An Interview with Virginia Warwick: Aka Olivia the Turtle

I ran into Virginia Warwick, aka Olivia the Turtle, at an arts event a few weeks ago. Virginia frequently assumes the identity of Olivia in an ongoing performance art piece, playing out the story of a lonely sea turtle caught between the human and the animal world and navigating it with puckishly dark humor. Virginia has been working and living in the area since graduating with a Masters of Fine Art from the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) Reinhart Sculpture School. Virginia shares her insights into the joys and difficulties of working as a visual artist in the DC Metro area.

Olivia performance at the Transmodern Festival. Photo courtesy of Maggie Gourlay.
Olivia performance at the Transmodern Festival. Photo courtesy of Maggie Gourlay.

Maggie: Making it as a visual artist is hard. What has been the transition like post-graduation for you?

Virginia: It has been more difficult than I expected. Before entering into grad school I worked at two galleries and was hoping to get a job in a gallery, non-profit or an arts administrative setting. Instead I work at a food co-op for the health insurance and paint murals and commissions on the side to make money. I have been able to show pretty consistently since graduating though. Right now I can’t afford a studio so I do mostly performance art or comedy. I have also had the opportunity to do a little curating which I hope to continue.

What did the MICA MFA program prepare you for?

I was able to make a lot of connections with visiting artists and other artists at MICA which is key in establishing relationships in the art world. It gave me a chance to experiment and develop my work and also establish a name for myself in the city of Baltimore. My degree from MICA enabled me to get exhibitions, connections to the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. However, MICA did not teach me how to approach galleries or sell my work. While they encouraged me to do so, they didn’t give me the tools to do so.

How do you rate the importance of exhibits, residencies, or other experiences in career growth?

The kinds of experiences like my Vermont Studio Center residency and exhibiting opportunities are what advance the career of any artist. Also, I think networking is key; at each exhibit I meet more artists, people, and curators. For instance, at one show I met an artist from Belgium. We subsequently became Facebook friends and he invited me to his studio the next time me I go to Europe. And one of the artists I met at the Vermont Studio Center residency introduced me to a curator from L.A. who when visiting Baltimore, came by my studio to see my new work. I would also recommend doing an internship or volunteering. After interning at Connersmith Gallery the gallerists chose my work for their annual Academy show and my piece was featured in the Washington Post. In addition, through my curating experiences, I meet a lot of artists and have kept in touch with them.

How has your artwork evolved over time? You are a sculptor and a performance artist, you paint, and you curate. How do you try to balance these different artistic avenues at the same time?

My artwork has taken many paths. I don’t do as much sculpting any more because I don’t have my own studio, but I sometimes use my parents’ basement. Painting is more of an immediate gratification in comparison to sculpture because I am a very fast painter. I was trained as a painter before starting sculpture. I paint now for the money but some day it might evolve into art making. I have gravitated towards performance and comedy, and recently completed an acting class. I have been talking to a photographer about doing a collaboration where she photographs me in costumes. I recently applied for a grant for this idea but didn’t get the grant. But it was a good experience. By applying and doing a presentation I met two curators, one of whom is trying to set up a show for me. Even when you apply and don’t get into a show or get the grant. people see your name and work and remember. To answer you question I try to balance everything by doing the painting for money and exploring costume work and performance as my art.

Olivia serving fish. Photo courtesy of Maggie Gourlay.
Olivia serving fish. Photo courtesy of Maggie Gourlay.

Tell me about Olivia the Turtle, and how that got started.

I developed the character Olivia the Sea Turtle in grad school. I dress as a sea turtle and explore her fictional narrative of a turtle being divorced form Arial the mermaid. Now that Olivia is on land she has done many things. In my most recent performance, she was a bartender and put sardines in people’s drinks. She has given artist talks, she has cooked fish, she has sung songs, recited diary entries, sang karaoke, and even mated with a man on stage. I choose a sea turtle because it is a creature from another world and has human characteristics. It is easy to anthropomorphize it. The sea turtle is from a whole other mysterious, magical, and sometimes foreign world of the sea. In my work I have always been interested in combining the animal world with that of ours to make people aware of non-human beings. I am a animal lover and I do not think they get the attention they deserve. Not only did I choose a sea turtle because they are easy to personify and dress as, but are endangered and need our attention. For this reason Olivia can display characteristics of aggression. She once performed in a band and killed a fisherman. When singing karaoke, her singing can sound more like screaming. In addition, I reference pop culture with Olivia such as her romance with Arial and the music she sings to further make a connection with what is iconic from our world.

What does Olivia plan to do next?

For my next project, I want to explore the diary writing and performing more. In the dairy entries I write about how I miss Arial, but also about my new experiences on land. In one recent entry I start dating a man and get pregnant. The last performance I did was when I performed as a bartender at EMP Collective for a event called Murdered Word and I put sardines in people’s drinks. I will be meeting soon with a curator regarding a show in the area. I will be having an exhibition and a series of performances at Visarts from April 29th to May 29th with a opening on May 13th.

We will be looking forward to your next appearance!


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