George Olson

ASBA Diane Bouchier Artist Award For Excellence in Botanical Art
by Barbara Rose

Every morning, George Olson climbs behind the wheel of his Chevy pick-up truck for the short drive to the farm where his wife, Pat, grew up. A tenant farms their 180-acre property in northwestern, Ill., near their home in the town of Woodhull (population 900), but the farm’s outbuildings provide what he calls “a kind of playground” for outdoor pursuits from hauling brush to composting.

His daily visits allow him to keep a close eye on two prairie restorations, including the one he helped his late father-in-law seed with a generous sampling of native grasses more than 30 years ago.

When he arrived in Illinois in 1954 to attend Augusta College, the flat farmland initially was a bit of a letdown for a Minnesotan who had grown up with spectacular views of Lake Pepin and Mississippi River bluffs. “It took a little getting acquainted,” he recalls. “You had to know where to look.”

With his father-in-law pointing the way, Olson could begin to imagine the vast tall-grass prairie that awed early explorers and inspired mentions by writers as diverse as Charles Dickens, Margaret Fuller and William Cullen Bryant. His explorations and study coincided with a growing interest in native plants. It gradually dawned on Olson, a lifelong Midwesterner, “I was right in the heart of the old tall-grass prairie.”

This discovery deepened into an abiding interest, focusing his art on often overlooked plants and producing a distinguished body of work that celebrates a quintessentially American landscape. His portraits of more than 150 prairie species, his books, lectures, gallery talks and more than 80 solo shows here and in the United Kingdom bring the best of botanic art to a broad public. For his achievements, he is the 2014 winner of the ASBA’s Diane Bouchier Artist Award for Excellence in Botanical Art.

“George Olson has devoted his life to celebrating a habitat that does not draw attention to itself.  He has done so with such skill and passion, that he has made the prairie his own,” said author Robert McCracken Peck, curator of art and senior fellow at the Academy of Natural Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “George captures more than individual plants with his paintbrush. He captures whole eco-systems, and conveys a sense of place.”

Born in 1936, the youngest of six children, Olson picked up a pencil when he was still a toddler. “I grew up with the idea that everybody was an artist,” he recalls, because his siblings did a lot of drawing. They all moved on to other pursuits, but George never stopped.

“He’s a heck of a cartoonist,” says Bill Bondeson, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and a friend from their undergraduate days at Augustana in Rock Island, Ill., where Olson cartooned for the student newspaper. “He has a wicked sense of humor,” Bondeson adds.

Olson went on to earn a Masters of Fine Art in 1963 from the University of Iowa in Iowa City before accepting a faculty position at Ohio’s College of Wooster, where he taught for 37 years.

Initially, the young artist fell under the sway of New York’s abstract expressionists. He painted big, broad oils for about a decade before moving into printmaking. His first plant studies were done while on a yearlong sabbatical in 1972 in England, the first of five sabbaticals he would spend amid London’s museums and gardens. His plant studies were inspired initially by Giacometti’s chrysanthemums and by masters such as DaVinci, Durer and Botticelli.

England is an ideal setting to nurture an interest in plants, including native North American plants that captured British attention. Today, Olson’s works are in the collections of six British institutions including London’s British Museum (Natural History), where he had a solo show in 1990, “Plant Studies from the American Prairies.”  

In the U.S., his works are in more than 20 public collections including the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation in Pittsburgh, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where he was artist in residence in 1992.

As his interest in prairie plants deepened in the 1980s, he met botanists, curators, librarians and others who shared his interests in cities from London to Chicago and St. Louis--“wherever I’ve put down roots for awhile,” he says. “I’ve never presented myself as an expert but as a student of the prairie.”

His book with an essay by author John Madson, The Elemental Prairie, (University of Iowa Press, 2005), contains 60 of his watercolors.

George Yatskievych, a curator at the Missouri Botanic Garden, recalls Olson contacting him initially by mail about 30 years ago for help identifying a plant. He still receives occasional sketches or pieces of plants wrapped in brown paper along with Olson’s queries.

“I see the importance of George’s work in that it bridges the gap between the scientific and anyone who appreciates art,” he says.  “As a botanist, you look for the ‘soul’ of the plant, what characterizes it. He does a very good job of communicating what’s special about a plant.”

Olson feels a certain kinship with writers and artists who have struggled since the 16th Century to capture the scale and impact of tall grass prairie. “Because of the vastness and emptiness and the flat horizon line, some artists have found the prairie quite overwhelming,” he says, adding, “What we have now is remnants.”

At the farm, he keeps a sharp eye out for invasive species in the half-acre parcel that he and his wife call the Johnson Prairie, for her late father. The grasses they planted--big bluestem, Indian grass, wild rye and others--seeded a second prairie along a fence line, and Olson removed the fence to allow the grasses to expand. Every April, he burns the two prairies.

He begins his days at the farm--summer, winter, rain or shine. “I love bad weather,” he says. “I’ve always been a big fan of all four seasons.” His love is evident in his art, in the textures, colors and gestures that capture plants in all seasons. Most days, he heads back home to his studio and a cup of coffee around 10 am.  “It’s a little like summer camp,” he jokes. “We usually keep to a schedule.”

A wall of books in his studio chronicles decades of study of topics from art history to the folklore of plants. On his drawing table in November were several plant fragments for a small watercolor—an 18-by-14 inch portrait of multiple plants. He begins with a meticulous pencil drawing.

Fall is a busy season at the farm and at home—there are oak leaves to burn and softer leaves to haul to his ripening compost heaps--so time is too limited to start a big painting. “There are a lot of commitments, and I try not to let them become distractions,” he says. “If you wait until you have time for something big, pretty soon the months have gone by and you haven’t done anything. I try to draw every day.”

Small works offer a chance to experiment with different techniques, he says. “You can’t just turn things into a formula. You have to keep trying different ways of doing things.”

Watercolor “is still fraught with a lot of problems,” he says. For example, “you may think you’ve arrived at the right green at the beginning of a watercolor, and when you finish a large painting and set it up with a different light,” you’re disappointed.

“You never get to the point where everything is easy,” he adds. “You sometimes think, ‘Why am I having all this trouble when I’m supposed to be good at this?’”

Bondeson, among the many private individuals who collect Olson’s paintings, sees no signs of the artist’s struggles. He appreciates his bold compositions coupled with meticulous detail.  “The organization of the piece is elegant,” he says.  

“What Audubon did for birds,” he says, “George does for plants.”

  • George Olson working on Napaea dioica, Glade Mallow, watercolor and graphite. Photo courtesy George Olson.
  • Rubus allegheniensis, Wild Blackberry, watercolor on paper, George Olson, 2010.
  • Sorghum bicolor, Broomcorn, Watercolor on Paper, 22" x 17.5", George Olson.
  • Silphium cv. and Silphium lacinatum, Dock and Compass Plant, Graphite and watercolor, 30” X 24”, George Olson.
  • Silphium laciniatum, Compass Plant, Watercolor on paper, 21” x 28.5”, George Olson.
  • George Olson with his Napaea dioica at the opening of Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World, Chicago Botanic Garden, 2010.