Beauty cannot be defined as one particular thing. What one person may deem beautiful, another person may feel is only worth a passing glance. But one of the most important things I’ve come to realize about beauty is that it’s all in how we view the things around us. An old, dilapidated barn in a field may be an eyesore at first glance, but what if you look past that first impression? What if you thought about its history, about who used it before it became run-down — about its story from the very beginning?
“I have found that there is value in placing an emphasis on everyday scenery,” says Chris Otten, a local photographer and art and photography instructor at Yakima Valley College. “Although some people prefer an escape from reality, perhaps some viewers will relate more with the straightforward way of looking at the world. I try composing my images in a way that something is gained when observing them.” If you look at one of Chris’ images, you’ll see what he is referring to — the value he captures in the environments that we see on a daily basis “My work deals with history and place,” says Chris. “Our connection to place cultivates us whether we are aware of it or not. I feel that there is something worth saying about the curious nature of the mundane.”
But to truly understand Chris and his work, it’s important that we start at the beginning. Chris was born and raised in Altus, Oklahoma, where most of his family still resides. After high school, he went to the University of Central Oklahoma with aspirations of becoming a nurse. That is, until the end of his first year at college. His best friend, Shannon, was a photography major, and in their free time, they would go skateboarding and on road trips, creating images on every adventure. Chris soon fell in love with photography and found that it was the perfect outlet for him as an artist. He changed his major to Fine Art/Photographic Art, and from that point on, he spent nights, weekends, and pretty much any other free time he had creating imagery. Chris had found his passion, his calling in life, and he wasn’t about to give it up.
During his last semester as an undergrad, Chris was encouraged to get his master’s degree because he had been showing an interest in teaching. He was accepted into the graduate program at the University of South Florida in Tampa where he went on to receive his Masters of Fine Arts with a concentration in Studio Art.
For the next six years, Chris took adjunct positions at several colleges in Florida until 2016, when he began applying for full-time teaching positions. Then, in 2017 he was offered an art and photography instructor position at Yakima Valley College, and you guessed it, he took it. After moving here, he quickly realized that Yakima was a good change of pace from Florida and the culture here is very similar to where he grew up in Oklahoma, which makes him feel even more at home. Yakima has also brought him his girlfriend, who is an artist as well.
And now it’s 2019 and Chris really has it all — the career, the girl and an opportunity to focus more on the passion that he loves so much, which is exactly what he intends to do. His goal as a teacher is to keep helping his students find their own voices, and help them find the courage to express their voices in their work. And his goals as an artist? He plans on continuing to create images and wants to focus on exhibiting his art on a more regular basis. In fact, he plans on having a full set of physical pieces to show at a gallery by the end of 2019.
A few fun facts about Chris Otten
When he’s not teaching or shooting photos, he’s heading out on road trips with his lady, watching any film by the Coen Brothers and chilling with his two cats, Grr and Moe.
The inspiration for many of Chris’ pieces comes from his interest in the history and plight of Native Americans. Being part Apache/Comanche himself, he spent some time delving into his family history, watching spaghetti westerns and researching recorded historical evidence so that he could reinterpret history from his own point of view. He is currently working on a series called Still Life, based on the re-exploration of cowboys, Native Americans and life in the Old West, with photos of items that he found at the Goodwill and while antique shopping — including toy cowboys, Indians, and dinosaurs. He says “Anything humorous is fair game.” All of these items are shot in a studio environment, on a black backdrop with a digital camera.
His Home series, on the other hand, documents what is left behind. It relates to how people shape their living environments and explores the places caught between the past and an uncertain future. Chris captured these images in Southwest Oklahoma and Northwest Texas over a period of weeks and shot them with a 4 x 5 view camera.
Chris’ work makes us think. Sometimes we only look at the surface because it takes more effort to look deeper, but if we take the time to ask questions, to learn about the past, to make our own decisions and come to our own conclusions, maybe, just maybe our views of beauty will change. Maybe we will start seeing beauty where we never did before.
To see more of Chris’ art, check out his website at chrisottenphoto.net/ or stop by Artebella Gallery in Yakima to see his pieces up close. Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 1111 West Spruce Street, Suite 33