Q&A with Linda Ogonowski

A square photograph of Linda Ogonowski is set against a banner. The banner is a zoomed in section of Shani Nottingham’s cover art, which features stacked bread tags. Linda has green eyes and is smiling. She has brown shoulder-length hair and a fringe, and is resting her hand against her cheek. ‘LEAVEN, an interview with Amy Howard’ is written on the banner to the right of Amy’s image.

 

LINDA OGONOWSKI is a neurodivergent German-born painter, draughtsman, sculptor, costumier, scenic painter, and production designer. She has participated in a series of art exhibitions in Sydney and has made costumes for Macbeth, currently staged in Brisbane. Her artwork is primarily about the process, play, and appreciating beauty and absurdity in the quotidian. She loves to follow an idea to see where it will lead, with curiosity guiding her through a variety of disciplines. She creates darkly surrealistic cartoons, to make herself laugh or afraid. Her work also explores prejudice and the abject body in the context of invisible disability and poverty.

Associate Editor Megan Payne talks to Linda about her work, ‘The “Abject” Body Revolts!’, published in #28: LEAVEN.

I’m excited that your piece, ‘The “Abject” Body Revolts!’, is in response to Emilie Collyer’s ‘The Pitch’, which is matter-o-fact and truth-telling in tone, layered with an absurdist and heartfelt journeying into the speaker’s emotional landscape. How did you go about balancing and responding to these different registers of personal truth and absurdism?

Thank you! I was certainly excited to embark on the illustration of Emilie Collyer’s excellent writing! But there was also some anxiety about how I was going to manage such a balance and respond to these aspects of the piece. I’ve been making art since I was small, but this is my first time illustrating a poem, particularly regarding such an intimate and traumatic experience. I think my approach was to try to respond with empathy and from the perspective of a woman who has suffered from invisible illness and trauma herself. Specifically, I could relate to the pressure to appear so-called ‘normal’, and the sense of not being in control of one’s body, and the shame that accompanies that. 

For me, the role that humour played was an integral one, articulated through the rebellious and joyous activities in the play that Sunday Reed engaged with, along with Joy Hester (an artist who endured poverty and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma). I think I managed to balance the matter-of-fact truth-telling with the absurdism by keeping the representations of the breast characters naturalistic and the anthropomorphism subtle. I think this makes the events more emotionally poignant yet whimsical. There is subtle humour in the simple, potato-like shapes of the breasts, juxtaposed against little legs and dainty shoes, a mischievousness in the positioning of their bodies and in the nipple functioning as a sort of ‘eye’. With a wave of bodily fluid flowing out and submerging the manic, smiling board members, I validated the emotional perspective of the playwright on her recovery from an operation.  

In responding to this issue’s theme of LEAVEN, I attempted to create a gentle, surrealistic visual language in ‘The “Abject” Body Revolts!’ that consoles and celebrates, as per Collyer’s poem. My illustration was an attempt to aid the poem in transforming the shame surrounding supposedly ‘abject’ bodily fluids and traumatised body parts into something celebratory. This was through a proud spray of breast milk above the scene of breasts squirting their milk at each other in the garden and a rebellious array of happy, unselfconscious breasts in all their imperfect glory. I think the revolt of the body here is less about outright feminist protest and more about displaying a feminine utopia—where breasts are exercising body autonomy and pursuing their desires. 

Your generously provided list of the ‘images requiring attribution’ gives us insight into your process. Each of the ‘items’ in these images appear as main ‘objects’ and in ‘pure’ form but also, through this solo framing, as stylised and distinct subjects. How did you go about gathering and selecting these closeups or cut-outs of things/objects/parts?

Early on, I drew some quick Artline cartoons envisioning how breasts might grab hold of cigarettes, stretch, break the glass of a fire alarm; rear up on tiptoes, bear stitches and dangling thread, spurt out breast milk, be severed at the base, or be sewn up or tied up like the end of a balloon. Or would the breast be undertaking tasks while still attached? I thought I could have women’s bodies with breasts stretching from their chest as they went about their rebellious behaviours with the heads hidden. But I thought this to be too objectifying and complicated.

It would’ve been fun to create a manual illustration from my imagination but, as I’d not done this before, I deliberately went about my process in an unusually structured and pragmatic way. After breaking down the poem for evocative imagery, I searched for royalty-free images online and used my own for ones I couldn’t find. Ninety per cent of these were then hand sketched or drawn digitally. My copying was straightforward as I was gathering raw data that I was intending to digitise, then play around with in Photoshop, and collage together to create a workable composition. I purchased a digital drawing tablet so I could sketch and modify elements directly on the digital screen. After I’d collected all the elements, my process was mainly explorative and intuitive as I followed ideas and let things evolve, adding or subtracting elements as I went. 

I sought entire high-definition images that were clear and well differentiated from the background. I found a beautiful shot of a vintage phone with a glossy black exterior with scratches over the dial pad. But it was difficult to find free images from 1940s Melbourne, so I utilised my own photograph of the milk bar in Stanmore. I traced over it in Photoshop, in a deliberately messy style, focusing on the 1940s kitsch signage, its dilapidation, and the advertising. Tracing over my own photograph of a messy office desk from a set I’d dressed, I placed it on the pavement as though the breasts had dragged it there. For pavement, I found a photograph of Parramatta Road in Sydney that I’d taken. I bought a can of shaving cream and did a very quick sketch of it, trying to imagine how the breast would be perched on it, with a tapering curl of a tail. 

It was difficult to find royalty-free images of real breasts with imperfections, of people of varying ages. But find some I did, and, after sketching them, I carefully rendered the edges of each breast to give them extra curvature. I then utilised the transform tool to warp them a little—to imply movement. I upended the breasts so that the nipples were at the top. Small doll arms and legs were grafted onto the breasts from photographs I’d snapped at a doll ‘hospice’ in Brisbane. However, they jostled with the breast for dominance, so I removed them. This led to having a paintbrush of mine sticking out of Joy Hester’s ‘bellybutton’ as it was the only way she could ‘grip’ the handle. Instead, I created very small legs, shoes, and a hat for them, having found a 1963 Sears Fall Winter Catalogue, which had the most beautiful illustrations of shoes in it I’d ever seen. 

Like Joy Hester, my surrealist drawings have always come from my imagination, showing an inner emotional truth, where I’d begin with the eyes, letting them dictate the evolution of a drawing. But here, I wanted to retain a naturalness and take care in my representation of these breasts as I do not know what it is like to have a mastectomy. This is why I left the images of breasts, whether plump or sagging, freckled, wrinkled, stretch-marked, or veiny, largely unchanged. In this way, the subtle surrealism I later added to the images was balanced against the more emotional and traumatic truth. Using realistic-looking watercolour and sketching brushes for Photoshop allowed the drawings to look manual. To retain the graphite sketchiness of the breasts, I left them grey, which apparently also looked Modernist—which is appropriate as Joy Hester was a member of the Angry Penguins.

When my partner laid eyes on ‘The “Abject” Body Revolts!’, which she did after I called her into our study to view it (I was excited!), she remarked that it reminded her of Rene Magritte’s piece—the one where a breast is adorned with long hair, breasts of its own, a belly button, and a dab of pubic hair. When you first read Collyer’s piece, what kinds of visuals not directly mentioned in ‘The Pitch’ rose to mind, and how did these influence your own creating?

That is so nice that you were excited! Funnily enough, as I was considering how to anthropomorphise the breasts into characters, I too was reminded of that Magritte painting! Sadly though, I felt that that artwork embodies the male gaze, as the woman’s head has no face; she has been reduced to sexual parts. I wanted instead to find a way to make the female gaze paramount in a form of feminist surrealism, which is why I chose to represent the breasts as naturalistic, with minimal anthropomorphism. I found a Woody Allen film skit with large, ballooning breasts moving across a landscape to be too sexualised. I was really pleased when I read the intro of Dear Sun: The Letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed (1997)      as it described that Joy Hester had begun distilling her paintings of people into amorphous faces with large, protuberant eyes––which resembled the breasts I had drawn (the nipple as the eye or iris and the breast as an elongated eyeball of sorts). I like that the large eyes (nipples) of the breasts I’ve created are rendering them observers and agentic beings rather than passive objects. Both Joy Hester and Sunday Reed were rebels in different ways, who carved their own paths as women (personally and in terms of their careers).

I have mild aphantasia, so I can’t visualise images clearly in my imagination, but I did think of art that might inspire me stylistically. Ren & Stimpy was a cartoon that depicted the existential messiness of inhabiting a fallible, corporeal body. I am drawn to German Expressionist George Grosz’s unflinching depiction of a dysfunctional society. I considered how Salvador Dali would depict the breast characters and looked to Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights for inspiration regarding the scenarios described in the poem. I thought about utilising a style of drawing/painting like Joy Hester: painting with cheap materials like pencil and ink and without much preparation. I envisioned Amelie (from the film of the same name) silently crying and slowly turning to tears as the breast characters and other elements from the play she is pitching start bobbing about in (or sinking underneath) the water, or simply falling at her feet. At one point, I had two disembodied legs marching through the illustration—potentially too derivative of Monty Python. I loved the idea of having this imaginary world that the author is walking through, while little breast characters cause chaos at a micro level.

Not a question, but I also want add/stress how much I love your work and am excited to see what else you have in store!

Aww, thank you—so lovely of you to add. Well, I’m basically an underemployed artist/designer doing the occasional painting or design commission! I have one such project I’m about to embark on and I’m also wanting to illustrate my friend’s amazing collection of witty, short stories. Oh, and I’m in the process of organising a group art exhibition with my mum and a close friend in Brisbane later this year. That’s about it!

Thank you so very much for your creative and thought-provoking questions! It’s been a pleasure revisiting my process as regards this illustration! 😊