Asking the right questions with Rebecca Olsen

Interview with the Florence-born artist and educator, Rebecca Olsen

Jane Farrell
January 28, 2021 - 14:54

Florence born and a forward thinker, artist and educator Rebecca Olsen’s medley of roles blends into an intriguing and exciting combination that is revealed in her bright and bold works. 

 

 

Rebecca Olsen

 

 

An educator’s job is to give students the capacity to ask the right questions and how to find the answers. If you’re already telling someone this is how it’s done, then you’re not making art. What are the questions we should be asking and how do we find the answers?” is Rebecca Olsen’s opening gambit. This approach is brought into all aspects of her life and work. 

 

 

As executive director of SRISA - Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence, Olsen seeks to bring the study-abroad program to all, not the few: “When we had to close in the spring, I thought about how, right now, most people are in survival mode, but how can we couple that with thriving and how can we better what we’re doing. I try to take every problem and see how it’s an opportunity. We will maintain the virtual program that we created over this period for the people who may not be able to physically undertake a study abroad program. For years, I’ve been wanting to design a program for the deaf. As an educator, it’s so important to bring education and opportunity to those who may not have access to it. My mother is 100 per cent deaf, but she studied in Spain when she was 18; it was life changing for her, so I know that it can be done.”

 

 

Rebecca Olsen's much-loved studio space

 

 

The multi-media artist’s works are most frequently abstract interpretations of the urban city, with a geometric grounding that gives orderliness to otherwise chaotic cityscapes. The global crisis changed her artistic output: “When you’re making art and suddenly have something so big happen around you, you start to question how that can be integrated into what you’re doing. I couldn’t just go back to what I was doing before and have it make sense. I had an upcoming solo exhibition titled River of Consciousness at the Hunt Gallery in Saint Louis, which got cancelled, but will now be a virtual exhibition viewable from February 19. It gave me an opportunity to think about my work in a different way, and so I’m introducing time into my work and making sculptures that tie into my passion about accessibility and how I want art to be interacted with by the audience. I wanted my sculptures to be touched, so I’m sad that won’t be possible. They are supposed to remind you of children’s blocks that are asking you to touch and play with them. Instead, I’m going to create a stop motion and I’m looking to incorporate braille into the works. In my artistic process, I often think about the phrase ‘unfettered play’. I allow myself to make mistakes and to play with material. I try to not be overly intellectual with the process, it’s more about learning as I’m going. My works are varied but every work is a piece of a puzzle towards something else and they refer to each other. The works are born out of each other.”

 

 

Untitled sculpture by Rebecca Olsen

 

 

For an artist so engaged in the exteriors of buildings and the cityscape, a forced confinement within the home has naturally led to a change in subject: a reflective series of photographs of her two children sleeping. The intimate black-and-white shots convey the sense of peace and tranquillity found in sleep, but also a feeling of the world being paused. Art is important in Olsen’s family life: her children are regular visitors to the studio and are often called on for their opinions on their mother’s works. Their artistic instincts are no surprise given Olsen’s familial background: “I was born in Florence and we moved to the US when I was six, but we came back every summer because we have a country home here. It’s kind of an Under the Tuscan Sun story. My parents bought two houses in a village of seven on the top of a hill in Casentino. We were the first ones there and then we brought in a whole community of mostly Americans, who built the walls themselves and did the plumbing, and so forth. There was no running water or electricity when we moved in, when I was a baby. My father, mother, grandfather and stepmother are all artists. When you live with artists, you live with people who are in the creative process at all times, so art was something that was very natural. I’m told that, at 18 months, I would sit in my highchair and draw. Growing up in the country, we didn’t have toys, there was no television and there were no kids around, so I had to entertain myself. Everything I found had the potential to be something else. That’s really also how I have become as a mother, allowing my children to experience art as part of our lives. It’s our language. I hate art that prescribes this and then tells you to do that; that’s just following directions. You need to give children the material and then you let them do what they are going to do; that’s creativity. I taught my son how to draw a box in perspective because that’s a technical thing, but it’s the freedom to use materials and play with them that forms an ability to think creatively, which I think applies to everything too.”

 

 

Rebecca Olsen’s virtual exhibition titled River of Consciousness will be viewable from February 19. Access details will be available at www.rebeccaolsen.com and on Instagram @rebolsen and @rebeccaolsenphotography. She has gallery representation at the Whitegrid Gallery in Berlin.

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