Interview with Rafal Olbinski, Science Fiction Artist and Poetic Surrealist

Art comes alive through poetry in the work of science fiction artist and surrealist illustrator, Rafal Olbinski.

"Olbinski’s lush images are layered with complex psychology. He does not paint the landscape of scientific reality, but rather maps the interiors of the mind..." 

"His poetic resonance depicts the mind as a theater of dreams, with new attractions around every corner..."

"He wants to show us that our imagination is a magical world, which we are recreating forever. He draws us into a different universe, and forces us to use our eyes to participate in a marvelous world which is the true dimension of dreams."

These are only a portion of the verbal accolades polish illustrator, painter, and educator Rafal Olbinski has received during his career. Featured on the July 1992 cover of the original OMNI magazine, Olbinski has captured the curious, creative minds of OMNI admires for decades. Labeled the "Prince of Surrealism" from his peers, Olbinski's art features fiery vivacity, tangible allusions, whimsical lyricism, and a surreal language only his subjects know the secrets to.

Each creation invites the conception of a story that not only breathes, but has the possibility to exist in our own world. Olbinski's prowess as a storyteller inspires generations to break barriers between mediums. His work is a constant infusion of the past with the present and even the future, never ceasing to intrigue us all. In an exclusive interview with OMNI, Rafal Olbinski discusses his passions, his never-ending drive for creativity, and the successful career that is not only behind him, but ahead; for he is a man who exquisitely blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.

Copyright Rafal Olbinski

OMNI: How would you define the term “science fiction”? How has it transcended the world of fiction into the world of art?

Rafal OlbinskiBy definition science fiction is a vision of the future or some parallel universe predicated on somewhat probable grounding in science-based facts and technology. For me as an artist, the aspect of technology is of secondary importance.

The fiction itself, however, is like a road map or a compass for both scientists and artists alike, leading to a landscape where a two-way transcendence may occur. In any case, progress–– however loosely defined–– is a progeny of dreams. 

What first lead you to a passion and a career in art & architecture?

At a young age, your knowledge of life is naturally limited; you simply don't have enough experience to make the right choices pertaining to your future. Such void can be filled by a role-model. 

When I was twelve, I saw the movie Fountainhead with Gary Cooper playing the role of an idealistic architect. Good looking, talented, righteous –– all the right ingredients for that sparkle of imagination to ignite a young boy's dream.

As a result, years later, I became an architect; subsequently, the transition from edifice to canvas proved very smooth indeed and not at all unique. Many had crossed that fine line before me, most notable examples being Michelangelo, Le Corbusier, the list is long.

Incidentally, a few years ago in New York, I met the daughter of Gary Cooper. Naturally, I told her all about her father being my childhood hero. She was quite pleased to hear that–– though she admitted her memories of her father were scant as he'd been frequently absent... not much of a role-model in her eyes. Gossip is an art as well, you know.

What possibilities do different mediums (painting, theatre, books) hold for the artist?

The artist and his creative mind are more important than the medium through which he chooses to express himself. The emotional power of a painting, poem or a piece of music depends solely on the quality of the artist's imagination–– the essence of art. Medium is a mere vessel through which that essence flows.

However, having said that, I'd be hard pressed trying to come up with name for a science fiction jazz quartet.

Looking back on your career, what pieces have stuck with you in your mind?

There are a few images that could be considered as milestones in my career. 

The 1985 poster commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima bombing, with a dove made of dried leafless branches. (Gold award winner at the Society Of Illustrators Annual Show in New York)

"Say no to drugs" poster, as a part of campaign promoted by the first lady Nancy Reagan, voted "The most memorable poster of the year" by Unesco in 1994 in Paris.

Another notable one would be the "Salome" poster for Philadelphia Opera Company from the year 2000.

You can hardly plan for such milestones; they either come to you effortlessly or are a product of painstaking and time consuming labor. The final one, I reckon, will be my tombstone visited by scores of secretive Olbinski Toasters, leaving only the finest pieces of women's lingerie and cases of Prosecco–– Tom Jones eat your heart out! 

If you could choose one piece of art that you have created which could become a reality, which would you choose and why?

Many of my paintings depict women frozen in still life compositions of dreamy, idealistic mindscapes. Wouldn't it be a hoot to see them come alive, fleshed out into the third dimension? Just imagine the countless hours spent helping them find a proper attire (gone missing somewhere between the canvas and the frame).

Your work has been described as “poetic surrealism.” What exactly does that mean to you?

I didn't coin this term myself. Franck Fox in his Washington Post article described my art as poetry in painting. Obviously I found it very flattering.

Poetry is a form of synthesis, an art of finding that one single word capturing the overwhelming complexity of emotions. Same goes for paintings; great painters are great simplifiers. After all, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

What inspires you to create?

Art is the ultimate celebration of creation, that which is all. How can you not be a part of it?

Copyright Rafal Olbinski

Does culture affect art? Being that you are from Poland, have you noticed any differences between different countries’ artist, or is it all based on creativity and chance?

You don't become an artist in no-man's land. However, there is this superficial notion of the local culture one happens to be born into, its traditions, custom, rituals etc. which in turn are nothing but social conditioning–– for better or worse, a mere form of brainwashing. Luckily we can transcend all that and seek out more universal truths and values (incidentally something which art is very good at facilitating).

Personally, I find myself drawing upon the incredible cultural wealth of Hellenistic mythology as it is all about the confrontation between us and our ego, between the individual and society, between dreams and reality. It teaches us that we cannot achieve anything significant without struggle and that life's agony and ecstasy are one.

The Trojan War has never really ended...  

What is it like, as an artist, seeing the transition of art into the media world?

Media is a mere messenger–– or a salesman if you will–– seemingly enhancing the outreach of art. Then again we live in the times where most of us run with mini intergalactic command centers in the palms of our hands, giving us access to all the knowledge and art in the world and yet, by and large, we use them to look at cat pictures.

For art, is the mind a vehicle to translate our dreams into fruition? 

If by dreams you mean our nightly subconscious tune-up, then I have to admit I don't rely on them. I do find them interesting though, and with age they become more and more beautiful, not least for the trivial fact that there I'm always young. 

Do you believe that you have left behind a legacy? Or is it still to be unwritten?

Concept of immortality has been preoccupying humanity from time immemorial. The ego knows its days are numbered, hence the frantic need for some sort of legacy. Meanwhile The Existence does what it does best–– exists, forever and ever, and somehow I choose to think my art is a part of it. Ultimately posterity will be the judge.

What advice do you have for young artists trying to find their voice?

Keep checking your voicemail. Jokes aside, perseverance is the key. Just keep at it, keep at keeping on.

The Mind's Eye: The Art of Omni by Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz

The Mind's Eye: The Art of Omni is the very first publication to celebrate in stunning detail the exceptional science fiction imagery of this era in an oversized format. The Mind's Eye contains 185 images from contributing Omni artists including John Berkey, Chris Moore, H. R. Giger, Rafal Olbinski, Rallé, Tsuneo Sanda, Hajime Sorayama, Robert McCall, and Colin Hay among many more, along with quotes from artists, contributors, writers, and critics.

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Interview with Rafal Olbinski, Science Fiction Artist and Poetic Surrealist
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