Arts & Culture
Artist on Artist: Gary Sweeney interviews Dennis Olsen
Published: June 18, 2014
Along with this impressive outpouring of artwork you’re currently engaged in, you’ve also found time to organize and document your life’s work. Have there been any discoveries or surprises in that process?
Well, I’ve discovered that I’ve kept way too much stuff! There’s work that I want to get rid of, and then I had successful periods where my work was fluid and organic, and then I suddenly changed direction. I’ve discovered that I almost always took a series too far before I moved on.
Yes, but it’s natural to do that. And it’s certainly preferable to ending a series before its completion.
Yes, I suppose so.
If you had to choose between doing art and making music, what would you decide?
Well, I did decide. I was in California, and my friend and music partner Steve Gillette went to Europe and came back with some success, and I decided that my artwork was more important. I want to point out that the question of being able to make a living doing these things never entered into it in those days.
You and Meredith split your time between San Antonio and Florence, Italy. What’s the biggest difference you find living in the two countries?
Well, I can tell you why I moved back here (San Antonio): Life can be difficult for a foreigner, bureaucratically. For instance, we weren’t allowed to buy a car (!), we had to have a friend buy one for us. On the other side, Europeans have a saying: “We don’t live to work, we work to live.” They can teach us a lot about enjoying life.
Name three decisions you’ve made that changed the course of your life.
In 1962, I moved to Spain for 18 months and went to school at the University of Spain. That began my love of Europe, and I later went to Florence as a Fulbright scholar. And then I decided to stay there, and I opened Santa Reparata Art School in 1970. The third event was meeting my wife Meredith, in 1981.
I ask this of everyone I interview who teaches art: What’s the most important advice you give your students?
You need to keep producing without waiting for inspiration. You have to work every day, as if it’s a job, and you have to keep at it. Also, you can’t be afraid to fail. You need to try new, radically different things without fear of failure. Also, you need to mast.
How would you sum up your life so far?
I think about that a lot, of course, because of my health issues. I think that I’ve had a very rich and productive life. Not to sound like Frank Sinatra, but I think I did it my own way. Aside from Santa Reparata Art School, we bought and restored a 14th-century Tuscan village out in the country. I’m currently writing a book about the restoration. I’ve had a rich musical life, even though I never did it professionally. I’ve been able to make a living making and teaching art. I’m surrounded by the love of my wife, children and grandchild. I think I’ve had a very good life!