Reopening The 'Storage Box': Painter Emilia Olson Returns To Her Art After 15-Year Hiatus

Aug 18, 2019

Hanging on the gallery walls at Central Vermont Medical Center are oil paintings of all sizes — from the very small to the very large — by Montpelier artist Emilia Olson. The exhibit is a result of Olson revisiting artwork she created, but then stored away, more than a decade ago.

Olson, who just turned 40, describes her paintings as "atmospheric surreal layers that reveal familiar images" and she likes to mix dark colors with bursts of bright images.

Check out our other Young At Art stories, about Vermont artists under 40, here.

Emilia Olson painted this toy-version of Botticelli's "Birth Of Venus" while attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. At the time, she said she didn't know what she was trying to say, but now she's returning to old work and creating something new with it as a way to find out.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Olson is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University — but upon graduation, she questioned her career as an artist because she doubted her ability to meet "the artistic standards" established by the school.

She moved back to Vermont and temporarily put her ambitions on hold while she made a living as a painting contractor. Olson placed a lot of her artwork from college in a storage box at her parents house.

“Once I closed that box it just, it was like … I couldn't reach into that place again where I was making work in the way that I expected myself to make work,” she said. “And so it really was that box and the storage of all that work really did represent an ending for me is what I felt at the time."

Emilia Olson looks through old artwork in her storage box at her childhood home in Montpelier. Olson is using her previous work from high school and college to create something new.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Olson had boxed up her past work, and there was little time to work on her art. Over a period of 15 years, her creative feelings slowly disappeared.

Then a happenstance meeting at a local bakery set a new path in motion. Olson ran into family friend Maureen Burgess, a well-established artist here in Vermont. She's had a long and celebrated career as a painter, printmaker and graphic designer.

Maureen O'Connor Burgess is the Central Vermont Medical Center Art Gallery coordinator and the mother of a grade school classmate of Emilia Olson's. Producing a show for Burgess, titled "Resurfaced," is what helped Olson get back into creating art again.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Ten years ago, Burgess helped create a major art gallery in Berlin at the Central Vermont Medical Center. The gallery occupies four huge walls on the main level of the hospital. It's a place to bring in new art, but Burgess hopes it's doing something even more.

"Thousands of people walk through here every week," Burgess said. "I mean literally thousands of people … and what better thing than to introduce them to something that's not related to being ill?"

Burgess pleaded with Olson to take the next year to prepare new artwork for an exhibition at the hospital. Olson reluctantly agreed — but the big question was how to restart her creative process.

Emilia Olson pulls out old artwork from high school and college that she may potentially use as she creates new pieces. She said she used to hear funny phrases and make "silly, little pieces" for fun.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

This journey brought Olson back to the box.

"What I needed to do was not have a blank canvas in front of me, but actually have the pieces of work that I had put into that storage box in front of me,” Olson said, “and they became the raw materials for the show."

Olson applied layers of new paint to the old pictures, created many new images, sanded some of the surfaces, and in some cases, she physically cut the paintings to make three-dimensional works of art.

Emilia Olson's structural art pieces, "Red Tapestry" and "Green Tapestry," are on display at Central Vermont Medical Center.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

The title of Olson's exhibition at the hospital gallery is called "Resurfacing." It reflects her approach to her new artwork and the changes that have taken place in her life.

“Because I had something to respond to and have a conversation with as I was painting," Olson said, "and I could also at the same time as making new work let go of this old work that had become very precious and crystallized for me."

This painting, "Pipes," is one of Emilia Olson's pieces that explores her interest in industrial materials.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Olson said she approached making her art very differently after a 15-year layoff — a rigid structure espoused by the college had been replaced by a more creative and spontaneous spirit.

"But what I didn't do this time — which I used to spend a lot of time on — is I didn't worry about bringing a particular rendering skill set to the painting," Olson said. "I didn't worry about trying to make this particular image really look three-dimensional in space. ... I was really worried about that in the past."

Emilia Olson said as she jumps back into creating art, she's interested in moving beyond one dimension toward more sculptural pieces. Here she holds up one such experiment, a bow made from old painted canvas.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

And although she hadn't created new art for more than a decade, Olson discovered that she had grown as an artist through her other life experiences.

"The things that I learned about color and the things I learned about … composition and what makes a good piece of artwork, what's compelling to me and potentially to others — that all developed in that time even though I wasn't making work,” Olson said.

Emilia Olson has her studio in the industrial underbelly of her Montpelier apartment building's storage locker. Pipes and other industrial shapes have appeared in her artwork for years.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR

Olson said the reaction to her exhibition has been positive and she plans to stay in Vermont as she considers her next step as an artist. But for right now, she is taking a cautious approach.

"Thinking just too big without being grounded is what got me in trouble after school, and I think ... potentially a lot of artists run into that, but certainly for me that was a problem,” Olson said. “So I am trying to just be like, can I get into the studio this weekend? That's kind of where I am at.”

Olson's exhibit at Central Vermont Medical Center is on display until Aug. 24.

This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes from Quantum Leap Capital.