Saturday, April 2, 2011

Featured Artist: Lisa Olson


Please take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers that might not be familiar with you and your work, thank you.

Featured Artist: Lisa Olson

Hello, my name is Lisa Olson. I was born in 1957 and grew up in suburban Detroit and in the countryside outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I graduated with a B.S. in Microbiology in 1979 and worked for a number of years as a laboratory research assistant. During and after college, I patched together an art education by taking classes at various universities, community centers and museum schools. In 1993, I applied to graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design with certain skills and deficiencies. I knew how to draw, I had confidence with aesthetic decisions, I was a good craftsperson but I still felt like an art outsider. I was clueless about how to understand what I was doing in a broad artistic or cultural context. In graduate school, I was lucky to find faculty who helped me learn to think analytically without denying my intuitive inclinations. I graduated with a MFA in Mixed Media in 1995.

During graduate school, I discovered my love of using juxtaposition to create meaning and I worked primarily in installation format, creating mixed media objects, often referencing domestic imagery that I grouped and arranged spatially.

Lisa Olson, Moon . . .Cherry . . . Pitcher . . .Lamb,
area shown approximately 3’ x 3’ x 3',
mixed materials, 1998.

This image is typical of the work I made at that time--- papered gallery walls, objects made of wood and fiber or metal arranged to form relationships between gallery wall and the floor in front of it.

Lisa Olson, Studies in Text and Imagery, each book approximately 3 ½” x 5”, mixed paper and letterpress, 2010. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

In art school, I also found that I had an interest in integrating text with form and image and that led me to subsequent work in book arts for a number of years.

I now live in Belmont, Massachusetts with a studio space in my home that includes facilities for letterpress and other printmaking processes.

When and how did you get interested in art making?

My childhood experiences with art were limited--my father was an immigrant and both of my parents were first generation college graduates. For those reasons, education and a traditional career were emphasized. When I think about my public school art education, I primarily remember cutting and gluing pre-printed construction paper shapes into seasonal decorations. But I grew up loving to make things and was surrounded by a make-it-yourself home environment. My mother was clever and fearless about sewing things for the house. I remember watching her tear upholstery off a couch, use the pieces as patterns to cut new fabric and put it all back together, learning as she went along. Her craft and resourcefulness impressed me. One of my grandfathers was a brick layer and the other a carpenter. My father held an office job, but had a woodworking shop in the basement. I would make anything I could out of whatever materials I could find—bracelets out of telephone wire, baskets out of long grasses from the yard.

Currently, what type of job(s) do you do besides making art? Do you teach, write and/or curate art exhibits?

I currently spend most of my time in my studio. However, when I finished graduate school I immediately began to teach as an adjunct professor and had planned to continue doing so until family obligations and a couple of moves cross country for my husband’s job stalled me a bit. I still do small amounts of teaching in different sorts of environments—I am a regular volunteer at the Art Initiative Program at Rosie’s Place in Boston and sometimes teach workshops which are often book arts related.

Lisa Olson, Mysterious Numbers, 18" x 23 1/2", Letterpress and collage, 2008
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

In June, I will be going to San Diego to teach a workshop exploring the different ways that text and image can create meaning when placed together. Although I enjoy the quantity of time that I am currently able to spend in my studio, I do miss working with college students and the energy of an academic environment, perhaps I will send out resumes again soon.

Please tell us a bit about your work in general. What media do you work in? What are the inspirations behind the creation of your work, and what is the specific message you would like to convey to your viewers?

Lisa Olson, Broken Branch/Empty Pail, 20” x 30”, mixed paper collage, 2010.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Today my work takes a variety of forms---books, prints, collage, drawing and an occasional object/sculpture. I think of it as an equal combination of craft, content and aesthetics and I need all three to be satisfied. I still work with juxtaposition to create meaning using imagery, different forms of text and objects in combination.

Lisa Olson, Day (in October), 8 panels, each 11” x 15”, letterpress and collage, 2008.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, Detail from Day (in October), 11” x 15”, letterpress and collage, 2008.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

In addition, my background in installation still surfaces when hanging a show, placement in space and framing choices are of great significance and well considered. I believe these decisions to be important ways to add or support content. For example, an unframed collage may read as simplified, vulnerable, quiet. The same collage could be framed with a simple wooden frame that might reference the framing used for diagrams or charts or it might be placed in an ornate frame and be understood within the context of a precious fine art object. I strongly believe that every formal decision made in the creation or display of an artwork becomes part of its content.

Lisa Olson, Yankee Pasha, 23.5” x 50”, wallpaper collage and letterpress, 2009.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

I love history and like to work with projects based on history or a somewhat related melancholy sense of lost time. I also work with themes of human fragility and the ways in which we understand the world. The mystery and magic of childhood perceptions and an interest in systems of organization (science, mathematics) also tend to surface repeatedly.

Lisa Olson, Botany Lessons: LOCI, 10 ¼” x 6 ½” x ¾”, letterpress and inkjet, 2008-2009.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, Detail from Botany Lessons: LOCI, 10 ¼” x 6 ½” x ¾”, letterpress and inkjet, 2008-2009. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

So, those are rather abstract answers to the questions asked but hopefully the images shown here can fill in some of the blanks.

Would you like to you discuss a bit your creative process with our readers?

Lisa working in her studio.

Yes, I think a lot about creative process and over the years have come to a clear understanding of how I work best in the studio. When I’m working on a body of work to be shown together, I often start with a theme and read extensively about it in as many disparate sources as I can find. For New Bestiary, an installation that I created for Gallery II at Bromfield Gallery in 2010 about our psychological relationships with the animals around us, I read medieval bestiaries, fairy tales, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and both contemporary and historical natural history manuals.

Lisa Olson, Installation detail from New Bestiary, intaglio, letterpress and graphite, 2009-2010. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

This type of research can supply me with details to work from, but it also immerses me in the project in a less direct and more magical way, it puts me inside the theme so that I can reach out in different directions, finding tangents and intersections that add interest to the project.

Lisa Olson, Installation detail from New Bestiary: When all you ask is something simple, each 13 ½”” x 18”, graphite drawings, 2009. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, New Bestiary: When all you ask is something simple, 13 ½” x 18”, graphite drawings, 2009. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, Installation detail from New Bestiary: Of the Skin, frames range from 14” x 20” to 18” x 23”, letterpress and vellum, 2010. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, New Bestiary: Of the Skin, 14” x 20”, letterpress and vellum, 2010.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

As I mentioned, I often use text. The following excerpt is a text that I wrote for New Bestiary. My writing takes whatever form seems appropriate for the project—this passage is a woven mesh of fairy tale-like imagery, addressing frailness and strategies for survival. It was letterpress printed and hung with a group of similar texts and complementary visual imagery so that it could work as an individual thought but also as a part of a whole.

“Furry creature,” they said, “come along and sleep here.” But listen — can you still remember when all of the branches reached upward? when every sound had its meaning? the fox asks the hard question —­­­­ would you take up an ax and use it against me if I asked for the favor? would you take up a knife and cut your own finger? every animal in the forest must give up a square of his fur every animal must teach one another to build or to borrow or fly play dead dive into the water hang by your teeth — but sharpen your claws.

Lisa Olson, New Bestiary, 15” x 11” x 2”, letterpress and vellum, 2010.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, New Bestiary, closed book 15” x 11” x 2”, letterpress and vellum, 2010.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, New Bestiary, closed book 15” x 11” x 2”, letterpress and vellum, 2010. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, Installation detail from New Bestiary: Of the Fur, each 10” x 12 ½”, intaglio, 2009. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

That is my working process for big topics, but day to day in my studio, I am a strong believer in intuition as the best guide. I know that if I try to make something that I can imagine beforehand with rational pre-planning, it will be something that will bore me before I can even get it made. But one needs to begin somewhere and those rational beginnings do get me started, even though they lead to a lot of false directions and rejection. However, abandoned projects are not wasted time or energy, they need to be done so that I can get past them and move forward.

Lisa working in her studio.

Anyone who considers the psychology of creativity is familiar with the idea that an open mind and serendipity are significant and I see this principle in practice over and over again as I work---just the act if keeping busy often leads to unforeseen discoveries.

Lisa Olson, John First, 11” x 15”, mixed paper collage, 2010.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Lisa Olson, Skinbound Proposal, 18 panels, each 5 ½” x 7 ¾”, paper, vellum and letterpress, 2010. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Are you currently showing your work or planning any exhibitions of your work in the near future? If yes, where and when, what's title of the show, what can the viewers expect to see in this exhibit.

I am not currently showing but I do have three solo shows scheduled in the next year or so.

In August, I will be recreating New Bestiary at the Word and Image Gallery at Bright Hill Press in Treadwell, New York. This gallery space is twice the size of the space the work was created for, so I am currently making a series of collage and written broadsides to add to the existing body of work. I’m thrilled to be showing at Bright Hill because it is a literary establishment and as the gallery’s name implies, the focus is on the integration of text and visual image. I know that sometimes when showing in a typical art gallery, my text can get passed over because viewers come into the space primarily expecting a visual experience.

I also have two solo shows scheduled at Bromfield Gallery in 2012. The first will be on display for the month of January and is a group of 30 screen prints that I have paired with ephemera--they are a form of mapping, and could be considered a visual diary of last summer’s nightly walks. The work is different from anything I have shown before and is still a little inaccessible to me conceptually. I know that working towards the show by making decisions on how to display the pieces, deciding on a title, and writing a statement will help me pull things together. I try to consider each opportunity to put new work into a gallery as an experiment and learning experience. Sometimes the work holds up and I consider it good and finished, other times I see problems and can modify or reject.

The second show will be in May and has the working title of The Children’s Home. It will be a collection of sculptural objects, imagery and text displayed in installation format exploring the psychology of a child placed in an orphanage in the early 1900’s. My interest is based on my grandmother’s experience and although I have done extensive reading, the work is just beginning to be made.

Representing gallery if any? Would you like to share your contact info with our readers? Do you have website(s) for interested readers to learn more about your work?

I have been a member of Bromfield Gallery in Boston’s SOWA district since 2008. My website is located at My email address is and I welcome questions or comments.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

Lisa Olson, Story in Red, 22” x 15”, mixed paper collage, 2010.
Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography

Yes—one thought that is always on my mind is how a viewer responds to my work. Although my imagery is not always abstract, I do know that viewers sometimes find it obscure or difficult to understand, and that is certainly not my intention. When that happens, I think it may be because someone is looking for direct meaning and what I attempt to give is more poetry than narrative--impressions, moods, subtly or quiet beginnings of thoughts. I struggle with this because I’m always concerned that contemporary art is sometimes perceived as intimidating and elitist and I’d love for my work to be welcoming. I do find it a difficult balance to make work that has the mystery and incompleteness that I consider part of my content, but that also is tangible to a wide audience.

Lisa Olson, From the Book of Curious Panics, each panel 11" x 22”, mixed paper collage, 2010. Photo: Clements Howcroft Photography