Champion of Failure

Champion of Failure

Whitney Oldenburg MFA 15 PT installing her thesis exhibition last spring.

“My recent work comes from everyday mess-ups,” says recent graduate Whitney Oldenburg MFA 15 PT. “People spill drinks, accidentally break things, step in gum, get dirty. I see these daily disruptions in which the ego is quietly assaulted as equal starting places—humble beginnings. As an artist, I champion these moments of failure, seeing them as potential metaphors for imbalance, repression and hopelessness.”

Oldenburg’s focus on failure is wonderfully ironic given her own recent successes. As she was graduating last spring, she won two coveted honors: RISD’s Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship and a Fountainhead Arts Fellowship from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA. “I was so surprised and honored to receive the awards,” she exclaims. “It feels amazing to be supported by people I deeply respect.” Since August she has been hunkered down in a spacious studio at VCU working on a series inspired by her dirty hairbrush and a bathroom drain clogged with wet hair.

Although she hails from Jacksonville, FL, Oldenburg spent time in South Africa volunteering at the Kayamandi township as she was completing her undergrad degree in Painting and Sculpture at Cornell. “When I visited South Africa my perspective changed,” she explains. “I had been both supremely privileged and supremely unaware, but during my time there I learned so much and felt so humbled—especially by the incredible potential of humanity. I’m sure my experience in South Africa influenced my work on both conscious and subconscious levels.”

Oldenburg eventually moved to New York after graduation, where she initially worked as an executive assistant at a financial office and then moved on to waitress at Peels and Jean George’s ABC Kitchen. “New York is a crazy place,” she says. “The city never sleeps and the people don’t seem to either—at least not very much. No matter how hard you work, there are people working harder, and no matter how bad your living situation is, there are people with a much worse situation. But no one really cares, unless you make them care.”

For three years, Oldenburg repeatedly sent in applications to graduate school—and finally got wait-listed at RISD. “I called the Painting office multiple times a week,” she says. “I would continually reintroduce myself and ask if they had decided to let me in to the MFA program.” Once her persistence finally paid off and she got to campus, she immediately connected with Painting faculty members Dennis Congdon, Angela Dufresne, David Frazer, Craig Taylor, Kevin Zucker and several others, whom she describes as the “absolute best professors” she has ever had. “It’s such a luxury to receive critical feedback from world-class artists,” she notes.

As a Fountainhead fellow through next May, Oldenburg hopes to refine some of the many ideas that surfaced while she was at RISD, while developing new ones along the way. She’s also teaching at VCU as part of the fellowship, giving a lecture about her work and sharing her 2D and 3D observations of life at a spring exhibition.

“When I was younger,” Oldenburg says, “I had incredibly high expectations for myself, so I thought that I failed at absolutely everything. But I’d always give it another shot and learned that failure drastically increases one’s capacity to learn. So now—in my work and in my life—I’m much more comfortable with the idea of failure.”

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