Treasures from the Vault: Katja Oxman

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Katja Oxman’s work shows us that a self-portrait doesn’t need to contain an actual representation of a face. While creating a self-portrait without portraying an actual visage may seem contradictory, the term can be quite versatile. Katja’s work is ethereal and thoughtful, often featuring plants, postcards, and intricate boxes laid out on scarves and rugs. Within her microcosms of tchotchkes Katja creates more than just a still life. She presents instead an intimate self-portrait of herself via her treasured items. Before we delve into Held Slanting in the Sky, our treasure for today, let’s talk first about Katja’s unstable formative years, which set the stage for her artistic career.

Katja’s life started off turbulent. Her father, Mischa Protassowsky, was a White Russian, a member of the opposing political party to the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. After the Bolsheviks gained power, he fled to Germany and there eventually met and married Katja’s mother, Gretl. Their marriage soon caused trouble with the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s, however, as a result of marrying a Russian Gretl lost her German citizenship. When Katja was born in 1942, Germany was in the midst of World War II and her family’s state was continuously uncertain. Part of this stemmed from her parent’s “illegal” marriage, resulting in Katja being stateless. Their insecurity continued into the next decade as Germany and the Protassowsky family wrestled with the aftermath of the war and the division of Germany into the East and West. Katja and her family finally found stability when they emigrated to the United States in 1952, settling in Philadelphia. Katja’s parents instilled a love of classical music, literature, and poetry in her and her younger sister Tanja, and these early influences left lasting impressions on Katja.

She began her education at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and was attracted to printmaking early in her studies. After completing her studies at the Academy, Katja traveled to Munich and spent a year at Die Akademie der bildenden Kunst, followed by graduate studies at the Royal College in London. It was during her graduate work that Katja discovered etching and aquatint, printmaking techniques that naturally lend themselves to her attention to detail and esthetic imagery.

Held Slanting in the Sky is a prime example of Katja’s stark yet intimate still lifes. To start with we’ll simply look at what the print portrays. We see feathers arranged around a small pocketwatch and what could be a bookmark or postcard containing calligraphy. Above this we have three different postcards, a small red dish containing a feather, a locked red box with a bird’s nest resting atop it, and an orchid all arranged on an ornate setting inlaid with sumptuous geometric designs and birds. When we look back over this description it seems like the print should be crowded, but it’s not. Everything has a place and is deliberately arranged within the composition. Held Slanting in the Sky captures a world that is tranquil and peaceful – quite unlike the beginning of Katja’s life.

In this indoor scene, we see a table with a small tablecloth on it. Over top the tablecloth are layered postcards, a jewelry box, and a birds nest. Next to it is a potted plant and a feather laying in a dish. Outside the window, we can see plants and a blue sky.
Katja Oxman, German American, b. 1942. Held Slanting in the Sky. Aquatint, 2015. Gift of the Artist, 2016.183. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

We can see the influence of travel and importance of identity in Katja’s work. While this assortment of objects may appear at first random and odd, they all serve a purpose and give us a glimpse into Katja’s world. The personal status of these objects gives Slanting in the Sky the status of a self-portrait. This work provides a deeply personal window of insight into Katja and her life experiences. Throughout her travels as a student and artist Katja assembled a vast collection of boxes, postcards of famous artworks, souvenirs, and plants, and her work allows us to experience them with her. Everything we see is a piece of Katja, and has helped shape her as an artist and woman. Her postcards represent everywhere she’s traveled and the museums she visited, the feathers and clock recall the fleetingness of time and life itself, and the boxes and containers represent the secrets each individual holds. When you think about it, what do we keep in boxes? Physically, we store our most precious belongings, and mentally, we box up our innermost thoughts and feelings. At times Katja portrays an open box, others are closed. When they are closed, their contents are left for us to imagine.

The title adds another element of observation and intimacy. Taken from the Emily Dickinson poem of the same name, Slanting in the Sky shows us objects that, like in the poem, appear as if they’ll never move. This element of stillness is present in almost all of Katja’s prints. It’s as if this world that she has created for us will never change and will forever remain perfect. In this stillness Katja has created room for viewers to not only take in what she’s captured in ink, but also to look inward at themselves. How do the knickknacks and objects in your home, arranged on your tables and shelves, represent you?

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