Celebrated western Pennsylvania abstract expressionist painter Chuck Olson gives an informal talk at the opening of his 'The Search for Images' exhibit Oct. 30 in the Colonial Arts Center's M.I.B. Gallery on Main Street. / Photo by Brian Bergstrom

Renowned Pittsburgh artist sheds light on his own personal ‘Search for Images’ at exhibit opening

BUCKHANNON – Ask renowned painter Chuck Olson about the purpose and function of art, and he’ll likely give you a simple, straightforward answer.

“When people ask me, ‘What is art about?’ the USA Today answer for me is, ‘It makes the intangible tangible,’” Olson said Saturday at the opening of his latest exhibit in downtown Buckhannon. “That’s because when you can’t find words for something, you make a visual, or you write a song, or you give somebody a diamond ring because you want to make these things tangible. You want to see their meaning, not just have it articulated and then let the words kind of evaporate.”

Widely known as the best abstract expressionist painter and collage artist in the Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania region, Olson’s exhibit, “The Search for Images,” examines how human beings use tangibles – the concrete images and objects they encounter daily – to bring to life concepts and experiences like wonder and imagination, happiness and despair, hunger and thirst.

Olson believes people continually collect those images throughout their everyday lives.

“In art, the studio like is like a laboratory,” he said. “We collect images all day long – colors and shapes from the day. And we go through all these things, and we have all these shapes and forms, and so they have to collect somewhere, and to me, painting is this idea of taking one’s pulse in a daily way. What’s here in this show are a variety of different thematic searches for an imagery, and that search for an image is always in a series.”

A peek inside the M.I.B. Gallery on the opening night of ‘The Search for Images,’ a collection compiled and created by painter/collage artist Chuck Olson. / Photo by Katie Kuba

Sponsored by ART26201, Olson’s “The Search for Images” display is open from 4-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings through Nov. 20 in the Colonial Arts Center’s M.I.B. Gallery, located at 48 E. Main St.

The collection is a group of paintings, collages and prints that symbolize three different themes in his own image-making, which are intended to evoke what Olson refers to as “childlike wonder and adult intellectual curiosity.” Viewers can drink in Olson’s sometimes vividly bold and colorful, other times subtle and precise, take on monuments, which represent his fascination with history and record-keeping; columns and paragraphs, through which he probes the patterns relevant in narratives; and kites, which illustrate simple whimsy. (Olson created the ‘Kites Series’ most recently during a weeks-long stay in New Mexico in September.)

Olson headed the Saint Francis University’s Department of Fine Arts for more than 40 years until 2019 and simultaneously worked as a studio artist. What he told the audience at the Oct. 30 talk is what he tells anyone he briefs on his background and origin story: After his father passed away when he was just in high school and his mother soon after that, the trajectory of his career changed: he no longer wanted to become a medical doctor and began viewing his true vocation as an artist and educator.

“There was this loss I felt, and when there is a loss, where there is this vacuum, how you fill that vacuum – and the vacuum itself – becomes a source of energy,” Olson said. “You grieve and you can stay there, and grieving takes a lot of energy, but I thought about making things. I thought, ‘If you lose something, make something.’ So, there’s an artistic restlessness in this collection. For me, it’s about, ‘How do we create our own curiosity?’ and ‘How do we sustain our own curiosity with what we have and what we do?’ For me, the studio was the thing.”

‘White Saddle,’ at left, is one of Olson’s works on display in the M.I.B. Gallery of the Colonial Arts Center. ‘The Search for Images’ will be on display from 4-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 20, 2021. / Photo by Katie Kuba

Olson’s pieces often depict a dialogue or conversation – often a tension – between different elements that may synchronize or conflict with one another. He hopes art enthusiasts see interactions, or “agreements and arguments,” between the various forces and elements in his paintings, collages and prints.

In the same vein, he believes the relationship between the artist and the viewer is an animated exchange.

For instance, when he arrived in Buckhannon one day prior to the opening of “The Search for Images,” he was struck by the way ART26201 president Bryson VanNostrand had arranged a series of pieces from several years ago with the more recently completed ‘Kite Series.’ Olson said he learned something new about his art and himself as an artist simply by studying VanNostrand’s placement (or juxtaposition) of the older thematic set with the 2021 Kite Series.

“When you go to your own opening as an artist, I never felt you held the moral high ground,” Olson said. “You’re there to discover something about yourself. You’re there to see it for the first time maybe or to learn something, and what I’ve learned from being here for 24 hours is that the next time a show comes around, I’m going to be doing something like this. It’s going to tell a story about energy or about [the idea that] ‘this is the decisive action of scissors’ and ‘this is the labor of paint’ and yet they share something. They share something in that they both have a kind of energy.”

Olson likened artwork to coral reefs, which collect a vast array of materials from the sea and also provide homes and sustenance for so many ocean-dwelling species. The coral reef not only shapes the life of those marine animals, but is shaped by them. Artwork, Olson said, is like a coral reef: it not only affects viewers’ emotions or thinking, but is also affected by other people’s interpretations of or reactions to it.

“I think the artist knows a great deal about the work, but there are some things the artist has no clue about,” he said. “If you say you have to do a painting about a glass of water, when does it become more than just a glass of water? When is it something sustaining?”

Olson wrapped up his talk by commending local residents who have nourished a blossoming arts scene in the City of Buckhannon, now home to two Main Street galleries, the M.I.B. Gallery and the Blaxxmith Shop Gallery, in addition to a smattering of public art displays, arts organizations and the co-op Artistry on Main. He encouraged residents and institutions to increase their support of art in all its forms, noting technology, math and science-based programs in colleges and universities and infrastructure in towns and cities are usually more reliably funded than the arts.

“The arts are as tough as nails, or weeds in the concrete. They’ll find their way,” Olson said. “The artists, they show us what we can do with what we have. They need money, they need support, they need a place to cast a big shadow if they can, and what you folks have done in this town … it launches so many different ideas.”

Olson describes his artistic process at the Oct. 30 artist’s reception/opening in the M.I.B. Gallery of the Colonial Arts Center. / Photo by Katie Kuba

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