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