Learn about our other concurrent exhibit: Bird Dreams
Ferns and Reds
1983, acrylic on canvas
Persistence of Vision:
Bettye Olson’s Work in Retrospect
Bettye Olson has always painted the world she sees around her from her heart. She has spent more than 60 years investigating a wide range of subjects and mediums and, while this diversity is not unusual over the course of a long career, Olson’s work is distinguished by a remarkable consistency of style – a persistence of vision – that links work as early as her graduate pieces of the late 1940s to work done just this past summer. This retrospective exhibition endeavors to show this continuity by pairing pieces from the last decade with work from the previous five.
A pair that nicely illustrates this idea is Garden, a watercolor from 1974, and Waterfall, acrylic on canvas from 2006. Despite differing subject matter, mediums and 32 years, both paintings have been created with dynamic, bold brushstrokes, a quality that flattens the picture plane and creates almost a patterned effect. Flowers figured prominently in Olson’s work in the 60s and 70s, and Garden is a view that she saw in her own backyard. Critic William R. Hegeman wrote in the Minneapolis Star about her work (26 October 1967), “Flowers… are the complete subject, valid armatures for the experience of putting paint on paper.” Waterfall shows Olson’s ongoing investigation of “putting paint on paper,” for both paintings exude the artist’s excitement of visually conveying energy inherent in disparate phenomena.
Intense color is a given in all of Olson’s work. It’s there in Bird Catcher, a 1949 oil done in graduate school under the influence of Walter Quirt, and in Salmon River of 1995, a watercolor with oil pastel. Interestingly, the same vivid colors show up in both these pieces in almost the same proportions. Olson understands color as emotional and expressive, using it intuitively. Another of her early teachers, Mac LeSueur, advised her not to think or work from theory – to just paint – and to pay attention for the opportunity to inject “little surprises.”
In another remarkable pair, Airport Lights (1971) and Reflected Light (1999) both use the same expanding circular motif to describe the visual effect of lights twinkling at night and of sparkling light reflected off water, respectively. These pieces couldn’t be more dissimilar in scale: Airport Lights is a large canvas while Reflected Light is a small watercolor. In the earlier painting, Olson experimented with painting oil on unprimed canvas, a staining technique pioneered by abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. Olson considers abstraction “the ultimate” and counts Frankenthaler among her influences, along with Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan and John Marin.
Watercolor, however, is the medium that Olson has championed. She describes its qualities as “quick, free and magical” and delights in the mystery of the paint seemingly mixing itself. These exuberant qualities can be seen even in a small study like Reflected Light. She also notes that watercolor paints are easily transportable, an important aspect when traveling, since she often works on location. Lately, she has been combining watercolor with oil pastel, as in Salmon River and Whirlpool.
At first glance, Road through the Valley (1947) and Blue Waves (2002) are quite different. Road through the Valley graphically depicts a specific scene – the road approaching Taos, New Mexico, while Blue Waves is a colorful, impressionistic rendering of the sea. Despite being made 55 years apart, their amazingly similar compositions unite them. The eye is first engaged at the lower left – literally by the open road in Road through the Valley and more visually by an open area of complementary color in Blue Waves – and then continues to switch back and forth across the picture plane until coming to rest at a peak at the upper left. Road through the Valley was done with a stick and india ink, testifying to Olson’s willingness to engage any method that will help convey the energy she sees in a scene. (Having Road through the Valley juried into the Walker Art Museum’s – now Walker Art Center – “First Biennial Exhibition of Paintings and Prints” in 1947 was an important milestone in Olson’s career.) In contrast, Blue Waves is a monoprint, a relatively new medium for Olson, that maintains the spontaneity and painterly qualities of her favored watercolor and allows her to invent as she goes along.
Olson’s all-encompassing subject is nature – she’s especially drawn to mountains, water, forests, rocks and flowers – and her quest is to convey the energetic essence of her deeply felt connection to the earth. “My celebration of the intensity of life,” is how Olson put it for her 1996 retrospective exhibition, “Energy and Motion.” She often works en plein aire and has developed a sketching technique to provide her with references for her finished pieces done in the studio. Dozens of sketchbooks from trips to northern Minnesota, Idaho, New Mexico, Greece, Italy, France and Scandinavia testify to the importance of this practice. Unlike many contemporary artists, she rarely uses reference photos, preferring to make imaginative compositions that capture the essence of the subject rather than a specific rendition.
Morning Light, a 1990 watercolor of Idaho foothills near her daughter’s home, is an example of a work developed from a small ink sketch. In this exhibition it is paired with Whirlpool, a 2002 watercolor with oil pastel. While only 12 years separate these two pieces in time, the subjects of earth and water are materially opposed in our minds – one solid, one fluid. Yet Olson has contrived to use similar brush strokes and the extended build-up of lines to describe these contrasting elements. She masterfully conveys the energy and solidity of the earth forming foothills – you can almost feel them straining to be mountains – and the dynamic movement of water caught in cross currents using the same approach. As Phyllis Wiener, with whom Olson once shared a studio, has noted, “Her… watercolors employ long twisting strokes to express the powerful, indomitable energy of nature” (from the “Energy and Motion” brochure, 1996).
“Persistence of vision” is actually a term from the film world. It describes how the eye can meld single, still images into the illusion of movement when they are moving fast enough. Bettye Olson’s persistence of vision – the truly original response of an individual compelled to carefully observe the world and devoted to her craft – is evident across her long and distinguished career. She maintains that “artists don’t see differently than others – the difference comes from the passion in one’s heart.”
Curator and Associate Professor
Department of Art and Art History
College of St. Catherine
(and not related to the artist)
All quotes by Bettye Olson are from an interview with the artist on 15 September 2006 unless otherwise noted.
Learn about our other concurrent exhibit: Bird Dreams