The first animal that Irene Hardwicke Olivieri incorporated in her work was a walking stick, found when she was an undergrad in Texas. “They’re pretty amazing,” she says. “They have a record copulating time among insects of 72 hours, and they’re capable of parthenogenesis.” She kept it in a terrarium for a while, reading everything she could about the species, and when it died she put it in an artwork, under glass with a text about walking sticks painted on it. Then she started to raise praying mantises. “I wanted to see if the female really eats the male.” (It does.)

Now she regularly interweaves images of humans, animals, and plants in paintings that also include obsessively detailed texts. In Valentine for a Cougar–one of 12 paintings at Carl Hammer, most of them on found wood–she’s the valentine, resting peacefully, nude, in the belly of one of these creatures. When she moved to the Oregon high desert two years ago, she started noticing cougar tracks. “I measured every little paw pad, and found this area where they scratch on trees and another where they pee, marking their territory.” She’s read a helpful book called Don’t Get Eaten and has no intention of being killed, but she says she’d “rather die getting taken down by a cougar than in a hospital surrounded by doctors. If I’m still alive when I’m 100, I’m going to do a lot of hiking in cougar country.”

Though Olivieri has undergraduate and graduate art degrees, her work resembles that of certain outsider artists: her forms are appealingly eccentric, and her designs often labyrinthine. Living in New York for eight years starting with grad school, she realized how distant she felt from the art world. Though she loves Duchamp, Indian and Persian miniatures, and pre-Columbian works, she favors pieces that come from the heart, citing the homemade grave markings she saw in Mexico when she visited there while growing up in south Texas. “One was a little tin can with two doors cut into it and inside a picture of the person who died, along with a lock of his hair.” Her own works are talismanic too. She wants the viewer to read the words in them and share her passions, but her texts are also selfish, she says. “Taking the time to paint each letter of every word is a way of learning. I like the idea of art serving a purpose. Once I did a huge drawing of a guy I had a crush on, a life-sized vision of him adorned with stories about courtship among my favorite insects. I had the idea that when I finished it, he would like me.” By contrast what she saw in New York galleries seemed pretty cold. Once the owner of a gallery that had shown her work visited her apartment studio and exclaimed at the absence of art magazines. What Olivieri had sitting out instead was “a little magazine I love, Bat Research News.” This gallerist later told her that nobody wants to read text in paintings: “She looked at a huge painting of a grasshopper with tons of words and said, ‘If you do ten paintings of this in different colors and leave out the words, I’ll give you a one-person show.'” Olivieri refused, breaking down in tears outside the gallery.

Olivieri, who lives off the grid in a cabin with her husband, keeps colonies of insects, including dermestid beetles she feeds animal carcasses. After they’ve cleaned the skulls, she adds them to her collection. She and her husband also share their home with a family of pack rats. They’re like little folk artists, she says, “always out looking for something to bring back to their nests.” She once found one of her favorite paintbrushes riddled with teeth marks on a path outside. In Neotoma Cinerea she depicts herself as half pack rat, surrounded by paints, brushes, sketchbooks, animals, and books. Growing Legs shows a nude woman whose green legs are sprouting trees. Olivieri says, “I thought it would be wonderful if you could have a landscape growing from your legs.” She says she feels sad for people who live far from nature, who “aren’t growing caterpillars at home.”

Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Where: Carl Hammer, 740 N. Wells

When: July 9

Info: 312-266-8512