Meet Your New Favorite Artist: Charmaine Olivia
The first thing you notice is color. Pale California noon light bleeds through a window off screen and catches the tawny in artist Charmaine Olivia’s bright eyes as we sit down to FaceTime. Her hair is a canvas within its own right; the whole process of turning it into a blue rainbow stands among her projects as a highlight on her Instagram. She cozies up in a purple sweater, her geometric tattoo peeking out from beneath its cuff and trailing down her right hand as she cradles a peppermint tea. We joke about how she’s chilly in California while I’m battling winter in Connecticut.
“I shouldn’t really complain, then,” she says, a laugh grazing the edge of her voice. As both our conversation and her artwork show, her mindfulness and optimistic perspective is entirely on brand.
At just 30 years old, Olivia has a slew of accomplishments. Her vibrant paintings have led to collaborations with companies like Vans, Urban Outfitters, Nylon Magazine, Hallmark, and more. In 2011, Lady Gaga selected her in an Etsy contest to do a poster for the Born this Way album. (The poster featured Olivia’s print, “Headache,” a whimsical portrait of a woman with flowing white locks and antlers.) She’s been working professionally since the age of 17, with multiple exhibitions across the country—and even a show in Australia—under her belt. Her “Sundrenched” mural currently stands as a splash of color among the cement greys of Sacramento. She even expanded into clothing, screenprinting her art on t-shirts and sweatshirts with the help of her team and packaging the orders herself. And she’s just getting started.
Olivia is currently preparing for her Los Angeles show in April, which has already generated a demand for tickets from over 1,800 people, according to her producer. With fans from around the world traveling to see her work, she is in a creative binge.
“I feel like I’m painting nonstop,” she says. “It’s been a while since I had an art studio. I’m excited to dive back into my art.”
In a lot of ways, Olivia is exactly what you’d expect an artist to be. The product of hippie parents and Southern California living, Olivia has a gracious and warm presence. She picked up oil paints at seven years old and loved nurturing her creativity. After high school, Olivia shirked the typical route of college—art school or otherwise—in favor of self-taught freedom. She gained a foothold in the art world by building a following on the website DeviantArt and selling her work. Her fearlessness in following her own path has served her career well, as her pieces play upon her self-exploration.
“I always did art because art helped me find myself,” Olivia says in a Q&A Facebook video accompanying the hashtags #realtalk and #arttherapy. “Art was really my savior. The more I did it, the more I kept understanding myself. And I would post it online and people liked it and [wanted] to buy it, and it really evolved organically into being my career.”
In other ways, she subverts expectations. She often notes that she’s shy, which surprises me given the fact that creative career fields are ultimately dependent upon attention and exposure. But she explains that art becomes a vehicle for expressing her voice.
“A lot of my paintings are a version of me,” she says. “I can use [art] as a kind of mirror and imagine myself in these magical rainbow worlds. Art helps me find a confidence and when I’m really in it, I can work through so many different emotions and ways of being.”
Olivia’s signature style involves the female form and, often, some element of nature. The stars became her muse for her upcoming show after she moved to the countryside in Rainbow, California and gained a breathtaking view of the night sky. The women she paints are described by Complex as “Eerie, gorgeous, ethereal,” and she’s inspired by a range of things—friends, models, the process of sifting through her own emotions, archeology, mythology and mysticism, to name a few. She tells me that she’d definitely be an archeologist if she wasn’t an artist because there’s a certain magic about uncovering the ancient worlds.
“I use my art now as a way to explore the past but also the future because I’m very passionate about connecting with the world and making a change for the better,” Olivia says. “I guess when I look at these ancient civilizations, the stories they told, and the mythology...I think those gods and goddesses are the idealized versions of ourselves. I like to imagine, what would be the ideal version of someone now? What are these qualities we glorified in the past and how can we pull them into ourselves now? That’s what I explore in the paintings.”
Ultimately, she wants to highlight the beauty in the world. Art and social responsibility are undoubtedly always in conversation with one another, and in the current tumultuous political landscape, Olivia believes her calling is to connect with a more fundamental level of humanity.
“Part of what motivates me is the good in the world. I want to highlight what we want to fight for and what we want to protect. I want to connect with a deeper consciousness that isn’t tied to any one country or political view [but rather, to] an understanding that we have to work together.” She lights up as she speaks, a passionate determination clear in her expressive hand gestures. “I don’t know how art can do that yet, I’m still figuring that out. But when I create something and other people connect with that on an emotional level, I’m hoping it will naturally help in some way.”
It’s ambitious, but she delivers. Olivia’s art resonates with audiences, incurring a powerful sort of reverence in viewers. Strength, warmth, and hope echo from the canvases, and she’s beginning to explore the mediums of sculptures and street art to bring these qualities to audiences in an even more tangible way. It is easy to understand how ancient cultures could have built myths and temples to the gods and goddesses that govern those virtues—and how we need to remember their importance in modern society.
“I want to do more murals and get my art out there so people are reminded of what we’re protecting.”