Selective Focus: Carolyn Olson


Carolyn Olson takes extremely ordinary daily events and turns them into big, colorful studies of life and relationships.

C.O.: I am primarily a narrative painter working in either gouache, water-based oil paint or pastel. I have also experimented a bit with sculptural figures made out of plywood or iron.

A bio photo from an oil on board 36" x 48" called "Halloween Costume"

Self-portrait called “Halloween Costume.” Oil on board 36″ x 48″


My subject matter has always been based in my daily life – family/friends, observations of others – often strangers. I’m from Duluth originally and moved to the Cities after high school to study painting and graphic design. From there I moved to Mississippi where I worked as a graphic designer for a non-profit organization dedicated to social reform. Being one of the few white folks in our neighborhood I spent a lot of time observing, listening, and re-examining my place and work. My drawings and paintings at that time were my way of trying to understand the people and the place where I was living. Being from the north and white – it was a cultural education. My paintings were universal stories such as a mother’s love for her family, children playing – poverty and race became a part of my subject matter.

"Cooking Stew with Carrots" oil on canvas 24" x 36"

“Cooking Stew with Carrots” oil on canvas 24″ x 36″


As a woman I specifically looked at women and relationships – how we manage our lives. I still focus on the home, multi-generational family life, work vs. personal pressures and societal expectations. Most of these narratives come out as everyday experiences – hanging laundry outside, combing your sister’s hair while she holds her baby and baking cookies while kids run through the kitchen.

"Read to Your Sister While I Get the Laundry" pastel on paper 23" x 35"

“Read to Your Sister While I Get the Laundry” pastel on paper 23″ x 35″


Moving back to Minnesota I again saw with a new perspective. My work continues to be narrative and about relationships. I talk about community and family. My figures are expressive – exaggerated limbs physically expressing through gesture their attitudes and concerns.

"Color Study in Red and Orange" Gouache on paper 8" x 16"

“Color Study in Red and Orange” Gouache on paper 8″ x 16″


I remember drawing like this in elementary school. Teachers used to have me draw pictures of students and teachers involved in different projects and activities. I’ve always enjoyed drawing. The expressive figures came about in my early 20’s after living in the South for a few years. I have continued to draw in this style.

"Color Study in Blue and Green" Gouache on paper 8" x 16"

“Color Study in Blue and Green” Gouache on paper 8″ x 16″


I enjoy working in the studio. It is a relaxing and enjoyable place for me to create interesting compositions and play with color. My challenge is time. I’m a wife and mother, sister and friend, public school teacher and artist – all things I love. During the school year being a teacher consumes my attention and energy. This is the challenge I paint about – women are stretched. A professor I admired greatly once told me, “You can’t have it all. You will lose something.” Her first marriage ended in divorce. I think of that often as I make choices and balance life.

"Painting the Back Porch" oil on canvas 24" x 36"

“Painting the Back Porch” oil on canvas 24″ x 36″


My work is always at Lizzards, downtown Duluth – original paintings as well as giclee prints. I am also showing at 47 Degrees Gallery in Knife River – giclee prints primarily.

You can also see new and old work on my web site

"Walking Downtown After Music Lessons" oil on canvas 24" x 36"

“Walking Downtown After Music Lessons” oil on canvas 24″ x 36″


I am currently working on a piece for a upcoming show at AICHO Gallery in support of Standing Rock. The exhibition is about water quality issues which I had painted about years ago. My concerns then, and now are about the high mercury levels in the fish found in the St. Louis River. I understand that the mercury stays in our body for years. Women, in particular, interested in having children should be concerned about the fish they eat from this river.


Michelle Ronning

about 8 years ago

I love this creative woman's art! She makes the ordinary look magical. She transforms every day into a day of color, laughter, and life


about 8 years ago

Carolyn's talent is almost overwhelming! She is such a gift to the Earth.

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