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Arts & Culture

Artist on Artist: Gary Sweeney interviews Dennis Olsen

Photo: Meredith Dean, License: N/A

Meredith Dean

Character study: Dennis Olsen and Gary Sweeney reenact one of the prints in “Flash Fictions”

San Antonio artist Dennis Olsen has recently ended an amazing 33-year career teaching at University of Texas—San Antonio. A native of St. Louis, Mo., his charmed life has enabled him and his wife Meredith Dean to travel and exhibit their work all over the world. After discovering printmaking at University of California—Los Angeles, Dennis spent a year in Madrid on a Fulbright Scholarship and ended up staying in Europe during the political turmoil taking place in the U.S. in the late 1960s. After falling in love with Florence, Italy, Dennis established the Santa Reparata Graphic Art Centre (now the Santa Reparata International School of Art) in 1970, where he and Meredith spend their off-season.

Since being diagnosed two years ago with a life-threatening illness, Dennis has been on a tear—working feverishly on a body of monoprints and etchings at a pace that would flatten the average printmaking grad student. These are some of the most amazingly complex prints I’ve ever seen, and every time I visit his studio, he shows me yet another process he’s just invented.

As with most of the artists I’ve interviewed, Dennis is also a ridiculously talented musician—a friend told me he “knows all the chords on the guitar.” As if that’s not enough, his hidden talent is that he’s a world-class whistler. (I’m not sure if they even have a “world-class” for whistlers, but he’s the best I’ve ever seen.)

Dennis is currently showing his “Flash Fiction” prints, along with Meredith Dean’s “Polarities” at REM Gallery.

Did you grow up in an artistic household? What was your first experience with art?
No, I didn’t. I was at the St. Louis Museum of Art as a teenager, and I saw a small Ben Shawn painting of a man with a peg leg walking up a red staircase. His work made a huge impression on me at the time, and it’s a shame that Ben Shawn has been all but forgotten today.

You went to UCLA to study with legendary printmaker John Paul Jones, who was later at UC-Irvine when I was there. What was so good about him as a printmaker?
His etchings were lush, and he had an amazing way of putting aquatint over soft-ground, and then scraping back the layers and getting beautiful results. Later on, he did those dark, moody portraits he’s famous for.

What is it that draws you to printmaking?

There’s a lot of craft involved, and I love working with a lot of tools. Printmaking allows you to invent your own way of working; artists are always inventing new processes and techniques with print. I am, however, not the most devoted printer: I love making the first print, but I almost never run complete editions. That’s probably why I make a lot of monoprints.

You were in Europe in the late ’60s, during some turbulent times. It seems to me that there’s a generation of youth that has no idea a cultural revolution took place. Do you think that the changes that were brought about had a lasting impact?
The reason I stayed in Florence in 1968 was that I was traumatized by the political turmoil back here in the States. The Vietnam War, Kennedy and King were killed, there were race riots—and there was a revolution in France that made a huge change in Europe. I was glad to stay there.

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