Allison Ostertag is a photographer, painter and a non-practicing ceramic sculptor. By day she teaches inner city adolescents how to run fruit stands and about basic nutrition. In her spare time, she’s a coordinator for Handmade Philly and has been an Etsy seller since 2007.
I understand you were born in Philadelphia? Yes. I grew up in Overbrook in West Philadelphia and lived here until college, when I moved away to Alfred, NY, a very small college town in rural Western New York that has a fantastic ceramics program and I studied ceramics and photography. I also lived in St. George, Utah and New Orleans, LA and taught adult education and high school art and photography.
What did your parents do for a living? My dad is retired from the recreation department where he ran centers around the city and refereed basketball games, played in volleyball leagues, ran summer camp programs and let me teach art on and off starting when I was 14. Now he volunteers full time for his neighborhood church. My mom is a therapist, but she was a teacher for many years, then got her master’s in social work and worked with children with special needs, then started therapy with families of police officers and firemen probably 10 years ago.
What was it like for you growing up? My childhood was crazy and nice. I’m reading Augusten Burroughs’ “Running with Scissors” right now, and it reasonates a lot with me. My childhood and adolescence wasn’t quite so crazy and berzerker, but it was far from normal. I did get to go to great schools that had programs supporting my art interests, including working with Susan Rodriquez, a renowned teacher and author with a doctorate in art who teaches at the University of the Arts and happened to teach at my elementary school.
Were you involved with the arts as a child? I know I painted in preschool when I was 4 or 5 and I don’t think I ever stopped. I wanted to be a famous artist with a studio in New York. We kept sketchbooks for my art classes and painted and drew and we got to take photographs of our school with borrowed plastic cameras. We took trips to the art museum and the fabric workshop. I still have all of my sketchbooks.
How would you describe your photos? Your paintings? My photos are like alien documents to send back to the home planet. I want to see everything. They are a great way to get me outside. They are like an excuse to go exploring in the woods and travel and grow creatively. I’m starting a new series of photographs of tablescapes of food that I cook and eat, kind of combining my day work and art work. My paintings were purely started as therapy to chill out after the daily stress of teaching. I started buying cheesy paint by number kits that I thought would be funny, lighthouses and palm trees with sunsets, then I transitioned to painting on wood I found in the trash; pictures from house and garden type magazines found on recycling day in New Orleans’ garden district. I love saturated bright colors and these magazines were filled with them and I painted simple compositions and shapes from the magazines. I enjoy painting.
Tell us about your education…what did you study? I went to Alfred, where they expect all students to learn many disciplines before concentrating on an area of study for their senior thesis, and even then I had a dual show of ceramic sculpture and photography made into sculptures with plexi and wood. They make everyone study what I would call “how to make things well” freshman year, which I wasn’t prepared for, so I just struggled until the semester was over. Then they actually started teaching us specific things. That time was beneficial; it prepared me to think in the time between high school and college.
How have you been influenced by the art community? Who/ what inspires you? I love art and many artists and I enjoy seeing museum shows and gallery openings and meeting other artists, but the formal art community is a bit too pompous for me. It’s like an insular group that brainwashes its members into following specific rules. The handmade movement, though, is more where I see myself, people who don’t look down their noses at your art and know there aren’t any rules and there’s no reason why we can’t be supportive of each other and work collectively. When I first joined the Philly Etsy Team (now Handmade Philly), I was thinking it was like Womanhouse in Fresno in the 70’s and we were breaking all the ideas about how artists could work together and help each other meet our artistic and personal goals and those two things could go together, personal didn’t have to be set aside for art, they could coexist and intertwine. I love this group and all of the people I’ve met through it.
If you were going to have a career other than art, what would it be? I’d like to teach science, be an archeologist or a CSI or detective.
Do you consider yourself an artist who works with contemporary social issues? Not at all. I was never good at political art. I’ve dabbled at sculptures of recycled coffee cups and thoughts of instillations of all my personal trash for a year and personal/emotional self-portraiture, but I don’t feel like pushing my point of view on others. I am photographing natural spaces and animals I think need to be appreciated, enjoyed and expanded. If you like a beautiful picture of a landscape, and you then find out it’s a public park and go visit and discover the beauty for yourself, that’s going to lead you to help preserve that space.
What are you listening to? This American Life on NPR.
Do you have any upcoming shows/ exhibits? I’m showing my photographs and photo collages of Fairmount details and storefronts right now at Rembrandt’s Restaurant in the Z Café. The exhibit is on display until May 31, when we are having a closing reception. Check out my blog for details: http://www.phillytravelnaturephoto.blogspot.com/