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Grain MagThis is a full length version of an interview conducted by Andonia Giannakouros for the Dubuque Area Arts Collective’s 2014 Grain Magazine.

Andonia Giannakouros: Okay so first question, how long have you been a working artist?

Tim Olson: So what do you mean by working artist?

A: How long have you been making art, Tim? {laughs} Because…uhm…you know everybody kind of starts when they are a little kid and then at some point they stop and then as some point you decide that it’s going to be your career so I guess that is more what I am asking.

T: Well, I went to art school and studied photography but didn’t finish.  Like I was telling you before, I’ve spent most my life stuck in this vicious cycle of wanting to be an artist and then deciding it’s a silly think to do and then wanting to do it again. So there were  periods when I didn’t make any art at all. But then I’d see a show or something that I really liked or that sparked an idea, and I’d be off again trying to make something. So I would say that I’ve been doing it off and most of my life, but then more seriously for the past 10 years.

A: Okay so can you tell us more about your education or like apprenticeships or special training that you think really gave you a good jump start in your work?

T: Right. Well, I studied photography at the University of Iowa and then filmmaking at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles—which was interesting, but it didn’t lead anywhere. But after that, I moved to Chicago and worked in a few different photography studios. That’s probably where I learned the most about photography and about art.

A: Was that photographing the buildings?

T: I worked at a different places, but a couple studios specialized in architectural photography. One was called Hedrich-Blessing. They’ve been in business since 1929, so they have a huge archive. I spent a lot of time there, when I should’ve been working, just looking at old photographs. There were pictures of brand new bus depots in the 1930s and art deco offices and Mies van der Rohe buildings. I’d go to the store room to file photographs and then just get lost looking at things. But the best job I had was working for a photographer who worked on the other end of the spectrum—Ron Gordon—he documented buildings before they were torn down. So when the University of Illinois at Chicago demolished buildings in the Maxwell Street area, they hired my boss to document them.  That was a fascinating job to work on.

A: Can you tell us the reasons that drive you to make art? Do you have a couple really prominent reasons why you can’t let it go?

T:  I think the reason is I just like being around art.  If I have an obsession, it’s for looking at pictures. Pictures in books, pictures in museums and even pictures at the dentist’s office.  If I were rich I think I’d probably be a collector and I wouldn’t make art at all. But I’m not, so instead I try to make the kinds of pictures I would want to buy. So art is something I can’t let go of, but it’s not a straight forward kind of thing.

A: That’s really interesting that you would make the kind of things that you would collect. I guess it kind of leads into the next questions which is what inspires your choice of subject matter?

T: Yeah, because the sort of pictures I would like to buy—or make—aren’t always the sort of thing most people would like to buy.

A: I feel that.

T: I’m always looking for something a little bit off or humorous. I was watching the Antiques Road Show with my dad. Someone brought in an Audubon print showing a hawk or something holding a mouse in it claws. One of the art dealers said it was one of the least valuable of Audubon’s prints because collectors find it too gruesome to put on the wall.

A: Like it would be your choice?

T: Yeah.

A: Nice…uhm…so okay so in the past you’ve mentioned to me that certain images grip you and you feel the need to return to them, do you think that’s more of a visual thing or  is it more like a theme like you like the idea of the image?

T: Yeah. I guess it’s both. Sometimes I’ll see a photograph and something will click—though I’m not always exactly sure what I’m responding to. I watch a lot of movies, so sometimes I’ll see an image there that I want to draw. For instance I’ve started doing some drawings of people on bicycles because I saw this movie, what was the name of it? Barbara? Have you see that?

A: Uh uh. {No}

T: It’s a German movie about a doctor  in East Germany in the 1970s. She doesn’t have a car, she has a bike. She’s tall and thin and there are all of these beautiful shots of her riding and looking over her shoulder because the police have their eye on her. So I did a drawing that turned out all right, and now I’m looking for other photos of people on bikes. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them in the end, maybe nothing. Circus photos are always good,  like that drawing…{laughs}…

A: The one that I have of the lady on the rug?

T: Yeah…{laughs}

A: It’s very popular, everyone that sees it loves it. {laughs} Okay, so you use a wide variety of materials as well can you talk about how you develop your process from those materials and what are your favorites to use and is it different for different themes and images or is it that you return to the same ones every time?

T: The same materials?

A: Yeah…do you have like favorite materials that really work for you that are your go-to every time or is it very organic?

T: A lot of times I use oil paint—or oil sticks—with ink on paper. Sometimes I mix collage with that. I’ve recently tried to do some straight oil paintings on wooden panels, basically to get around the whole framing issue (I have to put the pieces on paper in box frames).  But I’m not happy with the straight paintings yet. I have a problem with the brushwork… Even if I’m using paint, I’m still…I almost think of it as drawing rather than painting if you know what I mean?

A: Yeah, so when you say that you have to box frame them, is that because the ink has a reflection to it?  or…..why do you have to box frame them?

T: It’s because they are… the paper needs to kept away from the glass.

A: Oh, okay…

T: I like the box frame thing but it’s a pain to do.  And  then I realized, with the new paintings, I’d almost prefer to have them behind glass anyway.  I don’t know why but…

A: Oh, I hate my paintings behind glass,..

T: {laughs} yeah?

A: Yeah….it’s the worst. {laughs} Uhm….but….Okay, so, the last time I was in your studio you were doing something it was like a mono print but you were rolling ink onto glass, you’d put the paper down on it and draw on it how do you come upon those methods, do you watch videos or read books or I mean where do you pick that stuff up? I think to me that’s an amazing things about your work is that you are doing these things in ways that I would never think to do them and I think oh…how do you come upon that? And I think oh…

T: Right

A: ….how do you come upon that?

T: Well, that technique I got from Tom Jewell-Vitale. He taught a mono print class, which I didn’t take, but he showed me that.  The line quality is really nice with that technique. And the other nice thing is that you can’t really see what you’re doing until its finished.

A: oh yeah?

T: ….which for some reason works well for me.

A: Okay, so, the Dubuquefest panorama has its unveiling on April 6th, Can you tell us a little bit about the project and how it evolved?

T: It started with the parade piece that I did.  That was a panorama drawing of a parade. It was 2 feet high by 60 feet in length. After that I thought about different ways to photograph an entire parade. So when Paula [Neuhaus] and Aaron Hefel asked if I had any ideas for a DubuqueFest project that was one I told them about. The other was to something like the living Statue of Liberty or the living Woodrow Wilson…

A: oh yeah? {both laugh}

T:  The idea was to get a large group together to make a living fleur de lis. But the panorama seemed the least crazy, so we went with that.

A: Awesome.  So I have down here as my next question, “So, you started your career in photography, correct?” but…what I really want to know, I guess in this question…you were telling me you started photography and then you went through all of these other things, can you list the other things again?

T: Right. So I started in photography and then I think, because I was working as an apprentice or whatever I kind of got to hate photographers…

A: Why…?

T: Well, photography attracts a certain personality.  So I was… the kind of photography I was doing was….it was more like drawing…  More messy. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of those—they were collages of negatives and I was scratching…

A: Oh, Aaron [Butcher] had one…

T: Yeah, so that was the kind of stuff I was interested in doing…  But, at its worst, photography can be a world of fussiness and film tests and fawning over new equipment. I worked for photographers who got mad if I put a kink in the phone cord… I guess “anal” is the word I’m looking for. So I worked for a few people like that and then just got fed up with photography in general. I shot a short movie with a couple friends but we could never get the money to finish it. I mean, it’s been almost 30 years and occasionally the topic of “how will we finish that movie” still comes up. Anyway, I liked writing the scripts so I thought, what about theater?  I wrote a few plays and I won a contest for a comedy festival in California. They did a production of the play that was just so bad.  It was the most unfunny thing I’ve ever seen. So I figured, okay, what  if I wrote a novel, I’d have complete control over that. So I wasted another five years writing a comic novel and trying to get it published. That was right before we moved to Dubuque. When moved here in 2002 I decided to finish my degree—which was in art.

A: So did you come back seeking a painting degree or did you just come back seeking the continuation of your art degree and then you found Tom [Jewell-Vitale] who is obviously such a strong painter and you kind of went that direction?

T: Yeah, I was thinking of going to graduate school for writing and I just wanted to finish my BA. But Tom is the one that really got me interested art again.

A: Nice. Tom also pulled me into painting, by the way, cause I thought I was going to be just drawing. Straight up drawing and he begged me to take his summer class.

T: Yeah? And so then you got started and from there you studied with Tom Metcalf?

A: Yeah…the other Tom…yeah because when I went back to Clarke I decided I wanted to do drawing again…but no.  Alright, so, do you control the tone of your work or is it something that just presents itself organically in the process?

T: I don’t know…I have more control over it now, but still a lot of what I do is accidental. So I guess the answer would be yes, but I try not to think about it too much. A lot of my work involves not thinking too much, which I’m good at.

A: Can you tell us about the Center for Dubuque History?

T: They have an amazing collection of photographs, which is the main thing I’m interested in. They hold the Klauer Collection of glass plate negatives from 1912 that I worked with on the City at Work project. They also collect documents and books—I was looking at some of those while I was waiting for you. In the local authors section there’re a bunch of cowboy books. Somebody from Dubuque wrote westerns. So uh, yeah,  it’s a nice resource.

A: How did you find out about it? Just from being here at Loras for your degree?

T: Well, I first came here to find pictures of our house.

A: Did you find any?

T: Yeah, we found a few because our house is close to the 11th street elevator. Whenever anybody took a photograph of that…

A: Oh, so you guys were in the side there?

T: Right.

A: How do you feel about sharing your work with the public, is it something that comes naturally or do you have to struggle to kind of…you know get over just putting something out there…?

T: Usually if I do something it’s for a project or a show that is going to be seen.  I don’t know if I would do it otherwise.

A: So your intention is always for the public?

T: Yeah. Though I do throw things away that don’t work.

A: Nice. Any advice for artists starting out, the younger crowd?

T: That’s a tough one, I’ve been thinking about that because my daughter is really interested in art. On a Junior Achievement form at school she listed “artist” as her future career. That would scare any parent. I want to encourage her, but then I’ve got mixed feelings about art school. There’s got to be different way to go about it. I think I learned more just working, working in photography studios. But, on the other hand,  I also learned a lot from Tom at Loras and from Peter Feldstein and a few other people at the University of Iowa. The problem is, it’s just so expensive. I was in debt for years. It’s a silly thing to do {laughs}

A: {laughs} Ouch Tim, {laughs} you are talking to an art major. {laughs}

T: {laughs} Well, I know but I guess that you should tell people not to do it and then if they really want to do it, they do it anyway. The problem is, you know, you can’t go to work at the ACME Art Corporation,  it’s something you have to figure out on your own and it’s just so hard…

A: Yeah

T: I should say something more encouraging, I guess…

A: You should, can you think of anything? I was more thinking, like how do you approach, like uhm…if you have an idea for a show, what’s the best way to kind of work around and actually make it happen?  Who do you contact, how do you reach out and make those contacts? I think that’s probably the hardest step between you making work in your studio and you showing and making money and getting some sort of recognition for your work, there is that middle step where you actually have to reach out and make the first contact, any advice there?

T: Hmmm…well I’ve always entered juried shows which is interesting if, for no other reason, then just to see what people will accept and what they won’t accept.  Like if I do…if I enter a show somewhere else they will usually take the figurative stuff, which I get the feeling in Dubuque people aren’t so interested in—at least I can never sell I can never sell that stuff here.  I can sell landscapes and….

A: Which is CRAZY to me because I love your figurative stuff.

T: Yeah? {laughs}Yeah, so I mean so there’s lots of opportunities, even in Dubuque for…to show, so uhm, even at the bike coop and…..so…. And there are  grants to apply for.  I’ve gotten a couple from the Iowa Arts Council lately. That’s something new for me—putting together a project and then looking for funding. That’s what I did with the City at Work show—that was a four year project. Not the kind of thing I would normally do, but I loved putting it together.

A: I find that a lot that there is just a huge component of making art that is just a lot of what you really would consider art just designing and printing and figuring out how frame, how to light and how to transport, all that stuff that is not actually just you in your studio.

T: And I like doing all that. I’ve even thought about putting a show together of someone else’s work. I would love to do if I found the right project. It’s an interesting challenge, just figuring out how to fund it and promote it. Promoting an exhibit is something to really think about. That’s the part that usually gets left out. Usually I’m working right down to the wire and I never {laughs}pay enough attention to that.

A: {laughs} I don’t have an answer to that but I have from time to time found people that are really good at that that just, you find them and they do it for you.

T: Right.

A: That’s my best…that is my hottest tip, find someone that is good at it.  Okay, I have one last question, this is a surprise question, I got it today…

T: Oh, no.

A: I was telling someone I was going to interview you and I asked them, what would you ask Tim, you know, if you had a question so… they asked: “How do your paintings and your photography go together? What’s the bridge between them, if there is one?”

T: Right. Well, I’m not really a photographer. When I did the City at Work photography, my goal was to take a series of straight forward, documentary photographs that imitated the style of the 1912 photos. It was a documentary project. So I think about those photographs in a completely different way than I think about a painting or a drawing. But if there is a bridge, I suppose it’s the subject matter. The same people and places I photographed are people and places I would consider drawing—I’d just do it differently.

A: It’s so interesting to hear you say that you are not a photographer.

T: Yeah, I’m not, I’m not really a photographer in….and even when I was doing photography before it was more about collage and drawing rather than composing a picture in the camera. And now, when I do studies for paintings, usually I’ll take a lot of photos and then make a collage to work from. So, yeah, when I take the photos, I’m not really thinking about composition. That comes later. And that’s the way I put the panorama together, really. Taking the photos during the festival was just gathering the raw material. Then I kind of shuffled it around and made up a bit here and cut out a bit there and pieced it all together.

A: Yeah. And I think it’s interesting the way people work because it’s so diverse. I’ve definitely heard people tell me that when they go out to take a photograph for a painting they compose it right there like they will move everyone’s fingers so they are just exactly the way they need them and THEN they will take the photograph and everything is perfect and mapped out…uhm…yeah…

T: Right.

A: So, also I was going to ask you, so, working from photographs, do you think that’s more commonly done among your fellow peers and artists, or do you think that is something that is just…different. I work from photos and everyone always tells me, you are the only person I know that works from photos and I definitely don’t think that I am, but….

T: Did Tom Metcalf work from photos?

A: He does, I think, yeah, I think that he does both though, I think that he does photos and then touches up from real life though…but I’m not sure.

T: Yeah, I get the feeling most artists use photographs in some way. I think it’s just there and easy and most people can’t afford a model. But I would love to try that. One of the painters I really love, Alice Neal, worked from live models.

A: I think that I am maybe too antisocial to do that.

T: Right.

A: I like being alone in my studio.

T: Maybe it wouldn’t work with me either. I don’t like to have people watch me draw. It makes me think too much—or maybe worry too much—about what I’m doing.

A: Yeah?  How do you feel about a leap into abstraction. Because with Tom Jewell-Vitale and he’s so abstract and he would always tell me: You need to just, make this leap, and I would tell him, I just have no idea how to do this but I feel like in your work, it’s like, its realist and then it’s also abstract, it’s like somehow you leapt and then you just stayed in the middle.  And I want to know, like, you know, how you feel about your work in that realm of you know, where it’s kind of trying to go stylistically?

T: Yeah….  Most of my paintings start as a figurative piece or landscape or something but while I’m working on it I start thinking about it in a different way. So I forget about the way the subject matter is supposed to look and I do whatever feels right for the painting….

A: Do you mean you may have exaggerated certain things…

T: Yeah. I’ve never done completely abstract work, though. But it seems like most of the teachers I had in college over the years did work that way. So maybe that was an influence. But I don’t think I could do purely abstract work just because humor is a big thing for me.

A: You do have a great sense of humor in your work.

T: Could you do humorous abstract work?  I suppose you could. There’s a challenge.

A: {laughs} yeah, maybe. Alright, well, that’s all I got…so….

T: I feel sorry for you. [for having to transcribe the interview…]

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