Alison OK Frost Paints Harsh Subjects as Gentle Watercolors

The Oakland artist catches viewers by surprise with her juxtaposition of media and subject matter.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

An intriguing juxtaposition is at work in the paintings of Oakland artist Alison OK Frost. With an exquisite handling of watercolor on paper striking an unexpected contrast with dystopian subject matter, viewers are lured by color and technique while being drawn into the depth of her message. Onlookers are more often used to seeing gentle landscapes and portraits in this medium, so it can catch viewers by surprise.

Men in hazmat suits, cars piled up or submerged in water, and fallen birds serve as her urban landscapes; faces covered with protective masks, homeless encampments, and distressed searchers reveal portraits of displaced people in need of succor. Her cautionary images strike a chord in the wake of recent California fires, smoky air and disaster zones, painted well before one experienced them so close to home. “I am inspired by the news and current events, drawn to the difficult images that become the white noise that people experience each day and tune out in order to function,” Frost said.

Frost grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. As a teenager with big feelings about the chaos and uncertainty she saw around her, she turned to art as a way for her to meditate on both the beauty and the devastating ugliness of the world. Frost earned her BFA at UCLA in 2000 then completed her MFA in 2004 at the School of the Visual Arts in New York. In 2006, not able to imagine another winter in New York, she moved to the Bay Area and fell in love with Oakland and its thriving art community. She counts among her influences artists Miriam Klein Stahl, Alice Neel, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Lynette Yiandom-Boakye, and Cindy Sherman.

photo by lance yamamoto

Oakland artist Alison OK Frost uses the gentle medium of water color to paint stark and sometimes unsettling imagery that often touches on dystopian subjects.

In her home studio or at her shared space at The Compound, which are both in Oakland, Frost searches online or culls hundreds of her own photos for images. Once a subject is chosen, she creates color swatches to nail down her palette. “Watercolor is an unforgiving medium, so I tend to do a lot of experimentation before committing,” she said. She lightly sketches her subject on paper before applying paint, which she mixes as she works rather than creating batches ahead of time. “This allows for more pooling and separating of pigment, which creates work that looks realistic from a distance but abstract up close,” she said.

Most recently, she has focused her eye on the tent encampments around Oakland and the Bay Area. “I love the ingenuity, hope, and pride often expressed in the way tents are constructed and decorated, and I also want to raise visibility for the harsh reality of living this way,” Frost said. By visiting homeless encampments around Oakland, talking to residents and asking their permission to take pictures, she finds her source material for a new series of paintings. She is also working on an installation and video piece with Oakland/LA artist Randy Colosky on the same subject matter.

Though her imagery can be unsettling, Frost hopes viewers see the humanity in a polarizing subject, even if previously seen only as distinctly good or bad. “In every political situation, no matter how much we try to deny it, there are people on both sides trying their best. It is almost heartbreaking to acknowledge this sometimes, but I feel like having our hearts broken for a few minutes in a gallery can be a good exercise in compassion. I hope that people will resist the urge to look away from difficult subject matter,” she added.

Frost is a mother and an engaged member of her community. “I try to remember my responsibility as a community member, both in the creation of my artwork and in terms of my civic duties as I define them,” she said. She teaches art at Saint Mary’s College High School in Berkeley and through continuing education at City College of San Francisco. Frost shows her work mostly in California and New York and recently exhibited at Minnesota Street Projects in San Francisco. She will have a solo show at Fourth Wall Gallery in Oakland in spring or summer. For more information, view her website at AlisonOKFrost.com.

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