When talent is cultivated and risks are taken masterpieces are created. When those masterpieces are discovered and treasured by millions worldwide – that is something truly extraordinary. Greg Olsen knows what it is to cultivate and take risks – to create his own inimitable path. Sharing his talent for art Greg Olsen has created something truly extraordinary as his masterpieces continue to inspire lives around the world.
Olsen grew up in the rural town of Iona, Idaho. There were no art galleries or museums there, so he credits some of his artistic talents to the family genes. His mom painted landscapes, and his dad worked with graphics. He also has uncles, cousins, and a brother who are artists. Olsen enjoyed being in the outdoors. He lived next to his grandparents’ farm and would spend his time sketching the barn and the animals. “Because there was not a lot of stuff to do for entertainment, I think drawing just became a form of entertaining myself,” he said. In high school, he had an exceptional art teacher who was very influential for many students. “He was really impactful, and I was lucky to have him,” Olsen remembered. After high school, he attended Utah State University and studied illustration. While at USU he met his wife, Sydnie Cazier. Eventually, he left school and took a job as an in-house artist, creating signs and murals and whatever else was needed.
A casual lunch with an old friend one day would leave a lasting influence. The friend asked him, “If you could do whatever you wanted to do, what would that be?” Olsen replied, “Really, I’d like to just quit my job and paint whatever I want.” His friend inquired how much the Olsen’s rent was. When he stated that his rent was only $197 a month, the friend told him that it would never get any easier to focus on art. Realizing they’d never have rent that low again Greg and Sydnie made a life-changing decision. “He kind of got us psyched up, and I quit my job and just started painting. We’d saved enough to live for maybe a couple of months without income.”
This friend’s father was a wealthy doctor, who also wanted to encourage Olsen’s art. He offered to host an art show for him. “I painted like crazy, and I framed up all my old college art assignments,” Olsen said. “They got all their friends and neighbors, you know, ‘please show up for this poor kid. You don’t have to buy anything, just come and be a body here!’ And it was a really nice show.” Olsen recalled that they printed up some nice invitations and had refreshments catered. “We sold enough to pay for those nice refreshments and nice invitations, and that was it,” he laughed. “I probably had 40 or 50 things, but they were weird things, like school assignments. Not something most people would want to put above their sofa in their house! It was a depressing week after that show. I thought, ‘What have I done? I’ve quit my job!’”
But, unbeknownst to Olsen, the wheels were already turning. A week or so later, he received a call from someone who had seen his work at the art show. The man offered him a commission. Olsen took it on, and that sent him down a new path for the next decade. He did commissions and all sorts of paintings. He moved to Arizona for five years and spent some time painting western art. Eventually, he partnered with a publisher and began doing prints. “That helped because our income wasn’t dependent upon just selling every original that I painted,” explained Olsen.
One of his biggest motivations to get through the first part of his career was the fact that there was absolutely no backup plan. He told of a time when nothing was selling, and his house was nearing foreclosure. He considered getting a “real job.” He and his wife went to the grocery store to buy a newspaper, and they looked through the want ads. “After about half an hour doing that, we realized I wasn’t qualified to do anything! So, Syd said, ‘Well, get back in there and paint something that will sell.’
Somehow it worked out, but, you know, those were scary times,” he recalled.
He laughed; however when talking about his beginnings. “My first studio at home, after I was married, was the kitchen table. And then it progressed to the baby’s bedroom. I built a partition 7 feet high in the middle of the bedroom, and I painted a fairy tale scene on one side for the baby. The other side was a 4×8 foot cubicle that was my studio. And if I was working late hours at night, and the baby was asleep, I had a giant quilt that I’d put over the top so the light wouldn’t wake the baby. So, I was in this little fort, like I’d make as a kid. And that was my studio!”
In 1988, another influential moment transpired. The couple now had four children; the youngest was 6 months old. A friend, who had purchased some paintings, asked if Olsen could get a babysitter. He said he could, thinking the friend wanted to go to dinner. Instead, Olsen and his wife were invited to go to Israel with the other couple. “They wanted to take Sydnie and me with them, and they would pay for the whole thing,” said Olsen. “We couldn’t have afforded to go. My friend said, ‘I think you need to see that part of the world. It might influence your art,’” Olsen remembered. “Going over there really did have an influence on me.”
While on the trip, Olsen climbed the Mount of Olives. This sparked the idea for one of his most popular paintings, ‘O Jerusalem.’ “I painted it in our windowless, unfinished basement in Provo. There were cobwebs and stuff, and I had little light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. And I was okay there,” he said. “But then I had a collector come to see some paintings. He was a big Amway rich guy from Alpine, and he had gold chains and rings and drove a huge Cadillac, and he wanted to see some work. So, I took him downstairs into this basement. The ceiling was low, and our oldest daughter had just been given a rabbit from her boyfriend . . . and if you don’t change a rabbit cage every day . . . so there’s this rabbit hutch in our basement with this,” he laughed. “Anyway, I took him down to look at some paintings, and he asked how much one was, and he just looked around like ‘what do you do with the money, buddy, cause this is like a dungeon.’ He didn’t buy anything. He left, and afterward, Syd said, ‘Greg, maybe you need to think about looking a little more professional.’” After that, they built a studio behind the house in Provo.
Although Olsen knew his galleries wouldn’t carry religious paintings, he painted them anyway. “It kind of took on a life of its own. I didn’t say, ‘I want to be a Christian artist,’ but it was just fascinating subject matter to me.”
Olsen also continued to create Western art, in addition to paintings of families and children, based on his own life at the time.
On a whim, his publisher selected one of Olsen’s Christian “inspirational pieces” to print – and it sold out. The publisher was thrilled and started a whole new division to produce Christian art! That first successful Christian painting set Olsen on a path to touch the lives of people around the globe. “I grew up with images of Jesus that were a little harsh, and that just wasn’t my concept. So, I was trying to do something that was a little more approachable, and maybe that resonated with some people,” Olsen explained. “I’ve used 10 or 12 different models as a starting point. You know, someone I can dress in a costume and pose and light a certain way. And then, I use my own thoughts and feelings, and creativity to morph that model into what I think of as a symbol of, in this case, Jesus. So, I don’t consider myself portraying him even accurately,” he continued. “I try to capture my feelings about that subject and hope that other people won’t get too caught up in the definiteness of my brush strokes. I hope it will just be a springboard. If they’re a Christian, they can still think of Him [Jesus] in their own personal way.”
Olsen admitted that his spiritual subject matter can be a bit overwhelming at times. “It’s so daunting. How do you do justice to what people think of as a divine subject matter?” He told about a time he felt “paralyzed” from attempting to portray something that was so beyond the capabilities of his regular tools and supplies from the art store. “And then I had this real peaceful thought come to me one day, which was like, ‘Greg, just relax about it. Just have fun. Give it your best shot. You’re never going to create the perfect painting, so you might as well just have fun each day when you stand in front of that easel. And if you’re enjoying it, there will be somebody somewhere who might also enjoy it.’ And that was enough for me. And since then, I’ve tried to just enjoy what I do.”
Fortunately, there are people everywhere who also enjoy his art. But Olsen doesn’t take credit for the emotions his paintings evoke. “In this genre, you get extremes. Some people are irate that you would try to portray Jesus, and it’s really gratifying if someone connects to it. But I’ve learned a long time ago to try not to take criticism too personally, or praise too personally,” he said. “My mom would like everything I did, and half the time she’d be wrong, you know, it just wasn’t that good. And then there are people who will never like what you do. I’ve had to separate myself a little bit from that.” Olsen continued, “We all like a pat on the back or to hear a nice story that something’s been helpful, and I really do appreciate those. But I think sometimes, especially with pieces with Jesus in them, people bring a lot more to the piece than I could actually put into it. In other words, it may just trigger a special experience in them that maybe has more to do with them, than the image they’re looking at. Because someone else can look at the same image, and it has a totally different effect.”
He explained further. “Music, for example, kind of just sweeps you away and takes you wherever it wants you to go. I mean it’s so immediate. In painting, I’ve noticed, the person has to slow down. They kind of have to give something to the piece, their time, some mental energy, some thoughts, ponder it a little bit. And if people are willing to do that, then it often gives back in some way. Or it is a vehicle to have a unique experience. But I think that often says as much about the viewer as the artwork.”
His personal favorite is a painting he created for himself of his wife, Sydnie. “It’s kind of a sentimental favorite because, as well as I knew her, I hadn’t ever spent days painting her and just looking at her. She posed for me live, and it was an intimate thing to just stare at her all day long, and we had nice conversations. Modeling’s hard, so she’s actually painted as though she’s asleep because she was asleep some of the time,” he laughed.
ART AS LIFE
Through the years the Olsen family has grown. They now have 6 children and 17 grandchildren. After raising their family in Provo, they wanted to find a new place to call home. While searching for their perfect place, Sydnie told Greg she’d ‘know it when she sees it’. It’s no surprise they chose the Heber Valley. They have lived here for several years now, and they love it. “We’ve just thoroughly enjoyed it here,” Olsen said. “Everyone’s been so nice. And the energy is different. If you drive up the canyon from Provo, which has become so busy, and you come out of the canyon, it’s like my blood pressure goes down. It’s just felt wonderful to be here.”
Our valley’s unique environment has seeped into his artwork. “Moving into this studio has kind of changed my color palette because I have more light here than I’ve had before,” he explained. “In Provo, we were right up against the mountains, but so close that we didn’t see a sunrise for 30 years. We had trees, and I could never really see the sky. . . . Here it’s changed that. I’ve noticed my color palette has changed from kind of earthy, Rembrandt tones to brighter.”
His innovative studio also includes one special feature that is a favorite of the grandkids. “When I was a little kid, we had big cottonwood trees, and we always had a rope swing in them,” he said. “When I was planning this studio, I knew it would have really high ceilings,” Olsen added a swing in the middle of the studio that stretches down from the over-25-foot-high ceiling. “We made the swing high enough to clear the furniture, and I put in this little step. And I do get in it occasionally. It just releases endorphins, ‘cause I just start grinning and feel goofy, like a kid. And I can look at my paintings, and it allows me to get close, and then far back.” He even has a little bucket swing he can swap in when the youngest grandkids visit.
Olsen is appreciative of all those who have helped him to achieve success, especially his wife, Sydnie. “Syd has been wonderful!” he said. “If I would be down, she would be up, and we helped each other. We’ve had lots of people be very helpful and generous, and collectors have been so supportive. I still pinch myself; because nobody needs art like they need food or anything like that, so I kind of marvel that they’ll spend their hard-earned dollars to help my family.”
When asked if he has any advice for young artists, Olsen said, “I think I’ve had the most enjoyment just kind of following my heart, doing what I like to do. So, if someone has artistic interests, pick a subject matter you enjoy that’s fulfilling for you. Try to learn your craft as best you can, but then just do it,” he encouraged. “I mean, I was not always great at art. The first grade I got in my high school art class was a C minus. And I was all depressed about that, but I just stuck with it and just always believed that if I worked hard, that some good things might happen. So, practice, practice, practice. Get sketchbooks and fill them up and find some heroes in the artistic field . . . and practice emulating them.”
So where does he go from here? Greg Olsen has already achieved the kind of accomplishments that most artists only dream about. “I spent one summer,” he said, “where I’d get up early and start working on something, and I’d say at the end of the day I’m going to sign my name, and it’s done. And I did a whole series of pieces like that, and I had a blast that summer. I’m thinking now I might like to try something just for fun again.”