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A life of her own
Art professor uses alternate persona to express herself
Behind heavy-framed glasses, a worn cotton baseball cap and a fly-fishing vest, art professor Carol Hodson transforms into Dr. Olive B. Luewing — Hodson’s alternate personality.
“I’d played with the idea of using an alternative personality as a vehicle to design one’s best self,” Hodson said.
Olive is a character Hodson created last spring as a way to explore and experience a new phase of Hodson’s life, which she felt didn’t fit her professional persona. Hodson, who was hired at Webster University for her performance art experience, uses Olive as a way to incorporate the shift in skills and concepts she has gone through in her 21 years as a professor at Webster. When Hodson became interested in fly fishing, botanical drawings and the natural world, she wasn’t sure how those hobbies would fit with her career; creating Olive allowed her to move on without complicating her past work.
Olive is a fictional scientist and artist who has written several books, presented motivational speeches and created the activist group Scientists Against Nature Deficit Disorder (SANDD).
Olive exists mostly in the virtual world, through her blog and Facebook page, posting works of art and videos, mostly centered around nature. As Olive, Hodson can learn new skills like fly fishing and create pieces of art that don’t fit with her normal work.
“(I thought) How can I do absolutely anything I want to and not worry about it being too pretty?” Hodson said. “Under a persona, which is (of itself) cutting edge, I could do photos, videos, drawing and writing. Olive allows me to put it all in one umbrella.”
Hodson does not refer to Olive as a different part of herself, but instead sees her as a unique entity.
“I do find that I speak in second person about (Olive) as a separate person,” Hodson said. “She is a character, like from a book.”
Olive and Hodson both gave a presentation to approximately 400 Webster faculty and staff at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (MoBot) at the beginning of this academic year detailing the ways in which an alternative personality can liberate and educate a person. Hodson gave the presentation live, and showed a previously recorded interview she did with Olive, near a zen garden at MoBot. The presentation featured several famous examples of alternative personalities, from Mark Twain to Lady Gaga, encouraging teachers to incorporate personality exploration into their curriculum.
In the interview, Hodson asks Olive the meaning of her existence and the role she plays as an alternative personality. Olive said she exists to give Hodson’s sense of play free reign, and permission to explore new territories without having to be an expert. Olive goes on to say that she is an exaggeration of Hodson’s own personal interests, whose creation takes several interests and puts them in a single context, which allows her hobbies to come back into the art world.
“Even as an artist you can limit yourself,” Olive said. “For instance, very few people know that you can draw beautifully, Carol. It’s as if those drawings aren’t good enough, not cutting edge. But if you attribute those drawings to me, I can sign them and they can be public.”
As an example of this, Hodson has incorporated alter egos into some of her classes. Last semester, she had her creative strategies class create a, “permission self,” and this semester her performance art class has worked on, “best self plus 10,” personalities.
“Each time, I’m trying to tweak my approach,” Hodson said. “For permission self, I ask students (to) consider what they feel they need permission for and then become that person. The other (asks) what personality traits do you want others to see you as.”
Senior art history major Erin Hennessey took creative strategies with Hodson last spring. Her alternate personality was Rai Starre, an injured figure skater turned roller derby girl from Colorado. Rai represents a permission self, allowing Hennessey to be edgier than she is in her everyday life.
“I feel like roller derby is kind of a subculture,” Hennessey said. “I am pretty mainstream so I was looking for something that was outside of that. I, unfortunately, never had a chance to actually roller derby, though.”
Hodson said her students have many different reactions to the alternative personality project. Some students are delighted and jump right in to creating a character, while others are more resistant.
“(I find that) those who resist are not wanting the responsibility of designing a future self,” Hodson said. “But they usually end up getting the most out of it.”
Hennessey said she was unsure of the project from the beginning, and she questioned if having a separate personality is necessary .to explore lifestyles outside her own.
“It was a challenge,” Hennessey said. “I don’t feel like you should be forced to create an alter ego to expand your horizons or boundaries, because you might be at a point in your life where you don’t need to do that. It was a chance to kind of play with that (idea of breaking boundaries) in a controlled environment, but I’m not sure that was needed.”
For now, Olive is helping Hodson get the most out of nature. Olive is doing so through fly fishing and a project titled “Ancestors of Summer,” a series of drawings inspired by this past summer’s cicadas. The work, when complete, will feature 92 drawings of insects done on joss paper. The gold-leaf imprinted sheets, burned in Buddhist funerals to provide money for those who have passed into the afterlife, represent the 92 days of summer and will be burned according to tradition in a ceremony.
After the project, Olive can be found casting out into a Missouri river for trout or enjoying a beer while tying flies in a little shop on Watson Road. This, of course, is when she’s not busy writing a new book or tracking a new insect species. As for Hodson, she’ll continue teaching at Webster and pursuing new areas of expertise.
“It’s another way for me to learn a new area of study, when in my career now that’s not really possible,” Hodson said.