An interview taken from our new digital issue.Fresh from his introspective exhibit of his own experiences as a young, queer, British designer, artist Olli Hull talks to KALTBLUT about his recent installation Act Normal and what it means to be a queer creative in a world filled with constant conflict, fear and isolation.
K: Hi Olli, first of all congrats on the exhibition and thank you for inviting Kaltblut to come along. We loved it. How have you found the response?
O: It was a bit overwhelming! I don’t think I had fully prepared myself for how it would feel to have all of my insecurities, thoughts and feelings on display for everyone to see like that. There was a funny moment on the day I was setting up, my parents walked into the exhibition whilst I was trying to hang a naked portrait of myself with the words “I can’t say how I feel but I can send nudes to strangers online” written across it in big pink writing… The whole thing made me feel super vulnerable but I was really moved by some of the conversations I had with people who had related to some of the themes in my work, and that made it all worth it.
K: What made you create the Act Normal exhibition and how did it come about?
O: ‘Act Normal’ was about deconstructing and challenging the concept of ‘Normality’. As someone who grew up thinking that I wasn’t ‘normal’, and who was bullied for being different, I really wanted to turn the question around and ask everyone else “well what is ‘normal’ anyway?”. I wanted to reveal some of the hypocrisy in the things that our society has accepted as normal and rejected as not.
K: Let’s go back further and talk about when you realised you wanted to become an artist/designer. Was there a light bulb moment for you and what was it like?
O: I’ve wanted to make art since I was a child, but around 2 years ago whilst I was working as a hairstylist I made the decision to pursue a career as an artist full time. I’d been reading this book and there was a chapter that basically said that any career you choose to pursue inevitably comes with a shit sandwich. For example, you could be working in a really well-paid office job and the perks might be amazing but the shit sandwich you have to eat every day is that you really wanted to be a writer. However, the shit sandwich you’d have to eat if you chose to be a writer would be that statistically you would probably never write a best-seller, and you might be consistently broke, but on the flip side you’d get to do the thing you loved… so which shit sandwich would you rather eat? I know it sounds a bit whack and maybe obvious to a lot of people, but it was a pretty big lightbulb moment for me. I quit my hairdressing job that week.
K: OK. All I can think of right now is Ross from Friends and ‘’MY SANDWICH’. I’m glad it has worked out for you as it can be a huge risk.. Where is your safe space as an artist?
O: My safe space is when I’m alone in my studio, I’m disconnected from social media, my phone is on airplane mode, and I’m playing my ‘Safe Place’ playlist which is full of my favourite John Martyn and Joni Mitchel songs. Oh, and if it’s raining outside then even better!
K: Sounds like a dream. Can you tell me what queerness mean to you?
O: Queerness for me is making decisions that aren’t influenced by what other people think. It’s looking in the mirror and not saying to myself ‘Is this acceptable? Does this make me worthy of love?’. It’s setting my own boundaries and making my own rules about my life, relationships, career and sex. Rules that are based on my own judgment of love and kindness, in line with my truth and not what society has told me to be true.
K:What inspires you as a designer and as an artist?
O: Inspiration comes at me from everywhere. I can be listening to a song, or in a session with my therapist, or watching The Real Housewives and I’ll think ‘I need to paint that’. I absorb lots of pop culture, podcasts, internet memes, and the news, mix that all together with my own inner chaos, chew it up and I spit out a wedding dress covered in graffiti.
K: We love a graffiti moment. Speaking of moments, how has the last year impacted or influenced your creative process?
O: I was fortunate enough to have a roof over my head and a space to create, so I decided I would spend isolation improving my craft and making the most of this time without distractions. I tried to go back to basics with my creative process and focused on making art that was just for me and not influenced by the approval of others. I also tried to let go of the idea that my work had to be ‘perfect’ or ’finished’ which helped me to fall back in love with the process of making art rather than always focusing on the outcome.
K: The current climate is pretty challenging, how have you been able to evolve and adapt in your work?
O: My art is my coping mechanism. When the world is on fire and those who are supposed to be doing something about it aren’t doing so, that’s when I get my paintbrush out and take all of that anger and frustration out on the canvas. Or if there’s something challenging happening that I don’t understand or can’t process, I’ll scribble down ideas and doodles into my sketchbook. It helps me to create meaning from the chaos of life.
K: Your work is super expressive and adaptive in that it can translate across a multitude of formats. Do you have any plans to expand? The sofas looked amazing. We need an Olli Hull sofa at Kaltblut HQ.
O: Absolutely! I’d love to create more furniture and household objects as well as my clothing. I love the idea that art doesn’t need to be on a white wall or in a posh gallery. In fact, I think right now with everything going on in the world, that is one of the last places art needs to be. We need to be wearing art, sitting on it, eating off it! I believe art has so much power to open up conversations and influence positive change.
K: Your designs have featured heavily in music videos, most recently the wonderful James Indigo’s video ‘Van Gogh’ wearing the Annulment Dress. Who would be your all time dream collab with any musician dead or alive and why?
O: Dolly Parton! That woman is a saint sent from queer heaven. I have so much love and respect for pop artists who manage to stay grounded, humble and remain a positive force in the world that goes beyond their music.
K: A Dolly stan we love to see it. Tell me more about how you incorporate the themes of consumerism and the impacts of fast fashion and social media within your work?
O: I like to use lots of pop culture references and symbolic imagery such as iPhones, masks, crowns, demonic faces and exaggeratedly proportioned bodies. I use these in an attempt to form a visual language that represents our societies decaying human nature, that is masked by the spectacle of consumerism, fashion, beauty, reality TV, and social media. There’s a lot of text in my work too, which I use as a way to parody the ‘shadow self’; the part of us that’s trapped inside an egotistical bubble of materialism, greed and entitlement.
K: How are you working sustainably?
O: I really try to keep sustainability at the core of my brand. Everything I sell is up-cycled or reworked from second hand pieces and scrap fabric. All my wedding dresses came from eBay or Depop, and I love raiding charity shops! It’s estimated that 92 million tonnes of textile waste are created every single year globally, and 85% of that ends up in landfill. There is so much fabric and clothing that already exists that could be reused or recycled. There really is no need to keep producing new things other than to satisfy the unhealthy need to consume. I want to try and help to change that and normalise wearing up-cycled, vintage and second hand.
K: As a designer you are big on wearable art, how do you find the balance between creativity and commerciality as a brand?
O: I’m constantly re-balancing. As much as I like to create work that is totally from the heart and not influenced by the approval of other people, it’s obviously really rewarding when people want to buy my work, and ultimately, it’s people buying and wearing my work that is going to get my message out into the world. I’ve found that listening to my audience has helped to influence and push my work in ways I may not have considered, and if anything, this has contributed to my creative process. I have to pull myself back every now and again and ask myself ‘what message am I communicating and is this in line with my values?’.
K: Finally, what can we expect to see from Olli Hull in 2022 and beyond?
O: I feel as though ‘Act Normal’ was both the end and the beginning of a stage in my career and my life. It was my first collective body of work, and when I stood in that room and looked around I could see so much progress and so many different avenues for me to explore further. I’ve also got some exciting collaborations coming up over the next few months so I can’t wait to take everything I’ve learned from my exhibition and apply it to these new projects. I can’t wait to share it with you all!
K: We can’t wait for you to share it with us and we will be holding out for that Dolly Parton collab.