Artist Feature Series: In Conversation with Steven J. Oscherwitz
April 5, 2022
Steven Oscherwitz, Untitled (2010)
“Artists cannot be artists without being thinkers. I am, if anything, a thinker first, then an artist.”
Steven Oscherwitz, Statement of Intent for IDSVA (2021)
Steven J. Oscherwitz is an artist and an art and science researcher. Double majoring in Biology and Philosophy, Steven graduated with a Baccalaureate of Arts from Miami University in 1975. Finding his artistic voice and passion, he received his Baccalaureate of Fine Arts from the School of Painting and Drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Continuing his passion, Steven then graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts from the School of Painting and Drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also conducted independent scholarly research in the history of art and science at The University of Chicago and the University of Washington, Seattle. Steven has also recently been accepted into the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) Program in Portland, Maine. The IDSVA PhD in Visual Arts: Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Art Theory is a non-studio PhD for artists and creative thinkers. He is in the process of finding a scholarship for the three year program.
CODAME describes Steven as an inventive draftsman, having produced a large body of work, which he terms architectonic studies. Steven has had his work exhibited in a central gallery of the Smithsonian Institution (1981) and the Art Institute of Chicago (1981) among others. His work has also been exhibited internationally at the 10 American Artists – St. Peter/Au Castle, Austria (2003). He has been represented by the Central Wyoming College Gallery, Riverton, Wyoming (2003), The William Struve Gallery, Chicago, Illinois (1994-95) and the Margulies Taplin Gallery, Florida (1993-94).
Ever a student of the sciences and humanities, Steven has explored the interrelated histories of philosophy, science, art, optics, and technology intensely while studying at the University of Chicago, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, and, more recently, at Stanford’s Linear Accelerator. He has also participated in the development of art/science integration at The Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts, where he has presented his art/science research on a periodic basis. All of these educational and intellectual experiences have resulted in a life-time of science-inspired art and search for expression.
This Spring, Center for Art Law (CfAL) spoke to Steven to learn about his artwork and inspirations as well as the challenges he has faced as an artist.
A Prelude: Excerpts from Steven’s Artistic Statement 2021
An Artistic Statement is a piece of writing that helps the audience access and understand an artist’s work. Artists go through an exercise of crystalizing their artistic statement, which represents them as an artist, and includes sources, ideas and materials in their practice, and which can change over time. In Steven’s statement from 2021, he explains the meaning behind his work, where he draws inspiration from and how his artwork reflects his thinking and academic studies.
“The relation of philosophy and the other arts to writing is not merely one of analogy. I would like to propose that art, and philosophy, are activities bent on the invention of writing.” -Alva Noe, Strange Tools Art and Human Nature (2015)
Steven: My drawings are not about aesthetic theory or as displayed as Gucci products to be viewed by sippers of fine wine. My drawings are political instruments and instruments that can cut their way through a thicket of misrepresented ideas that dumb down art for the rich and over-privileged. My drawings and paintings are about thinking, empowerment, and sensing of thought in its flesh of being. And importantly, paving new concepts to help lead and evolve empirical science out of its shadowed existence. If one is to make art seriously, one’s energy and life consume and develop a time specifically dedicated to making their art form. My exploratory thinking in my academic readings and organized academic studies, somehow even if mysteriously, without doubt, has always generated energy, order, and a cacophony of life situations for my work as an artist to flourish.
Exploring Steven’s Art Projects: The Interconnection between Science and Art
Art/Technoscience Engages Cancer Research (2003)
Steven: “I envision using art to bring an inventive, exploratory interface charged with fantasy and wonder to cellular and intra- cellular cancer research. The present day reductionist scientific approach to cancer treatment is to radiate and kill the cancer cell. When I observe cancer cells under a light-powered microscope—not as a scientist, but as an artist I see rivulets and streams of healthy tissue being usurped, twisted and pulled into aggressively charged striations of physiological horror, but I also see an odd kind of chaotic beauty. Is there another way to observe this indeterminacy and disorder, this prolific growth of infinite space? What if, through nanotechnology, science and art were joined in order to engage cellular mechanisms in a kind, loving, aesthetic and wondrous exploration?” (Excerpt from Oscherwitz, Steven J. “Art/Technoscience Engages Cancer Research.” Leonardo, vol. 38 no. 1, 2005, p. 11-11. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/178418.)
Experimental Seeing: Compounded Imagery and Optical Resonating (2021)
Steven Oscherwitz, Compounded Imagery and Optical Resonating (2021)
“In this project, the proposed experimental lexicon of compounded imaging and optics resonating presents images from both science and art in a context of synergized experimental seeing. This visual schema first virtually transforms these instruments’ traditional experimental images into a compounded pictorial schema to stimulate metaphorical, semiotic associations between science and art. Then, to demonstrate the effect of the empirical dimension of optical resonating, a digital composition, a drawing, and a painting gets juxtaposed between an array of the laser optical system of mirrors. This visualization helps envision a potential actual physically engineered juncture that could potentially transform the path of the photonic beam of light into resonating energy that is inclusive of literally a new seeing of experimental light.” (Excerpt from Steven J. Oscherwitz, Visualization and Theoretics (2021)).
CfAL: When did you begin showcasing your artwork and where has your work been exhibited?
Steven: I have been showcasing my work since 1967. My work has been published, commissioned and seen in exhibits throughout the world: Midwest Juried Show at Western Illinois University – Macomb, IL (1983), Solo Show at the Marguiles Taplin Gallery – Boca Raton, FL (1993), Westworks at the Central Wyoming College Gallery – Riverton, WY (2001), Snap Crackle Pop at the Soapbox Gallery – Venice, California (2002), Science-Dialogue-Art publication – Czech Republic (2003), 10 American Artists – St. Peter/Au Castle, Austria (2003), Solo show at Karpeles Museum – Santa Barbara, CA (2003), Art Techno-Science Engages Cancer Research: M.I.T. Press – Boston, MA (2005), Solo exhibition of Works on Paper Invitational at the Francine Sedars Gallery – Seattle, WA (2008).
CfAL: Do you have experience in teaching art as well?
Steven: I first began teaching art in 1985, when I taught staff architects how to use watercolor, and how light is the medium’s most effective aspect at Skidmore, Owens and Merrill. In 1989, I then taught the Studio Program of The School of The Art Institute of Chicago at Navy Pier. I taught watercolor painting and its historical development. There is intense discussion on drawing composition, such as issues of perspective, depth, tonality and how these aspects of drawing interact with watercolor and have changed with the development of modern art. In 1992, I developed a painting course that examines the impact of science on the painter and the painter on science in the development of Western Culture in the department of Painting and Drawing at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. In 2005, I also taught a course on Comparative History of Ideas at The University of Washington.
CfAL: What has inspired your artwork?
Steven: I have been told that my work is inspired by a great imagination and curiosity. I also had a great immediate family as a child and continuing today, which inspires my art. Also, my love of life, family, people, geometry and time continues to inspire my work.
CfAL: What inspired you to link science and art together?
Steven: There were several instances that played a role in connecting my passion for science and art. First: Early on, my parents bought me a chemistry and dissecting set with a microscope when I was nine years old. I did chemical experiments with the test tubes and dissected a chameleon, which fostered my love for science. My mother also had a mural painted on my wall of a beautiful train with white puffs of steam coming out of it with a blue, cerulean sky above, which contributed to my love for art. Cerulean blue is a color both my dad loved and myself. Second: When I was seven years old, my mother had a beautiful mural of a train with steam coming out of it painted by a mural artist from the Cincinnati Art Museum with her helper. I sat in a little leather rocking chair and felt like I was conducting the whole experience and process. Third: My grandfather also played the violin in the Cincinnati Civic Orchestra, a Community Orchestra in Cincinnati Ohio. He would always play when I visited him. We always had broadway tunes playing at home. Fourth: my dad used to take walks on the expressway they were building right by our house and talk with me about the path we were then physically walking on would be a path that I could look back upon in the future. He gave me a keen sense of life and time. Fifth: My grandmother’s cousin was Harold Arlen, who composed music for “Over the Rainbow”. Arlen was a significant composer in the 20th century. Each of these instances inspired me to connect the arts and science together.
Steven: Apart from these, my mother, father, and sister loved the arts which also served as inspiration for me to connect these fields together. I also always loved science and philosophy by constantly reading primary and secondary resources as I got older, and was exposed to lots of physicians in our family very early on.
CfAL: Could you tell us a little bit about some of your pieces?
Steven: This piece is titled Compound Picture. (This picture is an image of Oscherwitz’s oil painting on linen, photographed, then scanned, and digitally placed within a photographed then scanned image of laminar flow from Milton Van Dykes’ an Album of Fluid Motion, (1) Page 31 Parabolic Press Stanford 1982.)
Steven Oscherwitz, Compound Picture: visually integrating different images from otherwise isolated disciplines into one Compound Picture
Steven: Both images are then placed within a photographed, then scanned image of cancerous cells from cancerous tissue; this image integrates different images from isolated disciplines into what I call compound pictures. This image not only serves as a metaphor for integrating once separate and isolated art/science disciplines, but also now through nanotechnology, as an actual integrated interface where these separated disciplines can merge into an actual working interface. In this image, my identity as an artist is composed as an explorer of biological terrain, fluid motions, and consciousness itself. This presentation all holds sway over more traditional and didactic ways to present my art such as in a museum or gallery. The image is a prototype for the artist’s consciousness and explorations being a critical part of scientific experimental design.
CfAL: How have you approached legacy and estate planning for your artwork?
Steven: First and foremost, my goal has been to legally protect my family. Then think of ways my work might get exposed in competitive environments, universities, museums, schools. I have also been speaking with art/law experts on planning how to do this.
CfAL: Do you think artists should work with lawyers and is it necessary for artists to have a will?
Steven: I believe it is best to speak with art law experts on how better to equalize the art world in contrast to not being owned by money or any manner of corruption. And also, to work with lawyers to protect your work with legal documents.
CfAL: What other challenges have you faced as an artist?
Steven: A challenge I face is continuing the serious exposure I had of my work, like I had in Chicago in the late 80s. Legacy and estate planning in this case becomes pertinent as well.
CfAL: What would your advice be to other artists in a similar position?
Steven: My advice would be to keep doing your work, which is the most important thing to do, by far. Always follow your most peaceful silent voices from afar and close by, to guide your being. Having some harmony from the universe is much better than having much else.
I would also say to connect with the frontiers of science and philosophy to help empower artists to help philosophers and scientists make freedom of expression while empowering original constitution of ideas interacting art and empirical research. Or if you are at peace with whatever you are doing –do that. Nothing takes the place of doing your work.
And as mentioned earlier, for legacy and estate planning, it is best to speak with art law experts and work with lawyers to protect your work with legal documents.
Center for Art Law would like to thank Steven for taking the time to speak with us and sharing his experiences and inspirations with us.
The interview was conducted by Atreya Mathur, Judith Bresler Fellow for the Visual Artists’ Legal Clinics, in connection with the Artist Legacy and Estate Planning Clinic. No matter which stage of their career an artist is in, artwork is an expression of the artist and their personal history. It is their legacy. Legacy planning is important for both the successful artist, and for the artist who has yet to be recognized. It is imperative for artists to think holistically about their career and the steps that are essential to maintaining a vibrant creative life. And, at the same time, a need to prepare for the afterlife of their creative work and possessions.
For more information and for pro-bono consultations with Volunteer Professionals on legacy and estate planning, view Center for Art Law’s Artist Legacy and Estate Planning Clinic programming here.