A painting spoke to Jackie Olson and told her she was an artist.
In the 1980s, Olson worked for the Indian Arts and Crafts store in Whitehorse. As she moved up the ranks, increasingly working with First Nations artists, she felt constrained. What did she know about art?
To learn more, she enrolled in a two-year foundation arts program at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.
Olson dabbled in everything: two and three-dimensional art, film making, computer art, photography, pottery and, of course, art history.
“I did very well,” she says. “But it was never my intention to be a practising artist.”
Between the first and second semester, she returned home. There was a crisis in her family. When Olson returned to Victoria for the second semester, she started painting a large canvas that changed her life.
“I was so mad at my brother, I began furiously working the paint, scratching on the canvas and saying, in the paint, what I wanted to say to him but couldn’t,” she says. “I sat back and thought, ‘Holy smokes – this is what I want to do’.”
Since that day, Olson has been an artist. The journey first took her to Calgary for further studies at the Alberta College of Art and Design.
She discovered her passion: large abstract expressionism paintings, incorporating a First Nation voice.
“I don’t use images, but elements of the land – feathers, quills, beads and handmade fibres with colours that are very earthbound – which is a contemporary approach to First Nation art,” says Olson.
Her paintings have resonance wherever they are shown. The work has exhibited widely across Canada and in Europe. She attended her shows in Munich, Germany and Zurich, Switzerland.
When Olson starts a piece, she doesn’t know what the painting is going to be about. She responds to what she’s feeling.
At exhibitions, people ask her what she’s trying to say, but she turns it back on them. “I ask them what they get from the painting. It always amazes me. A lot of people speak about getting an emotional gut feeling, whether sadness, peacefulness or serenity.
The emotions come out, often tears. They usually get from the work what I put in. I’m honoured.”
The objects Olson incorporates into her work are collected into neat piles in her studio. “It drives my husband crazy that I’m collecting these piles and piles that I’m going to use one day.” She collects quills and bones and even a moose neck with interesting hairs.
“I did a piece with fish bones. My dog tried to eat off a fish bone, tried to nibble off a piece. The Zurich Anthropology First Nation Museum was here to appraise the work when I saw the dog nibbling at it.”
They bought the piece and added the humorous story about the dog as additional information about the painting.
Lately, there have been so many pulls on Olson’s time that she hasn’t been able to paint as much as she’d like. Her first daughter Kalilah was born in 1999 and her second, Arianna, is now five.
Olson is a senior finance officer with the City of Dawson. Overseeing all the financial aspects of the city is a demanding responsibility. Despite these liens on her time, her last big show was in 2005. And she has concrete dreams.
“I bought Peabody’s Photo Parlour with the plan to continue with my job for the next couple of years, then shift focus to the store (Peabody’s) and the studio.
“There are so many things I want to explore and experiment with,” she says.
Her plan with the store is to offer Dawson residents art and gifts that aren’t available elsewhere in town. She has a strong commitment to the community where she was raised.
“My grandmother, Annie Henry, is a strong influence in my life. She lived on the land most of her life; I thought she was an amazing woman.
“Often when I’m gathering seeds and dieing natural objects, I feel like a shaman, a medicine woman, bent over her cauldron making her potions,” says Olson.
To see more of Olson’s paintings, go to www.jackieolson.com.
PHOTO: LULU KEATING