September 10, 2007
Sitting under the shade of a nice size tree in the back yard of his friends North Portland home where he keeps his studio, he has spread out paintings of various sizes. He unrolls several large canvases he’s been working on, some painted plywood boards and blocks. The studio space, he mentions that it’s also known as a garden shed, is tight, full of work in progress and energy.
Born and raised Portland, Oregon artist Donald Olsen takes some time to sit down and discuss drawing, destruction as beauty, painting, and what inspires him to create an artistic dialog with society.
Moments of Truth ~ Please describe your primary creative endeavors.
Donald Olsen ~ Probably drawing is definitely my primary, that’s like an everyday thing. Actually, I was thinking today, sometimes I wish I didn’t have to make things, that I didn’t have that pressure, but it’s something just inborn. I go nuts if I can’t express that. So it’s usually drawing. I also like to make music and paintings. I think they are separate, somewhat separate endeavors. And I guess a little bit of writing, although it’s usually not visual.
MOT ~ Which one of those do you think you spend the majority of your time in? Has this changed over time?
DO ~ No, it hasn’t, it’s been drawing for as long as I can remember. I guess when I say drawing I am usually thinking of sitting down with a piece of paper and not having any idea, just letting it come out…
MOT ~ Like free writing?
DO ~ Yea, stream of consciousness.
MOT ~ Do you remember one of the first times you started doing that, how old you were, what you might have first drawn?
DO ~ I definitely can’t remember the first time, but lots of times getting sent to my room (deep chuckle) When I was a kid I used to love to draw surfers, basketball players dunking, and some architecture, like birds eye views slash floor plans of mansions, like my mansion (hahahaha). Some battles, draw the battle lines of each side and then over the top view. And I’d like to play with the G. I. Joe guy’s.
MOT ~ So do you think it worked as escape for you, to live in your imagination and visualize it?
DO ~ Oh yea, definitely an escape. I think paper served as a place to stay while I could brain storm around it. I could kind of like create my own reality, like pornography before I had access.
MOT ~ And music?
DO ~ Music was a later thing, as a kid, I got ruined on piano lessons early on. Mom nagging me on practicing, and I had shelved all of it until I turned 19, listening to music made me start to want to make music at a certain point. So I found myself playing air guitar too much, so I finally bought a guitar. And then learned… I’m left handed and I ended up taking this guitar class in college. At the end of the class the teacher confessed to me that “I could never look at your fingering because it would always mess me up.” So I never really learned the whole reading music or notes, but I got playing cords. And that was enough to have a lot of fun.
More recently, for my brothers wedding, we put together a band. That was a really cool experience that I’d never had before. Probably the most collaborative art making I’ve ever had is working together with people on music. Pretty novice, but I enjoy it a lot. Ya know, three or four basic cords is generally enough to play your average pop song, I kind of dink around and do that. For this band thing though I picked up mandolin. A lot of the people in the band (at this point my cell phone rings and I make a mental note to put that thing on silent) were along those lines of trying new things and new instruments. One of the other guys was a guitar and bass player, Brad, in the band picked up trombone. It was all about trying new things and exploring.
MOT ~ Do you think there are other mediums that you would interest you in the future?… like say sculpture or carving….
DO ~ I’ve done some sculpture and carving, I mean my masters degree was in printmaking and drawing, so I’ve done printmaking too, but unfortunately I don’t have a set up for it now. I guess that’s what I appreciate about drawing is the materials are so basic that you don’t have to … printmaking requires the press, various tools, etc.
And I am writing a book, which is sort of a different medium. I am integrating computer more into what I’m doing lately. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always seen drawing as the foundation, a way I gather and figure out my ideas so those ideas can go in any media or direction after that. I haven’t made very many videos but I don’t count it out as a way to make art.
MOT ~ Where did you grow up? And talk a little bit about that community and if it influenced you in any way.
DO ~ Well, I grew up here in Portland. Which now is like an oddity, every time I tell someone I’m from Portland they’re like “really, you’re like the first one I’ve ever meet.” (Which brings a good laugh to us both) It’s kind of weird, I feel like it’s now this town of ‘out of towners,’ and I don’t know how I feel about that. On one hand, it’s made this town a lot better place, bringing a lot more things to do especially for younger people, but on the other hand there’s a character about Portland that people don’t understand. They don’t understand what it was like before.
I think Portland and the Pacific Northwest has definitely influenced my work, but it’s more about this place then the people. Just being able to get out and see all these different types of areas. The beach has been a place that inspires me, being able to get to the desert or forest easily. Access to really changing your environment easily… I don’t know exactly how that’s influenced me, but I’m sure it has. It’s part of me, so it comes out in my work.
The other thing is this is such a fertile place, it’s like a place that has been creatively fertile since the Native Americans were here. A place, at least to my understanding, that you could fish for a few months and have enough to get through the winter, then have enough time to make art. I think that’s still here to some extent. It’s cheaper to live here, so you can get by on less, and make more time for your own interests. I think the rain can make people pull inside themselves, especially during the winter, and that’s a good thing.
MOT ~ Hibernating…
DO ~ Hibernating, yea, and focusing on your own unique weirdness, what ever your thing is, ya know.
MOT ~ Would you say you had any mentors that helped guide you? Or folks that may have just given you encouragement?
DO ~ There’s been people, … yea, my next door neighbor growing up influenced me, and she wasn’t even really one to even call herself an artist, but she was. She’d make these Christmas cards every year that were insane, insanely processed, just complex. I’ve always been more of an observer than an inter-actor, and just picked up things from people without them even knowing.
Drawing for me has always been a very solitary thing. Also, just other artists that I admire, I usually admire from afar, from books or things like that.
MOT ~ Do you have any particular sources of inspiration?
DO ~ There’s been a couple recently. Most recently I’ve been reading about this area of the ocean between here and Hawaii, where huge amounts of plastic have ended up. Have you heard about this?
MOT ~ Nooo…
DO ~ It’s twice the size of Texas where the currents go in a vortex like whirlpool, and all this stuff ends up there. That’s been really on my mind a lately, as far as how gross that is, and what it must look like. This tangled mess of all this stuff. I think about that as far as my work, and [find it] inspiring.
Another thing that’s been going a little longer then that is an interest in these floods that happened about twelve thousand years ago in this part of the country. There was an inland ocean [near] Montana area, and this massive amount of water flooded through Eastern Washington into Oregon and they think it may have occurred forty times. Like ten times the flow of all the rivers that exist on earth today, crashing through. Basically stealing all the top soil from Eastern Washington and depositing it in Oregon, which is partly why this is such a fertile green place. So, trying to imagine what that looked like, or imagining what the after math of that could have looked like has been inspiring to me.
I think it comes through in some of these pieces. What would a 200 acre forest look like all just in water stranded on the side of the moon or something like that. And that beauty comes from violence over time. Tremendous violence brought about this tremendous beauty. Thinking about those issues… I like to find inspiration in science or environmental things.
I think art is a language and you have to find something to talk about. For me I like to find subjects outside of the art world. Art tends to be such a mirror ball just looking back at ourselves so much and I try to jump out of that.
MOT ~ Man, yea, that’s good. There you go. (I’ve got to work on this thinking thing)
Do you have any specific concepts or symbols that you like to work in? (Didn’t the man just break it down… I’ve also got to work on breaking away from the outline.)
DO ~ Kind of on that flood tip, I’ve had a lot of log jams popping up, or tornados flying around messing everything up. Those have been popping up. What else. . . I always think that’s interesting because I never try to control the symbology. Like, alright, these are the seven symbols I use… I always thought that was restrictive so my symbol library just happens by accident, mostly by looking back at what I’ve done, kind of intuitively. I’d say log jams, and tornados, and thinking about that huge pile of plastic, like a lot of stuff, just tremendous amounts of built up stuff all piled up.
MOT ~ Like natural imagery.
DO ~ Natural, but that’s not really natural.
MOT ~ Well, maybe unnaturally natural. (Both trying to make sense of it)
DO ~ Well, yea it is kind of natural the way things just get stacked up like drift wood on a beach; just how things kind of end up. I feel like I paint that way too. I do control things, but I do want it to have that look that it ended up that way. Which is probably why it’s really hard to finish them. When is the pile of the beach ever finished, it’s continuously changing.
MOT ~ Well, there is that moment when you see it, or take that picture, captured that moment, that’s all, it’ll change again.
Do you think you have specific goals you’re working toward?
DO ~ I do, yea, I do. I’m working on this book. That’s been my main goal recently. I find it hard to have, …with these paintings, it’s been hard to have a goal because the way I work is pretty intuitive. So, umm,
MOT ~ So you’re able to work with out specific goals , just relax. .. Well, the question is more to delve into, like a lot of people in the business world have to have the goal. With out the goal, they have no direction, is there a way that allows you to balance your direction, err?
DO ~ Hmm, balance my direction…? I don’t know. (laughing) I think I’m at a cross roads. I don’t know what my direction is right now.
MOT ~ But you’re definitely working.
DO ~ Yea, I find that I have to work, I have to keep going, but I guess I don’t know where it’s going to go. The motivation is always there so I always keep moving forward.
MOT ~ It’s an internal motivation, you don’t need external end point, you just work from the inside…?
DO ~ I guess with these paintings yea, I just keep going. Now, say having a show scheduled is good. But that’s more about finishing, forcing me to finish. Or decide that this is where I let it stop. Right now I don’t have anything scheduled, so I’m not working in that way. Just kinda keep it none players paint. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.
MOT ~ Do you do any exercises to stay energized or other methods that you may use to prepare your mind and body prior to painting or like, once you feel like you’ve drained your creative energies, is there any thing you go do to recharge?
DO ~ Well, one thing, with this studio, I almost always ride my bike here. I almost always have a few ideas I’ve thought up on the ride, and know once I get here. I find that having that distance and that time between my home and studio is a practice that helps clear out [my mind]. Now I’m leaving real world behind and entering studio world where (just getting excited thinking about it) possibilities are endless. I don’t have to worry about finding a job or doing the dishes. Physical exercise in the form of transportation, I find works for me. I find it hard to just exercise for exercise sake, so I have to trick myself. I like that my home and studio are far from each other so it forces me to do that. Mentally it’s good. Walking, I take walks, I find it helps recharge me too. I always attribute that to our hunter gather-ness from way back in our evolution, that walking around helps us think. I definitely find that I can think better when I’m moving.
MOT ~ Some people, artists, graphic designers – I know you do some graphic design work – bouncing from one element to the other you probably have to take into consideration the audience. How do trigger those elements within you?
DO ~ While I’m painting I’m always considering composition, stepping back and thinking about how somebody might find their way through this painting. I think a lot of my work is about is about how we receive information and how we deal with HUGE amounts of information that we’ve never had to do before. Like right now we have the whole world at our finger-tips, and what do you do at that point. And when you’re faced with a river full of logs, or like, ya know that board at the airport with all those different lines; how does your eye figure out where to go first and decode all that stuff? That’s how I picture the viewer dealing with these paintings, and I want them to have to come back more then once and see different things or not be able to always have the same path through the painting; for them to be able to take different things away from it.
MOT ~ Have you been able to witness the reactions?
DO ~ That’s the hard part. With paintings I’m not always there with them, you can put a comment box, but it’s like whose gonna . . . hahaha. What I’d really love is to video tape someone’s eyeballs and what path they take. But, so no, I haven’t, I think that’s something that’s been triggering this interest in interactive work is to get that feedback. I’m putting out something and I need that feedback, and it’s hard to get with traditional work. Maybe putting plexi-glass over my work and providing dry erase markers for people to draw on it or have blocks that can be moved around and rearranged.
I think the challenge with that is the stumbling block of “don’t touch the art” that most people have inborn, “don’t touch that, it’s precious!” That’s something I would like people to get over. I treat my work like… I sit on it, tear it apart, sand it down. For me it’s not precious any more, I think the challenge for me is how to get the viewer past that and gauge the reaction.
MOT ~ Do you have any books, resources, or particular tools on hand regularly that you turn to?
DO ~ Well, there’s a graphic designer named Tibor Kalman, that’s totally my guru for… everything really. There’s a book I think just called “Tibor” that I keep handy. He did a bunch of Talking Heads [album] covers and designed products like a black umbrella with the underside clouds. He did this whole series of paperweights that were crumpled up graph paper. Things like that, he took the every day and flipped it over and handed it back to you.
There’s an artist named Tom Freidman, I really love his work. He does a similar thing, he takes everyday objects like paper and pencil and obsessively works with it. He took all these pencils, cut each at a 45-degree angle and stuck them back together until he created this mound (doing some motions with his hands) like this, a tangled mess. He’s done some other stuff with paper. He did a piece with bubble gum, he used 1500 pieces of bubble gum that he sculpted into this perfect sphere and he pressed it in the corner of the gallery at head height. And he did another piece, where he had an empty gallery and stretched this gum from the floor to the ceiling.
MOT ~ Damn, that’s got to be a lot of gum!
DO ~ He had another with this pencil in the shape of a lighting bolt that went from the ceiling to the ground. So I keep his books around, he’s influencing me. Ummm, Basquiat, he’s been an influence. I’ve found at times I have to put him away because he’s too good, too influential. So I’m kind of off of him right now. He was ahead of his time.
MOT ~ Can you talk a little about your process? You mentioned riding your bike and coming up with ideas. Like your process from idea, dream or where ever in your head or like reading about those different natural things that are occurring and how you may work with that in your brain, consciously or subconsciously, and how you work on bringing that out into a final product.
DO ~ I think that’s just usually happens on paper. I keep sketchbooks, and make sketches on paper a lot. Sometimes I’ll have little flashes a lot and scribble it down and usually just develop it on paper. Just last weekend I had this idea about how tied to laptops we are, and thinking about – this might be like a t-shirt design – having a person and a laptop in love, like “you complete me.” I don’t know, a lot of things just like that, having little flashes and scribbling that down. The floods and stuff like that, I think, “Oh, I’m thinking about the floods,” okay, so I’ll just start drawing endless log jams on paper. I think that’s my main process is thinking on paper, thinking through drawings. I’m not sure if you answered the question…
MOT ~ Any particular technique’s to you that allow you to distinguish your style?
DO ~ With painting, it’s all about layering, I almost always paint with just one color at a time. I’ll often paint on multiple paintings at once with that one color. So I don’t know if that’s unique to me, but that’s how I’ve always done it. I do a lot of covering up of other things, or covering mostly and leaving little parts to show through.
Let’s see, I also like to use rags, and be really rough. Using wood panels allows me to be really rough, and getting back to that element of not being precious. I think about painting as scrubbing a floor. Except I don’t like finishing things, so it’d be like scrubbing about 75% of the floor and leaving the rest. I think I do that a lot. My drawing style may be unique to me, but it’s hard to put that into words specifically.
MOT ~ Are there drawing tools. . .?
DO ~ Yea, I mostly draw with ball point pens. Ahhhh. What’s the kind I use, just Bic’s maybe. I like ballpoint pens because you can get a wide range of marks. If you push really hard you get a deep mark or you can barely touch it and get a really fine hair mark. I haven’t found another art material that can be so far ranging in marks. I don’t know, I guess I might like them because they’re cheap, always around, and leave money out of the equation.
MOT ~ True. So, we’ve talked about this a little bit. You’ve been working on these paintings for quite a while. How can you tell when something is complete? How do you keep from (said in almost unison) working it to death?
DO ~ Oh man, I think some of these I have worked to death. I’ve just not worried about finishing and just kept going and going and going. Some of them have reached a point where I think they’re just fucked. It’s over! Over worked. Maybe they’ll come back around on the other side if I keep going. I don’t know, that’s the question. I don’t have an answer to that yet. I think it’s finished at midnight the day before you have to get your show up.
I guess I could talk about the mural in Brazil. It was this all over style and that’s one way to get around that problem. If the style itself is to fill up the wall to a certain level of density. That particular mural crawled out and stopped at a certain point, it was almost like a virus or bacteria that stopped at a certain point. It crawled up to the wall, onto the ceiling a little bit, around two or three corners and then stopped. I consider the shape that it becomes. The finishing is “is it dense enough everywhere? Yes, okay it’s finished.” But as far as these paintings I haven’t found that or let myself go that way.
MOT ~ With graphic design or say the book you’re working on, how do you know you’ve completed that?
DO ~ Well, graphic design I feel is different. I feel more of a corner that you turn and it finishes. Or I guess with graphic design I’ve figured it out more, or have more of a sense “okay, this is finished right here.” And that happens once in a while in the paintings.
So, I don’t like to finish. I don’t like to finish anything in my whole life. I’ll read a whole book and leave the last ten pages. Or do all the dishes and leave a fork, knife and bowl. I don’t enjoy finishing things at all. There’s probably other examples of that I’m sure. Finishing anxiety. Once it’s finished it has to be on its own.
MOT ~ Say like with Tibor, say you were able to sit down and ask him like three questions. What would you ask him?
DO ~ Maybe something about how you deal with failure. How do you deal with getting your idea chopped off, something like that. One of his things was ‘you’ve got to go out and find the client that will let you do what you want.’ Like, he did that magazine called “Colors” which was paid for completely by Benetton’s, they took no editorial control over that How do you find that? How do you find that sponsor or person that sees your vision and let you do what you want. Another paraphrase of his I thought was cool, “You want to find clients that are smarter than you, not stupider. Because if you have clients that are smarter than you, you’ll be able to expand. If they’re stupider then you, your time will be spent trying to catch them up or just being frustrated they wont let you do what you want.
I’ve never been good at talking to people that I’ve admired that way. I feel like (changing voice) “duhhh, I really like your work.” Like seeing the lead singer after the concert and saying, “hey, great show,” (almost seeming slightly nervous just thinking about it) but what do you say after that.
MOT ~ Do you want to talk a little about how you were selected for that trip to Brazil and about that?
DO ~ It’s a funny story. A student of mine, sort of, well when I was in grad school I was a teachers assistant and this woman Alana was in two of my classes. She got this scholarship to go to Brazil. She went down there for a year, started talking to all these different artists and hatched this idea of ‘artist as ambassador.’ So she organized this exchange of five artists from Brazil that were part of this gallery called ‘Al gen shil Carioca’ and carioca is a person from Rio de Janeiro, like a Portlander from Portland, so like a gentle person from Rio.
They’d just started this gallery and their whole mission was education. Putting contemporary art in front of the average person and building a creative community. Five artists from Brazil ended up coming to Portland and doing a show at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art). It was great stuff.
One artist had a piece were she wove feathers on to live chickens in Carnival style costumes, with a whole chicken coop that was built in the gallery. For a month these chickens were there in PNCA gallery, squawking, laying eggs and all this stuff. And some really experimental sound art that was happening. A video of this guy slow motion biking on the beach in Rio, he had a gut. Ernesto Neto (Ernesto Saboia de Albuquerque Neto) had a sculpture there, that was awesome. He does this kind of soft sculpture.
So that happened in August 2005, this last January 2007 5 artists from Portland went to Rio and put on a show at this “ Gallery”. I ended up getting selected I think because I knew Alana, and they liked my mural work. The all over murals, I’d done a couple.
I had done one at ‘New American Casuals,’ do you remember that shop? Do you remember ‘Poker face?’ Anyways it was a clothing store under the Morrison Bridge, he was a real proponent of street art and sold aerosol and sold all sorts of clothing. He cleared out his whole shop and I covered all the walls, 15 foot walls with this all over black lines on white wall. Dense covering on every inch of the wall. That’s what I showed the selection team and they liked that.
I ended up making drawings that were both things from Portland, flood themes, log jams, and also stuff that I saw in Brazil. It was interesting because some of the imagery was decades old and some of it was seconds old. Some of the artists from Rio would come in and… like this one guy had a rubber stamp of his face, and just stamp that on his work. It was just constant on everything, and I put one of those stamps in the mural, and I put the chickens with the colored Carnival feathers. So it was like everything and the kitchen sink idea, it’s all going in, no editing going on.
We went there with 8 students from PSU that were there assisting us, which was great, I’ve never worked that way before with so much help. I had all these drawings created and we used digital projectors to put’em up on the wall and I had all this help tracing them with black paint. It was a really fun experience to have all that help, it was kind of overwhelming at the end how much work had been down.
MOT ~ Did you notice any cultural elements that would allow them to do one thing versus here where there are cultural elements to do another thing?
DO ~ Probably the coolest thing we saw there was these kids. Rio is surrounded by these slums, favelas, and we got to go into one which is pretty rare. Mostly tourists don’t because they are pretty dangerous, yea
MOT ~ “City of God?”
DO ~ Hahaha, yea, that’s what we saw before we went and we were scared shitless, hahaha. This guy that was staying at the same place as us had come to work on this project in the favela. So we got to go in and see that these kids had taken bricks from the surrounding houses and with a little hammer had pounded out little windows making a mini-favela. All of a sudden one brick had become one house. They had made this scale model, they had everything, even little lego guys, toy cars, police… everything. They had built it on this hillside.
That would have been cool enough, but now these kids have traveled all over the world with this. And they were in the most recent Venice Biennale (Biennale di Venezia) where they flew over there, flew a bunch of Brazilian bricks there and built this whole thing. They’ve been to France and Barcelona, all over the place. That was just insane. It’s such a cool project but it’s cool to see these kids who looked like all the other kids in the favela, except they had gold chains around their next and would be talking on their cell phones constantly. And here are these kids that are basically way more famous as artists then any of… I mean a lot of the people I was with from Portland were some of the best artists in town. Much more distinguished then me, most of them. And you have these little kids who’ve shown in Venice Biennale, climbed half the mountain.
Just seeing how what starts off as play and is a good idea can just, well, there’s no end to what that can become. That was an inspiring trip.
That was like our last day and awesome to finish on that note.
It was so inspiring to see those kids doing that really making it happen. You watch “City of God” and think it must just be a horrible place to live. If you ask those kids “so you make a little bit of money now have you thought about moving outside the favela?” Their response, “no, I love the favela, it’s great.” I can see why, it’d be like if Multnomah Village was on top of the West Hills. They had the best views of Rio, they could see the whole thing. It’s interesting to flip the script and see the other side of things.
You have these conceptions of how something is, that living in a favela is a horrible thing, but maybe not necessarily. Just incredibly nice people. But violence was a way of life, it was there. Luckily nobody in our group had any problems. Another girl staying in the same place as us got robbed. Her camera, passport, everything stolen. It is a totally dangerous place, but they’re also the nicest people you’ll ever meet. There’s definitely creativity in that kind of environment, like all or nothing. The stakes were raised or something.
Then we got back to Portland and it snowed. From 90 degree weather to snow. That was hard. Tremendous culture shock when we got back even though we’d only been gone for two weeks.
Thanks for joining in on another installment. Hopefully these are getting better or providing some interesting reading for you. Let me know what you think. To see more work by Don stop by