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February 2011
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Portraits by the Artist

With "The Catherine Portrait," Art and Art History Professor Patricia Olson endeavors to describe our beloved community.


Associate Professor of Art and Art History Patricia OlsonPatricia Olson in her home stuio on St. Paul's Ramsey Hill. PHOTO BY RICHARD FLEISCHMAN.

Associate Professor of Art and Art History Patricia Olson came to St. Catherine University some 14 years ago, with heavy-duty credentials under her belt. She had spent 25 years as an artist and graphic designer, and in the late 1970s was one of the founding members of the influential art collective WARM (Women's Art Registry of Minnesota). Her work has been widely shown and is represented in a number of public collections across the Midwest, including Walker Art Center and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.

In addition to teaching design courses, Olson co-directs the Women's Art
Institute, a three-week intensive summer art program designed specifically
for female artists. She is also faculty advisor for the visual arts component
of The Ariston, the student arts and literary journal.

This winter the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery unveils "The Catherine Portrait," a solo show three years in the making. The new project, which Olson completed in her role as the Sister Mona Riley Endowed Professor in the Humanities, consists of about 40 portraits of a wide range of individuals who represent the St. Catherine community — professors and secretaries,
students and custodians, alumnae and Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Each 16-by-16-inch portrait shows the subject slightly larger than life-size,
framed in fairly tight close-up. Most, in violation of standard snapshot rules,
cut off the top of the head or a side of the face. The portraits are beautiful,
full of life and color, but not necessarily flattering in the conventional manner; the result is a sometimes startlingly heightened intimacy.

Olson took time to discuss her latest
work, her background and her abiding
interest in the rising generation of young artists.

How does each portrait fit into the overall piece? When the call for proposals for the humanities chair was announced, I had been contemplating doing a portrait series — single portraits of a group of affiliated individuals. I was originally thinking I'd do a much smaller group of people, like the eight members of my book club, or the dozen or so founding members of WARM. But when I decided to apply for the humanities chair, I thought: "Why not do the St. Catherine community? It certainly
has everything a portrait painter could want in terms of diversity."

My question was: How do individuals work in community? I think some of this comes from the overarching philosophy of the CSJs. So how does that relationship work? Do we hold back on developing our individual skills because we want to be part of the larger fabric, part of a community? Or do we go full-bore ahead with our individual aspirations and hope they fit in?

The answer, of course, is that it's a mixed bag. I wanted to investigate that in an aesthetic, [non-verbal] way. I'm hoping that the assembly of these individual portraits in the gallery will say something about this question — something that can't be said in words, because it's not that kind of argument.

You seem to have an affinity for portraits. What draws you to this format? I'm fascinated by people. I'm intrigued with the way that heads are basically the same in their general organization. The eyes are always halfway between the top of the head and the chin. The tops of the ears align with the centerline of the eyes. Given those commonalities, the exquisite variety that faces present is amazing. The format never gets old for me. I could happily paint the entire St. Catherine community, all 5,000-plus of them.

How does your "Catherine Portrait" series fit into the evolution of your work? I've been working with the figure for a long time. In the 1970s, I did a series of screen prints appropriating fashion magazine figures. Then when I came back to painting in the '80s, I started with paintings of clothes and accessories, which were substitutes — I realize now — for the figure. I jumped into the figure itself with "The Mysteries," a series of self-portraits.

Looking back, it seems that I've been working toward the portrait as a genre my entire career, but I had to sneak up on it, since I have this notion that — for me as an artist — the portrait is the ultimate challenge. I see it as a collaboration with the sitter. It was intimidating to me as a young artist, given the legacy of Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Sargent and Jerry Rudquist, my painting teacher at Macalester, in my artistic universe. What could I contribute that hasn't been done already? At this point, I feel I have something to say with the portrait about the times we live in.

How has your experience with WARM influenced you as a teacher here at St. Kate's? My background in WARM is all about giving women a voice in the art-world milieu, where women are still excluded. It was worse when [feminist artist and theorist] Judy Chicago began working and speaking out, but, according to a recent documentary, still only 2 percent of holdings at the Museum of Modern Art are works by women. The National Endowment for the Arts reported that women artists still earn something like 75 cents for every dollar earned by male artists.

WARM was about empowering women to take control of their art-making. It opened up important questions like: What is art? What can you make art out of? I had that grounding, and I came to feel very passionate about bringing that outlook to a women's college.

How does that fit in with St. Kate's mission as a women-centered institution? There's still a great need for women-only places, for women working with women in a way that suits them. We find at the Women's Art Institute, for example, that despite the great strides in feminist art history and art theory, young women still wrestle with issues of self-confidence. Their deepest and most personal ways of being in the world are still not acknowledged as legitimate forms of concern; they're still being marginalized in the larger world.

For instance, a classic educational technique has been for the professor to throw out a question, for students to respond and for the professor to tear apart their arguments. In art school, that manifests as the critique, where students post their work and the professor chooses a couple to praise and a couple to tear apart — sometimes literally. This approach often motivates men to study harder, to figure out how to become the one who is praised. But many women — especially Midwestern women — interpret this technique as, "This is just wrong. I'll never be able to do this. And I really must be no good." So they give up.

At St. Catherine everybody gets a hearing — and this increasingly is the way art education is happening everywhere now. It usually takes longer and takes more focus. But it's based on respect for the students, on the way they learn.

Is it part of your job to see that your students learn and grow? It's not just cheerleading. You will get nurtured in my classes, but it's not going to be a love fest. You're going to be challenged to be the best you can be.

This has been a reigning ethos at St. Kate's for many years, long before I showed up. One of our goals has always been to re-imagine education for women. It's occasionally taken St. Kate's to some funny places, but it does speak to the mission of the institution: to be bold, to take chances, and to put yourself out there and be part of a nurturing yet challenging community

Judy Arginteanu is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.


St. Kate’s Q and A

Four portraits by Patricia Olson

The Catherine Portrait:

Paintings from Patricia Olson,
Sister Mony Riley Endowed Professor in the Humanities

Feb. 5 - April 3

Catherine G. Murphy Gallery
St. Catherine University

651-690-6644 • stkate.edu/gallery