Essay from Norman J. Olson

A Philosophy of Art, Maybe

Norman J. Olson

I tell people that I am an intuitive artist…  I make art by starting with a surface, putting some marks on it and using the medium at hand to keep working on the piece until I feel that it is done, or it “feels right,” whatever that means…  I am not a naïve or self taught artist, as I have a Masters degree in painting and have studied art history all my life…  my area of study for many years has been Pre Raphaelite art and I have traveled extensively to see the original works by those artists…  ever since I was a child, I have loved looking at art, especially old master, European art and more recently, 19th Century academic and Victorian art…  my roots as an artist are firmly in the late 19th Century and I use materials and techniques from that era…  many people say that they see the influence of Picasso and Duchamp in my art and I’m sure that is there as in art school, I was given a heavy dose of Picasso and I have always thought Duchamp was the only really great artist of the 20th Century…

I remember that I discovered the magic of drawing as a pre schooler, drawing in the margin of books and on whatever paper I could find…  when I got to grade school (there was no kindergarten in the country school I attended) I discovered the encyclopedia which was full of information that fascinated me and pictures that I loved…  I began studying old time sailing ships and tried to use the diagrams and pictures in the encyclopedia to make crude drawings of my own invention which had the right sails in the right places….

In 6th grade, I discovered Michelangelo and a book called Anatomy for the Artist and spent the next six years studying anatomy and attempting to learn to draw people by learning the names and locations of all the muscles, sinews and bones… when I got to the University of Minnesota, I discovered life drawing which I loved loved loved…  I don’t know if they even do that in art schools any more, but in those days (late 1960s) a life drawing class would have a person come into the class naked for us to look at and draw…  I learned to draw what I saw and surprisingly, I learned that men and women naked do not look as different from one another as I would have thought…  and in fact, from across the room in many poses, it was not obvious what gender the model was…

so, given the importance of the nude in the art that I studied and loved, old master and Victorian drawings and paintings, and my fascination with how people look without clothes, I spent most of my artistic life making drawings and paintings more or less centered on images of naked men and women…  I very early on realized that this kind of art was never going to be very popular, would always make people more or less uncomfortable and would not bring me much in the way of commercial success in the greater world of art galleries and art shows… I also knew that my sort of old fashioned way of working, making drawings and paintings which were not formally innovative was out of step with what was going on the world of contemporary galleries  and museums so, I decided to work first for 20 years in a factory printing telephone books and then for 20 years in a civil service job and continue to do art as a hobby i.e. something one does for reasons other than to earn a living…


I never expected to have an audience for my art work at all so continued on through the years, making drawings and paintings, working intuitively, trying to let images flow from my unconscious mind without thinking much about it…  I have always loved music of every kind and found that listening to and thinking about music seemed to facilitate the flow of images from my brain through my fingers onto the surface of the drawing or painting that I was working on…  I have not done actual “life drawing” from a nude model for many years, but continued to make images of figures because that is what my subconscious seemed to want to do…  I often carry a small sketch book with me and find myself making sketches of people I see around me, especially when traveling…  I also found many years ago that I like making imaginative drawings in public places, where there are people around to look at and especially if there is music playing in the background…  so, while traveling, I have made many many drawings in the shade sitting by a pool at a Las Vegas hotel, or on the deck of a cruise ship for example… sometimes using India ink and/or watercolor, more often using ballpoint pen…  just because it was handy and I had developed a technique of chiaroscuro using ballpoint pen over many years while sitting on an ink can in the corner behind the old Wood-Hoe Telephone Directory Letterpress that I worked on for 20 years, watching the rolls of paper wind down, waiting to splice the new roll onto the old one…  drawing with a ballpoint pen on telephone book cover stock…

anyway, I was always a poet as well as an artist and after many years of regular submission and rejection of my poetry, I finally started having poems regularly published in the early 1990s and realized that some of the journals were using art and that the art they were using seemed less interesting than the drawings I was making…   so I started photocopying the drawings and submitting them along with poetry…  I found to my amazement that the literary people loved my art (while art people had never shown any interest in it whatsoever) and so now, nearly all of my 600 plus mature works of art have been published in the literary press – one place or another…  and I have a small audience that is interested in my work…  I also find that when I am drawing in public, people are fascinated by the images and want to talk about them…  this, I guess is for me, the same kind of public interaction that a gallery or museum artist would get from their vernissage…  people ask me “what does it mean” and I tell them, either, “I don’t have any idea what it means” or “it is an art work and you as the viewer have to decide what it means…” 


so, what I was trying to do here was to write about my philosophy of art, my aesthetic, I guess you would call it, and what I wound up talking about was the history of my practice…  which is to allow my intuition to work on a painting or drawing until it “feels right” or, “seems to be done…”  until the piece feels done, until it feels right, I can as easily tear a piece up/destroy it, as keep on working on it but if I do not do one or the other, the piece will keep on bothering me until I make it right or destroy it…  other than that, the only thing I have to say about my philosophy of making art is that it has to feel honest…  if I am trying to force it, or fake it, I usually wind up throwing the piece away once I realize that it feels dishonest…  also, the older I get (I am now 71) the more I realized that I do not understand art, life or philosophy very well at all and although I am a somewhat introspective person, I am not sure I really understand myself that well either…  I do however think I get insight about these things by looking at my artworks and trying to figure out what they mean and, why they exist… and seeing them published here and there…

Drawing by Norman J. Olson
Also by Norman J. Olson

You can see more of my art at: 

as well as some recent publications of poetry and art by doing a google image search for “Norman J. Olson”.

Medusa’s Kitchen…  a book of my poetry is available at: 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *