Student Spotlight: BFA painting student explores themes of ‘play’ in upcoming exhibit

University of Iowa painting student Olivia Brunning created their BFA exhibition Hook, Line, and Sinker with the theme of “play,” and how playing as an adult is often frowned upon.


Isabella Cervantes

Olivia Brunning poses for a portrait in front of their artwork in the Visual Arts Building at the University of Iowa on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. Brunning has a BFA exhibit in the Visual Arts Building called “Hook, Line, Sinker.”

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Olivia Brunning’s childhood was filled with sketchbooks and canvases ever since they could hold a paintbrush — fittingly, they are now in their last semester as a painting major at the University of Iowa.

As a finale to their artistic career at the UI, Brunning’s BFA Exhibition, titled Hook, Line, and Sinker, is on display from Feb. 7-11 in the Visual Arts Building — and took over half a year to put together.

Brunning has worked on the exhibition since last May, taking inspiration for the collection from early 2000s and late 90s video games, and music like Riot Girl.

“A lot of studio practice is spent just absorbing content in a thoughtful way,” Brunning said. “So that’s considered the research side of making art, which can sound kind of silly, but a lot of time is spent just listening to music, writing, reading, and looking at art.”

The main theme of the Hook, Line, and Sinker is the idea of “play” — an activity usually reserved for children — and how playing as an adult is often looked down upon. Brunning also wants to explore how play can be used as a rebellion against oppressive forces and what is traditionally accepted as “adulthood.”

From Northbrook, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, Brunning spends much of their time driving back and forth between home and Iowa City. Time in the car is meaningful to them, however, as being able to drive and listen to music contributes greatly to their artistic thought process.

Brunning said the other half of their artistic process happens within their studio space inside the Visual Arts Building, which they share with several other painting majors.

“When you’re alone for hours creating things, people just see the end product, and it’s very surface level what they’re seeing. But, there’s so many layers and action, addition and subtraction, that happens when you’re creating,” Brunning said.

Though they noted that picking out a favorite is extremely difficult, Brunning champions an acrylic painting of an old computer from the collection.

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“I have different pieces that are my favorites for different reasons, but it’s my favorite right now,” Brunning said. “I have favorites because I feel like, ‘Oh, this is a really strong piece and I can’t wait to show this to people, it will be well received.’ Then I have favorites that are like, – ‘This is kind of silly, I don’t even know how to show this.’”

They also find titles to be tricky. The “old computer piece” is currently untitled, as are many of their creations. Brunning said they are not afraid of having pieces remain untitled — titles are something that sometimes come to them while working.

The title of their exhibition, Hook, Line, and Sinker, refers to being deceived or tricked. To Brunning, painting is an act of creating illusions.

Art wasn’t Brunning’s first choice as a career. However, after coming to the UI and taking a shot at some other subjects, like math and political science, they said they instantly decided that those were not for them.

“What was really affirming is the type of community you have when you are an art student, many other students don’t experience this,” Brunning said. “When you’re studying art, you have more of a personal and emotional connection with your peers, professors, and mentors — they’re invested in you as a person.”

Brunning has a multitude of other hobbies, including gaming, reading, and writing. They said their favorite pastime, besides painting, is thinking. As someone who feels like they’ve been in their head their whole life, Brunning said art is their way of getting their thoughts out into the world.

After they graduate in May, they hope to move to downtown Chicago and just see what they can do — whether that be having a part time job and creating or seeing if they can sell their work.

Brunning said they are not a huge planner, but they believe that “whatever happens is going to happen,” and that they will figure everything out in the end.

Eventually, they hope to go to graduate school to become a professor and teach, but not immediately after graduation.

“I don’t feel able to portray myself through words or actions, but through painting — it’s sort of a language for me to show people what I’m thinking, what inspires me about the world,” Brunning said.