ancient Persia, from the Kaspian region. She is very serene and she holds a little hands up to her breasts and she looks to the world I have been living. I have two little holders for flowers, they are Japanese, silver. I have different ancient goddess. Also, a Mesopotamian bird goddess. I have a Greek one. The are small 6-8 inches, all abstract and quite beautiful. They are my favorites. I would take seeds from an apple and put them in their feet. I play with them. They are my grown up dolls.

You use only organic shapes and materials, taken from Nature. Do you have any particular sacred place in Nature?

I love The Everblades. I grew up next to The Everblades. It is a big force of Nature, with fire and lightning, storms… It is very unique. There are beautiful birds. It is a wonderful place.

Do is a next projects of yours, you have always dreamt of accomplishing?

 

I am beginning a new project I am just shaping. It is about The Mysterium and it has something to do with the climate change. As soon as I have it shaped, I will let you know. A book of mine came out in september, called Everything is Alive. In there are six projects, all very magical, including the airport one.

What is an artwork that inspires you?

 

I love the Brooklyn Bridge. I think it’s the greatest sculpture in New York. It took engineering. It took somebody to apply aesthetic to engineering. This is what the future needs. What happened to the pyramids? And many other extraordinary works of art… We need the amulet in the monument. We need the monument, beautiful structures, magic worlds, but we need also this beautiful small thing we look as a totem.

Speaking of antiquity, your signature dress reminds me of the ancient Greek shiron and hemation. Was your style inspired from this ancient world?

 

I think I just carry the past with me. It's just there. I do not think of looking at it. I'm drawn to the shapes and forms, you can still find them in geometry, they are still with us. We still have the same materials – wood, water, stone. It 's still with us, it's all there. Basics.

Is there a single piece of advice you would share with any young artist going through this journey?

 

Not advice but a salutation. That’s a great path. A wonderful world to travel. It’s a gift to build on all the artists of the past, all the doors they have opened.

'We need the monument, beautiful structures, magic worlds, but we need also this beautiful small thing we look as a totem.'

'We need to plant ourselves in something that has that transcendence and remind us of how temporary we are in the scheme of things. Then you are out-selfed, you are out of yourself. There’s where the joy is..'

michele oka doner at her SoHo loft

courtesy of AD

Life forms (2005)

bronze embedded in terrazzo 

Everything is alive 

 by michele oka doner.

2017

Burning bush 22, (2003)

Detail

Burning bush 22, (2003)

chandelabra, whole piece