Big ideas: Otsego’s Gene Olson creates large, quirky, profound art that sells
by Bruce Strand, Arts editor
A copper fountain centerpiece of a Minneapolis penthouse, a flowing 120-foot aluminum abstract gracing a college PE center in Wisconsin, a stylish bronze and granite trophy used by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), a wall piece depicting waves of grass in a Florida restaurant, a 36-inch copper foot replacement on a giant statue in New Ulm.
What these far-flung creations have in common is that they all sprang from the meaty hands and fertile mind of Gene Olson, an Otsego-based “artist and entrepreneur,” in his words, with a penchant for large and rather startling objects.
You may have seen Olson’s works locally if you follow Elk River Area Arts Alliance functions, such as the towering ladle that greets patrons of the ArtSoup festival and the robot-like headless man with a barbecue grill in his stomach at a 3D exhibit in the gallery on Jackson Avenue.
Olson, 63, works alongside fellow artist Chris Wilson, a painter, on a plot of land her father bought years ago that was once a farm, in the Otsego area.
On a recent visit, the Star News had a tour of the grounds, soaking in Olson’s various works, ranging from quirky to beautiful to profound.
Olson showed his most recent commission, a sword blade forged from bronze, for a monument to War of 1812 sailors and soldiers in the Finger Lakes region of New York, to replace a sword that was stolen. The company that needed the sword knew Olson because they also built the statue of Herman the German in New Ulm that needed his foot replaced a years ago.
“On the statue, his foot had been trashed, worn out, and they needed it replaced, so they called the Guild of Metal Smiths and got my name,” said Olson. “Later the same outfit needed help for the statue at the Finger Lakes.”
Continuing the tour:
There’s Pork-an-Khamun, a pan with a cover portraying a pig, built as a funerary barge — he got the idea when Duke in “Wizard of Id” made one for his pig — but used by Olson and Wilson to put pork ribs in.
There’s a big dragon’s head of aluminum which he made after he bought a tool for shaping metal and saw that the indents “looked like scales” like a dragon has.
There’s “Fire in the Belly,” a 5-foot steel creature with legs and a torso built around a working outdoor grill. Gene calls him “Bubba.”
There’s the 20-foot high ladle for ArtSoup. The group organizers asked him for a soup can but he thought a ladle would be more expressive.
There’s a shotgun that morphs into an elephant head; a twisty sculpture that starts with a face melding into a torso and then an owl and then a mouse the owl caught, back to the face, called “The Dreamer;” and a square of granite topped by a circular metal piece which PG&E of California presents to innovative employees.
The most powerful piece in the yard is “The Sacrifice,” his response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He fashioned a huge granite wedge crashing through protective bars, stopping just short of a fragile ostrich egg (he substitutes a marble egg when it’s not on display), with symbols of several religions in a limestone base.
Though never an athlete or particularly interested in sports, one of Olson’s best achievements is the sports-themed sculpture adorning the walls of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s physical education building — a 120-foot abstract piece of energized aluminum in gold, silver and bronze, called “Dot Dash Derby,” depicting athletes accelerating across the face of the building, then sliding feet first. “That’s the farthest I have ever stretched a few thousand dollars,” he reflects.
Also in River Falls, Olson made a fountain of slate and bronze as a memorial for a doctor in a hospital. Commissions also include a Fountains Country Club (Lake Worth, Fla.) restaurant’s woven copper wall piece called “Waves of Grass,” a Minneapolis attorney’s penthouse copper fountain, and Tosei Corp. of Tokyo’s 11-foot copper, brass and stainless steel piece called “The Eels.”
Olson grew up in Lake City, where his main interest in high school was vocational agricultural training even though he lived in town.
Olson attended the U of M, majoring in forestry at first, and later pre-med. He had a job in the research lab, looked around at the doctors and decided, “Naahh, I don’t think I would make much of a doctor.”
Olson did a little acting at the “U” which led to finding his true calling. A theater friend named Jack got him a job “building stuff” for a Machiavelli play at the St. Paul campus that needed shapes and decorations for a Florentine street scene. Jack later recommended him to Children’s Theatre Company, which was expanding and needed help.
Among his tasks was running a sewing machine because they found out he was the rare male with that particular skill. “I had asked my mom to make a sail for my canoe in high school and in self-defense, she told me, ‘You are going to learn how to sew.’”
He doesn’t sew any more. His equipment in the shop includes an English wheel for stretching and smoothing metal, chains for hoisting his heavy pieces, a foundry, and a Pullmax brand Swedish shear that’s “like a big sewing machine” and puts dents and contours into metal.
Olson makes and sells tools that resemble chisels but are dull on the end, used to shape metal on small projects such as details on his pig.
But mainly Olson creates. From anything and everything. We noticed that strewn around the shop was all manner of metal junk. He apologized for the mess, but noted, “You never know what can be turned into art at some point.”