Artist Interview: KK Ottesen & Andrea Ottesen / by Rachel Eva Lim

This November, local artists Andrea Ottesen and KK Ottesen present their exhibition Dreams & Dreamers at Dance Place’s own Studio 21 — their first collaboration in a public art show. Dreams & Dreamers includes Andrea’s never before shared fantasy stories about Father Sky and His Dreams for His Children, combined with KK’s portraiture of American Dreamers which previews an upcoming documentary about the American Dreamers project.

The sisters lead seemingly disparate lives. Andrea is a scientist in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) while KK juggles her work as a photographer and writer with being a mother to her two young children, Nadia and Donovan. However, a strong passion for artistic creation has been a constant throughout their respective journeys.

“I [was drawn to] photography very early on [in life] and have always done it in some shape or form; sometimes on the side,” KK revealed in an interview with Dance Place. “I’ve had a checkered career, including a stint on Wall Street as an investment banker, before chucking that to drive around the country to interview and photograph everyday people for my book, Great Americans.”

Andrea echoed these sentiments, stating that she has always loved creating and has long self-identified as an artist. When asked about how her work with agricultural microbial ecology at the FDA has informed her artistic pursuits, Andrea traced the inspiration for her stunning scientific visualizations and botanical photographs to her daily interactions with nature.

“[I] fell in love with plants in Oregon’s old growth forests and have been studying plants and agricultural systems ever since, celebrating both in my artwork and scientific work,” Andrea said. “My work in botanical and agricultural sciences has called for illustration at many points and I enjoy providing beautiful examples of the plants or systems we are working with… The desire to contribute to conservation and sustainable management of natural resources is an underlying theme in all art that I create.”

Andrea and KK’s varied compositional styles are reflected in their primary artistic influences. KK attributes much of her inspiration to the photos of Dorothea Lange, the portraits of Richard Avedon and Platon, and prize-winning author Studs Terkel’s illuminating oral histories. Andrea cites her high school art teacher Percy Martin — a well-known Washington, DC-based artist — as having had a huge influence on her work.

“Percy made drawings and prints of Pygmy Bushmen and had a complex mythology of stories for his many characters,” Andrea stated. “I have several of Percy’s works in my collection, [including] ‘Nubiai – Priestess of Flight’ and ‘Nova Helping a Sister.’”

Aside from their collaborations, both artists have undertaken numerous successful independent projects. Andrea’s visualizations have been featured on the cover of Science and shown at numerous scientific institutions and galleries including the United States Botanic Garden, the National Arboretum, the Brookside Gardens, and the Hill Center.

Meanwhile, KK — who has contributed portraits and interviews to The Washington Post MagazineEsquireand the Washingtonian Magazine — traveled across the country while researching her book Great Americans, interviewing and photographing everyday people who just so happen to share names with our nation’s most famous and infamous icons (including Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Abraham Lincoln, etc.).

“I was so curious to understand whether people in this country — living such different lives in such different locales — shared anything at all in common,” KK disclosed when asked about the impetus for embarking on this project. “I thought by selecting one random person in each state (plus Washington, DC) to interview and photograph, I could create a snapshot of the country at a moment in time to get a sense of national identity.”

Upon further probing, KK offered up a couple of memorable anecdotes from her journey — a primarily solo trip undertaken on a shoestring budget.

“There were a great many adventures,” KK said. “[Some] highlights included joining my subjects for dinner with their families in environments that were totally new to me — a shrimp boat in South Carolina, a gutted school bus in rural Oregon, or a ranch in Montana; it was a like a domestic exchange program!”

Other aspects of KK’s expedition were slightly more worrisome or downright exhausting, yet ultimately part and parcel of her attempt to meet these unique individuals and document their stories.

“[I remember] driving literally all night — low on gas — through New Mexico and Colorado to catch a flight the next morning; sleeping at a rest stop in the Southwest, windows closed for safety, and just baking in the heat; tearing straight from New Haven, Connecticut to Pierre, South Dakota for a scheduled interview with barely a moment to stop,” KK stated. “[Also] spending my 30th birthday alone in a rather shabby Red Roof Inn, a step up from my usual quarters, in Little Rock, Arkansas and sometimes eating McDonald’s three meals a day.”

It is evident that Andrea and KK’s decision to put on a joint exhibition was very much borne out of a mutual admiration for each other that transcends mere familial obligation. The sisters have an immense amount of love and respect for each other’s creations, as Andrea’s stories and artwork have been enjoyed by KK’s children throughout the years.

“It’s been an enormous treat to learn from the way Andrea approaches her art, and a real joy to be able to see the creation process for many of her works,” KK said.

“We have a traveling pants system,” Andrea chimed in when asked whether she or KK wore the pants in the sisterhood. “Sometimes Andrea may be taking care of KK and sometimes KK may be taking care of Andrea.”

Promotional material commissioned by Dance Place