For Phyllis Oliver, saying art has been with her her entire life is not an exaggeration. “I started out as a child making jewelry because my grandma made it, as well,” she stated. “She was the first American woman to exhibit in places like Russia and the Brussels World Fair in 1935.” Though making beautifully jeweled adornments didn’t end up being her specialty, she has brought beauty to the world in her own way.
After she obtained her Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Hampshire, her life took on some delightful turns that let her see the world. “I was a Navy wife for twenty years,” she detailed. “For a time, I was taking care of our kids and we lived all over. My husband was gone a lot during the Vietnam War. But I was always able to work and create something.” Eventually, she landed in Seattle, WA, where she began teaching art at a private school in the ‘80s. “I ended up with forty gifted children in my studio every week.”
One thing that she instilled in the children that set her apart was discipline in art—something her grandmother taught her, as well. “She came from Faberge training in Boston, so what she did was very structured and required rules and discipline. In the ‘70s, art turned into something where you can do what you want, but I was given these tools before I was given a pencil.”
During a period of time in Seattle, Oliver worked alongside Ron Lukas who specialized in Russian Impressionist painting. (Lukas is best known for his attention to color which led him to work on projects with Steven Spielberg and for movies like Hotel Transylvania.) All of this combined with her training in child psychology led her to discover her own unique way of teaching children. But her greatest artistic adventure, perhaps, was still to come.
While she had dedicated most of her time to oil painting, in 2001, a major shift in her life caused her to change gears. “When I moved to Greece, I knew I would have to travel light, so I switched to water media.” While in Greece, Oliver got to “live the life of an artist” full time, living in a hotel for a year and then eventually staying for six. “I taught students from all over the world and was also painting at the same time. It has been a lovely life as far as that goes,” she mused.
These days, you can find Oliver’s paintings at the Bakersfield Art Association, where she is also known to teach a class or two when possible. It can be said that the teacher in her will always be present. “The arts are so vital to enriching our lives, and it very much connects the concrete with the abstract,” she explained, vocalizing concern for the arts being eliminated from some school programs. “Art is visual math. You have to consider the proportion relationship; physics are involved when you consider how light is processed and formed. It’s really a great combination of sciences. Lately, everything is computerized, which is great until you look into neurobiology and hand-brain connections.”
However, she doesn’t neglect the more passionate side of it all. “It is said that it takes a thousand yards of canvas before you start the journey,” she intimated. “You have to keep creating as an artist; you have to work at it all the time. You come to realize that the world makes you feel alive, and being connected to it, you learn to live in the moment. You are observing and are totally aware and focused. Art adds something extra to your life; it makes the world a better place. It adds a new dimension to our humanity, and we all need this.”
We are fortunate to have such teachers in our midst to not only remind us of the true power of art, but to also show us on how to live life more artistically.