Patricia Olson, Self-Portrait at 60 [after Beckmann], 2011, oil on panel, 55 in. x 37 in.

How would you describe the work that you do?

I’m a figurative painter and I basically have a long interest in the body. . . . I’ve done a number of portrait projects, more lately than earlier in my career. I also feel that I am in a dialog with art history. I’m interested in inserting the bodies of women into the discourse in a way that women’s bodies have not been seen traditionally.

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

Well, everybody intends to challenge the viewer in some way or another. Maybe there are people, like Matisse, who wanted to make art that was like a comfortable arm chair. . . . But basically I want to . . . give people something to think about. It’s always better for me to talk about specific projects instead of generalities. I’m a painter, [and as a painter] you paint the specific, not the general.

Is there something you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about?

Patricia Olson, Self-Portrait at 60 [after Beckmann], 2011, oil on panel, 55 in. x 37 in. (detail)

I just re-mounted a show called The Mysteries, which I painted almost twenty years ago, based on the ancient Roman fresco at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. They recently renovated that particular fresco and re-opened it to the public. So, the gallery director [at St. Catherine University] said it would be a good time to show it again.  It’s called The Mysteries Revisited. Over this past summer, I added an addendum to it, to explore the main ideas of the mysteries further. I did these seven smaller self-portraits that are based on the phases of the moon. I’m pretty excited about how that works and how that balances the whole in some way.

I’m also working on a series of portraits of couples. . . . I not only paint the portraits on two separate panels, but to unite the panels I ask them for a quote or some sort of text that is meaningful to them that runs across and unites the panels. . . . That’s an on-going project.

Patricia Olson, Self-Portrait at 60 [after Beckmann], 2011, oil on panel, 55 in. x 37 in. (detail)

What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?

The greatest challenges are time to do it because my situation is that I’ve never made . . . a living from the artwork itself. So, I’ve always had to do other work to make a living. Before I was a teacher, I ran a graphic design business in St. Paul . . . [then] I got my MFA. . . . When you’re holding a full-time job, time is always an issue. You’re always kind of not doing something . . . and you’re trying to figure out where you can carve out some time.

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

I can’t think of any specific advice, but I think in a lot of ways one makes one’s own path. . . . One of the things that really attracted me to WARM was working with and getting to know women who were older than me, . . . who had been artists longer than I had, and realizing what rich lives they had and how they brought that into their artwork. . . . I wanted to be like that.

How do you know when you have been successful?

There’s two kinds of success: success for yourself . . . and success in the market place. Success in the studio has its own rules. You put forward . . . a feeling of what you want to accomplish, . . . you work through your questions and whatever tasks you set for yourself. Then, you step back and have that interior conversation if you’ve reached that goal. . . . In one sense, I don’t feel totally satisfied, . . . but I’ve developed a technique of painting that I feel has real resonance . . . and I have a series of never ending questions of what it is to be human. I feel successful that I’m making those inquiries.

Then there’s success in the art world, . . . which is kind of a weird place. . . . I’ve had success in the Twin Cities . . . with shows in galleries and museums. . . . For whatever reason, it’s hard to move outside of the Twin Cities area, unless you physically move to those areas like New York or Berlin. . . . For me, it’s important to recognize the difference between the two kinds of success and take them for what they are. . . . For me, satisfaction in the studio has become the primary source of satisfaction.

Why did you choose to pursue the life of a professional artist?

I think it chose me. It’s not that I didn’t consider doing other things, but it just seemed that I would do something and a path forward  would open up as a result. The path was never . . . full of walls or barriers that were insurmountable. . . . I just don’t have a sense that I chose it. . . . Art is  something that I’ve always been interested in, even as a kid. Doing the work and working with images is just so satisfying . . . and I’ve just followed along as best I could.

In your opinion, how is being a woman artist in 2015 different from what it might have been like one, two, three or even four decades ago?

Opportunities lately have been better than opportunities than when I was younger. I was a member of WARM, . . . and we founded a gallery down on 1st Ave. N. and ran it from 1976 to 1991. It was a collective gallery and basically we did that so we could have exhibition opportunities for ourselves, but also to put forward other women and a women’s agenda for the arts. We did collect statistics from the major organizations and it was dismal in terms of the percentages of women who had a chance to show and teach and have an influence. There’s  been a struggle, too, to find proper opportunities to show . . . in  serious venues; that was a hard nut to crack.

For many years, WARM put out a journal with critical writings on what was going on for women in the arts. . . . There were statistics published in one of the early journals in the 70s and, for example, the fine arts faculty at MCAD had sixteen full time male faculty and only one full time woman. . . . I don’t know what the statistics are now, but I’d say it’s definitely changed quite a bit.

Installation view of Olson's exhibit The Mysteries Revisited at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?

Well, yes. My position is that the way you connect is through the specific and the specific is always . . . personal. . . . If I tell my story well, then that is the way people connect with the work. . . . I think my experience comes out in the subjects that I choose . . . and thinking about it from my point of view as a contemporary woman. . . . But it also somehow also manifests itself in the mark making, . . . the way I put paint on a surface somehow describes my personal story, somehow puts my perspective in it. I feel like that is an almost mystical thing that happens. . . . Part of the reason we make art is because there is a language there that words can’t touch.

Are there certain ways in which you identify yourself as a feminist artist?

I’m a radical feminist. A lot of my work addresses the issues that have been brought up by Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock . . . major thinkers about feminist art theory. . . . Some work is very specifically informed by that. . . . I do reserve the chance, however, to have the work not be imbued with that theory, . . . [so] in some ways it’s a visual delight and about aesthetics. . . . Nevertheless, I’m very interested in the feminist art movement; I believe it’s going to save the world.

Patricia Olson










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