Inside Look: Rose Olson’s Rain and Sunshine

Emma Newbery

The maxim that Rose repeats throughout our interview is: “the person you don’t want to bore is yourself.”

I spoke to Rose ahead of her upcoming show Rain and Sunshine, set to open on June 24th in Kingston’s main gallery. We discussed newer elements of her work, especially in the context of her long tenure as a painter.

“I’ve always painted all my life,” she explains. “I can’t change. No matter what my job was, how many hours of teaching I did or whatever I did, I would have to come home and do some work sometime during the evening before I went to bed.”

Over the course of her career, Rose has honed a distinct aesthetic. Using acrylic wash to play with light, movement, and opacity, Rose brings depth to the surface of her seemingly simple works. “When I was younger, I worked on everything: paper, it might be charcoal drawings. It might be anything because I had to work. Now, I work strictly with paint and wood and nothing else because that’s what interests me right now.”

Her upcoming show at Kingston signals a new dimension of this familiar medium. Perhaps reflecting the mercurial social environment, Olson’s show includes works like Red Intrusion, below. The notion of intrusion is something Rose explores deeply in her more recent work. The push and pull that results from the integrity of Rose’s natural canvas meeting the piercing strip of red that truncates its base is a relationship she relishes.

Rose Olson, Red Intrusion, acrylic on wood, 20”x 30”x 2”, 2019.

“I love what I’m doing right now,” adds Rose. “A lot of it is new because of blocks of colors. And the color is quite heavy. But it doesn’t eliminate the grain of the wood, which is very important to me when I’m painting.” 

Rose goes on to explain the importance of maintaining the integrity of the surface on which she paints. It’s as much a part of the painting as the materials that cover it: “The grain of the wood is something that I respect. So I try to make it clear. I try to make it available for the viewer to see no matter what color is over it.”

“A grain is unique,” she says. “They’re like our fingerprints, so no two are alike.”

Rose Olson, Violet Calm, acrylic on wood, 2020.

Within this medium, Rose’s work retains its fluidity. “Sometimes I’ll look at a painting that I had done and it bores me, so I will go back and work on it. So I guess they never end,” she muses. Five minutes before our interview, she made a final adjustment to a recent work titled Violet Calm, left. “I just finished a painting now that I had started earlier and it needed something desperately and I wasn’t sure what it needed. And I just discovered that it needed a golden band. So I put it in. It’s just a slim band and it enhances the grain as it goes up.”

Once she has finished a piece, Rose strives to keep the viewer’s experience of her work dynamic. “The colors keep changing continually, which is important to me. Also, when the work is on the wall, there’s the light going from one end of the room to the other that continually changes the colors, because there are so many layers of color and the light will pick up one layer after another.”

Rose did not cultivate this dynamic approach alone. She credits a shared workspace and creative process with her interest in the ongoing nature of her work. “My husband was a writer. He wrote poetry. We would very often stop our work and I would show him my work.”

Creating side-by-side elevated both of their processes. “When he would start reading his poetry, I would say, you know, it’s not quite there yet,” Rose recalls. “Then, all of the sudden, he would do it. It would be right there and I would get the goosebumps and I would say, stop. This is it. You’ve made it. You know, you don’t want it any different than this.”

While her husband passed recently, she continues to find motivation through these memories of collaboration: “My husband died suddenly three years ago, and that is a blow to me. It’s overwhelming,” says Rose.

“But,” she maintains, “it doesn’t stop me from painting.”

Rose Olson, Swirl, acrylic on wood, 12”x 12”x 1”, 2019.

Swirl is shot through with two, thick lines of red, lending the work a different feel than Red Intrusion possesses. The color pushes against the grain of the wood, and the whorls through which it slices seem to bend in protest, or perhaps in welcoming. The paler, nearly iridescent wide stroke of violet below lends a tactile element to the piece. Beneath the lines, straight and firm, it almost serves as the memory of a hand has followed their course, leaving behind an imprint. The work, like its maker, is pushing at the boundaries, suggesting a sense of continuance, and of potential chaos.

In addition to her career as a painter, Rose also taught for many years, spurring on her students in the same way she pushed her husband and continues to push herself.

“I don’t think there was anything that I didn’t like, and I don’t think there was a student that I didn’t like,” she recalls. “I pushed them very hard. I wanted them to create something uniquely theirs, and I think they understood that because we would both get excited.”

Rose encouraged her students to trust their unique perspective on shared, human experiences rather than attempting to break away from artists who inspired them. “Sometimes you can try to copy something, just so you understand what, what colors that person is using,” she explains, “but they’ll never come out the way that person uses them. They’ll come out the way you use them. You find yourself doing it in such a unique way.”

“That is, it becomes exciting to you because we are all different from each other,” she adds. “That quality within each person is very important to me.”

Rose Olson, triptych. From left to right: Canals of Mars, Martian Sky, Martian Water, all acrylic on wood, 20”x 20” X 1.5”, 2020.

Ultimately, Rose views painting as a deeply personal, emotional experience that turns one’s internal experience outwards to face the world. “Whatever you are, whatever your passion is at the moment, whatever you see out there comes through in the work.”

“Whether you’re a painter or you put it into poetry and words, the way my husband used to, when it hits just right, that’s it. You get the goosebumps and that’s when you know.”

In any creative pursuit, Rose concludes: “When something is real, it’s it. It just affects you completely.”

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