The first time I came across Erik Olson’s work was when my sister showed me an image she had found online, it had no credit and wasn’t linked to the original painter. I put on my detective hat and set about tracking it down, doing a reverse image search that lead me to Canadian Painter Erik Olson. It’s something about the way his subjects are suspended within these bold backgrounds and the frenzied and warped feature, as if they’ve been framed in some sort of swirl and blur movement, that struck me and when the time came to put together a list of creatives I wanted to talk to; he was high up on my list.
I was also fascinated by his first solo show that was held in an abandoned gas station, I love this kind of ingenuity and it is this attitude that, it seems, has got the ball rolling for him and has seen him exhibited across Canada, America and even a spot in the UK.
Firstly, can you explain your profession in your own words and how you came to be able to do it full time?
I’m a painter. Everything I do is in some way related to slopping colored pigment around with a brush. There’s quite a range in my work but in one way or another, I think of the paintings as being about portraiture, about constructing identity. Although there isn’t a clear narrative in each painting, I pull everything from my life, so in a real sense there is an autobiographical element running through the paintings.
At some point I realized that the people who paint all the time are the ones that are painters full-time, so I try to get in the studio as much as possible. I find that when I work, it leads somewhere. On the good days it’s as simple as that.
What was your experience with formal education – was painting something you studied or was it developed in your own time?
I enrolled in the Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver when I was 18. In the first year I took a course on color theory and the way they taught it was through mixing oil paint. From then on I was pretty much hooked on paint. I finished a degree in design but I was always sneaking over to the painting wing of the building. When I could, I would switch classes to get studio space. In my spare time I’d hide out in the back of the library with books on painting and sketch images of Freud, Auerbach, Matisse, all the masters.
After graduation I spent the following years travelling the globe studying painting on my own… London, Florence, New York, India. I keep searching for color, images and complex urban spaces.
Do you think your time studying Design has influenced your way of painting? I mention this because of your use of bold, solid and almost graphic backgrounds within your pieces.
Not directly. I think of art and design as being very different processes… I look to design for inspiration in the same way that I look at the city as a whole for inspiration. I go for long walks and I look at the city and the billboards, signage and the colors around. In an urban space you’re surrounded by designed objects, so in that sense it must affect me.
The bold solid backgrounds in my paintings come more from the idealistic color field painters from the 1960’s. Canadian artists like Jack Bush and William Perehudoff have influenced me in this regard. With much of my work I’m trying to find that middle ground between pure color field abstraction and classical figuration. They’re two forms of painting that have, each in their own way, sort of hit a dead end. In combining them, I’m trying to find a way forward.
Do you work with an Art Dealer or Gallery – or is everything set up by you?
I do the website myself and I enjoy being able to share the images online for free. It’s just a totally different audience than the crowd that goes to art galleries. For the exhibitions I do work with galleries: in Canada the Michael Gibson Gallery and the Douglas Udell Gallery and in New York I have an upcoming solo show at BravinLee programs.
Was becoming a painter full-time a difficult process? We’ve all heard the starving artist stories.
Oh, it’s not always easy and I’ve definitely done the starving artist thing. The first few years I just kept my head down and worked assisting older artists. I took my time and eventually self curated my first show in an abandoned gas station. From that first show things picked up and I started showing in galleries, working with curators and so on. I’m pretty determined and I never waited for anyone to tell me I was good enough to start or to keep going. I’ve always made the paintings I’ve wanted to make and I’m fortunate in that pretty much everything I paint seems to sell…
I’d love it if you could go into the process of setting up that first solo show – from putting together the collection of work to finding the space.
After living in Harlem New York for a while, I came back to Canada to do a summer artist residency at the Banff Centre. During the residency I painted a series of large canvases and was looking for a space to exhibit them. I came across this amazing old abandoned gas station that had most recently been used as a rental shop named ‘IDEAL Rentals’. I sent the owners an email, thinking I’d never hear from them and to my surprise they offered to let me use the space for next to nothing. As soon as I got the keys I began doing a very DIY renovation of the place, gutting the inside, pulling out fake wood walls, installing new lighting and painting the inside white. The final touch was painting over the ‘Rentals’ part of the sign, leaving only ‘IDEAL’. It became this wonderful incubator space where my friends and I learned the ins and outs of putting together art exhibitions
Lastly, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt during your time painting professionally?
That work can be fun.
Erik Olson has an upcoming solo show in New York’s BravinLee Programs on October 25th, which you should definitely check out if you can.