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Award-winning artist Olivia Harwood BFA’21 strives to empower herself and others in her work

by Linda Lenhoff,

By being true to herself, Olivia Harwood BFA’21 has reached an enviable level of success only a couple of years after graduating from PNCA. Harwood incorporates trinkets, collage, and found objects in her powerful paintings that challenge notions of the feminine — a style she developed early on as a painting student at PNCA.

Harwood credits her thesis advisor, Associate Professor & Interim Department Head of Painting Michelle Ross, for helping her learn to express herself through her art. “I was kind of lost for a bit at PNCA and didn’t know what I was painting about, especially because it was during the COVID lockdown,” she says.

Ross taught Harwood how to hone in on her practice and use her painting to empower herself. “It just allowed me to create more relatability within my work, so people started recognizing more characters and emotions that I put into it. That allowed them to relate to it as well.”

Empowerment comes through loud and clear in Harwood’s shows, especially She Will Protect You. The artist uses self-portraits in surreal landscapes and environments to create a sense of comforting relatability — and convey the power of the feminine. Harwood works as an archivist and studio assistant at Marie Watt Studio in Portland, a space owned by fellow Willamette graduate Marie Watt BS’90.

After experimenting with her interests and style at PNCA, her recent work delves even further into themes of fertility and motherhood. “I’ve been doing a lot based on news headlines about reproductive rights in America,” she says. “It means a lot for me to have body autonomy, plus I’m responding to seeing people I grew up with not having that.”

Harwood, who will be attending the Vermont Studio Center Residency this fall, advises both prospective and new students to attend PNCA’s Focus Weeks for inspiration. “You can go and watch thesis proposals and defenses and see what you might consider doing senior year,” she says. Harwood went each semester to admire students’ projects, which varied from huge gallery installations to a set of 100 pieces — or one year-long painting. “The scale of opportunity helps you decide what you want to do.”

Well on her way in the artistic world, Harwood has received the Helen Director Memorial Scholarship (2020-2021), the Gamblin Paint Prize (2020), and the Nancy Tonkin Memorial Scholarship (2019-2020). She’s been published in the 2022 Portland Critics Pick in Artforum, Spring 2022 Art & About Portland Blog, and the 2022 Portland Mercury Spring Arts Preview. She also exhibited at a solo show at Fuller Rosen Gallery and a group show at Well Well Projects in Portland. Check out her artwork on her website.

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