Through the Abstract: Vietnam, Olsen, and art

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Story by Leara Rhodes | Photography by Dennis McDaniel

Richard Olsen strode into the coffee shop in Athens at a vigorous pace and was halfway across the shop and past me before he turned slightly and saw me. His stride may have stopped when he sat down, but not his energy. This energy spewed out of his arms, gesturing big and bold in the air, and in his voice quality as he talked. This energy focused his light blue eyes on my face and never wavered. He was in charge – in a positive, character sort of way.

Olsen is a man who learned to create art out of experiences rather than scenes. This is a man who received a purple heart in Vietnam, who flew helicopters, who took chances, and made a career creating art about those chances. He has said many times that he had to struggle to figure out what to paint; that, however, is no longer the case. He knows what he will be painting every morning when he gets up.

His “bigger than life” personality in a trim, 5’7” body has been commented on by many. Victor Kord, an artist, professor emeritus from Cornell University, and a friend since graduate school in Wisconsin, called from New York, “Ole is authentic with a capital ‘A.’ He is the real thing. He listens to you.” Kord and Olsen hung out together as graduate students at the 602 Club in Madison, a watering hole for artists, activists, literati, intellectuals, and a mixed bag of scholars and misfits from all disciplines, according to John Riggs, a bartender turned photographer in the club in the 60s. In promoting an exhibit of his at Berkeley, Riggs wrote that the University Art Department faculty meetings generally ended up at the club as well. “It was an exhilarating scene – the characters were iconoclastic, the mood rowdy, and the conversation heady. Proclamations rang out, and the closer to closing time, the grander (and louder) they became.” Olsen is a product of this scene. Ceramics artist, Richard Berman, a former student at UGA where he met Olsen says, “He is the most enthusiastic person I have known, a ball of fire. People like being around him. When he shows up, it’s a party.”

Being in the Middle is Part of Life

Growing up in Wisconsin with a twin brother, Don, and a younger brother, Doug, the three boys lived in a neighborhood of boys with pickup games every weekend. They were called the “Oles” and the name stuck, friends today call Olsen “Ole.” The boys in the neighborhood were not afraid of anything.

“We all took how we lived our lives for granted,” says Olsen. He and his father and brothers went Muskie fishing and, since the fish were big and had big teeth, some of the guides who took tourists fishing carried a .22 pistol to shoot the fish. In high school, he ran track, played football, and wrestled.

“I grew up with an attitude,” Olsen remembers. “In wrestling you are all alone and must carry through to the nine-minute deadline [rules for 1954-58], endurance was key, you had to put everything into the movements every second.” This attitude of independence and being in the middle of everything became a way of life for Olsen, “I had that attitude in my heart.”

The attitude did not dissipate with his college education. He was studying to be a physical education major. Though he had been drawing since he was eight years old, art was not a consideration since, in his neighborhood, drawing was being a sissy. However, at the end of his college education at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he had options for two electives. He chose art classes. These art courses altered Olsen’s life. He learned about Gioto di Bondone, who had changed the whole world with his depiction of Jesus and his mother and brought humanism to art.

“I wanted to be like that,” says Olsen. He wanted to be in the middle of everything.

To be in the middle of what was happening, he became a commissioned officer in the Army and accepted a three-year tour in flight school destined for Vietnam. At the Primary Helicopter Center at Fort Wolters, Texas, the premier site for training helicopter pilots in the 1960s, Olsen learned “that an aircraft commander in Vietnam – even if too young to vote – was going to hold life-and-death power over his co-pilot, crew, passengers, and many others within range, so he needed a cool and steady temperament,” according to James Chiles in the Air & Space Magazine (Sept. 2015). “Wolters, located in north-central Texas, ran from 1956-1973 and was an essential part of the pressure cooker process that transformed anybody who qualified – from teenagers to grizzled combat officers – into world-class helicopter pilots,” writes Chiles.

Olsen’s boyhood experiences along with his aggressive wrestling training prepared him for succeeding at Wolters: make your move or die. Each instructor at Wolters was a high-ranking officer with only three students at a time. Olsen heard that the helicopter pilots being trained at Wolters were pioneers in aviation.

“The hair raised on the back of my head,” says Olsen, he takes his hand and ruffles his hair. “I felt like I was in the middle of world history.”

Assigned to the 57th Company in Seattle, he transferred to the 33rd Transportation Company (Light Helicopter) through Army regulations that allowed twins to apply for a compassionate transfer to be with his brother, Don. Olsen flew a Piasecki H-21, known lovingly by the pilots as the “banana.” These helicopters were developed for the Arctic not Vietnam and were difficult to fly, hard to maintain and definitely low tech. Olsen flew helicopters in Vietnam from 1962-63. During the Vietnam War there were approximately 40,000 helicopter pilots, according to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.

In September 1962, Olsen was flying troop transports into villages and hamlets. On January 18, 1963, the day before he was promoted to Captain, he was to fly troops to an underground arsenal on the other side of a Cao Dai mountain sanctuary near the city of Tay Ninh in southern Vietnam. A fixed wing plane was overhead but two layers of clouds prohibited the pilot from seeing the helicopters. Olsen was reading the map and every ten minutes, his co-pilot would switch with him and Olsen would take charge of flying. There was a brief clearing in the clouds and the fixed wing pilot told them to begin their turn over the Saigon River. Olsen could see a savannah of trees and huts.

Suddenly, through the floor, Olsen was shot. Blood went everywhere and he dropped the controls. His co-pilot grabbed the controls. There were ten combat troops on board and the helicopter was wobbling all over the place. The co-pilot radioed, “We’ve got a pilot hit.” Olsen tied a tourniquet around his thigh. The wound was not that bad, he thought. The co-pilot kept flying. As they began their approach, the co-pilot asked, “Do you want to land it?” And Olsen did. If he didn’t fly it in, both men would be in shock. They made three more runs and finally got his wound treated, but he kept on flying.

America during Vietnam and Art

The war was new in America in 1963 and many people did not even know a war was going on. Olsen was early to Vietnam so when he returned, most people did not respond in any way to his tour in Vietnam. His brother, on the other hand, had extended his tour and by the time he returned to America, people were outraged about the war and he was spit on at the airport.

Olsen’s Purple Heart, an award given for bravery in action since 1782, did not deter him from studying art in graduate school. He returned to the University of Wisconsin where he had nothing to show to be able to get into the art graduate program. Determined, he created 26 paintings patterned after a different artist. The second painting, however, was a dead Vietcong in a banana leaf coffin. His art instructor, who had been a WWII veteran seemed to want to help Olsen and asked him to paint The Three Graces and do some research.

After the first painting, he was scraping the color off his palate board onto another board, but when he finished, what he saw was not a glob of paint, it was a picture of a prisoner kneeling with his hands tied behind his back. Olsen’s art teacher told him to paint more of that. He created 35-40 paintings.

“Every morning I woke up and knew what I was going to paint,” Olsen says. He painted his Vietnam experiences all during graduate school.

Other art was created in America during this time of conflict; a conflict often between those for and against the war. The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (2019) hosted an exhibit on “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975” to “make vivid an era in which artists endeavored to respond to the turbulent times and openly questioned issues central to American civic life.” According to Sebastian Smee in the Washington Post (March 18, 2019), the Vietnam War changed art forever. “All kinds of artists were trying to find forms to contain the war, to give it meaning. The source of their anguish was that they couldn’t: There was no proportionate response. The disaster was too large; their art – art itself – too small.” If the Vietnam War changed art forever, then Olsen was again in the middle of history.

Completion of his MFA brought Olsen to the University of Georgia where he taught from 1969-2000 and retired as a professor emeritus. During those years he has continued to paint, exhibiting hundreds of his works all over the world (Russia; Vietnam: Hanoi, Danang, Saigon; England), in major museums (National Veterans Museum in Chicago, Morris Museum in Augusta); with works in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. House of Representatives, Cannon Rotunda Gallery; U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Hearing Room; and the Russell Rotunda Gallery in the U.S. Senate Office Building. One of his paintings hangs in the board room at Atlanta’s Equifax headquarters.

Jules Bekker, Gallery Director of the TEW Galleries in Atlanta, describes Olsen in an email as an artist who was trying to visually unravel complicated feelings and responses to the war in Vietnam.

“Interestingly, as a visual person, rather than depicting the war in a pictorially visceral way, he chose to do it from the perspective in which he experienced it, as abstract shapes that bisect the surface of the canvas, much as forests, rivers, areas that had been burned by napalm do in the landscape. In his early post-Vietnam works, Olsen would also introduce abstracted symbols of war such as the shape of helicopter blades or yellow stripes of machine gun tracer fire into his works.”

Up Against the Wall

As an art professor, Olsen knew he had to paint and to paint often, but what could he paint? Art Rosenbaum, a colleague in art at UGA with Olsen, came into Olsen’s studio one day with a new polaroid camera and began to take eight photographs of various areas of the studio. Rosenbaum peeled off the papers of each photo and gave them to Olsen. One photo was of the door. Olsen gridded the photo, prepared the canvas on his wall, and painted the door. The photo was black and white; the painted door was in color. What began in 1977 has become Olsen’s “Wall” series. Labeled “Wall” with a Roman numeral, each painting has part of what was on his wall in the next painting and takes on shapes and forms to match principles of dynamic symmetry.

To describe his “Wall” series, Olsen says, “Painting became for me to be wall oriented; the wall of the studio; up against the wall.” The name came from the Roman Wall that was concrete but painted to look like marble. Then a window was painted on the wall showing a meadow with cows, which placed the view behind the wall; then columns were painted on the wall, which placed the view in front of the wall.

“Out of the picture frame is what art is, and only that,” says Olsen. The process of the painting was the painting. The Wall series is up to Wall #262.

“The wall is a product of his lifetime. I have rarely seen that kind of persistence, like Josef Albers, a square within a square, kind of persistence. It may be oxymoronic, but Olsen is an intelligent expressionistic artist,” says Kord. Olsen knows what he is going to paint.

“He is a very dedicated artist and that’s how good stuff gets done, in the studio working,” says Gary Noffke, a metalsmith artist and former colleague of Olsen’s at UGA.

In Olsen’s next exhibit at the Steffen Thomas Museum in Buckhead in April, “Art as Experience: Richard James Olsen and the Vietnam War,” the paintings were created from Olsen’s experiences as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. He has produced art based on symbolic rather than pictorial meaning. He imbeds abstract images from his wartime experiences into his art.

Brendan Foster, Director of The National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago where Olsen’s art was exhibited in 2016, describes a moment. “When we walked through his show, he became more serious when talking about his art. You could tell he was reflecting and took time to talk about the piece and what it was in the end. One of the things that sticks in my mind, as a museum director and as an art viewer is, as we were walking through his work he says, ‘Vietnam comes out in everything I create.’ To me, that’s an important statement about him as a person and as an artist.”

Jim Wood, Marine Adjutant of the Athens Military Order of the Purple Heart agrees, “You go through something like Vietnam at 22, and it will stay with you forever.” The Athens MOPH Chapter 531 has 70 members but about 20 members meet monthly to work on projects helping veterans.

“We were all wounded and shared a sacred experience,” says Brian West, a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1967-68.

Mike Boyd of Athens, flew Huey helicopters in Vietnam in 1969 and became a professional pilot after the war. He remembers the severe training. “We were harassed, deprived of sleep; but, after you got wounded, you understood…if you didn’t panic and got people through under pressure to react, you saved lives.” The men don’t seem to forget and they hang together, celebrating the lives they now have and helping others.

“I told Ole the other day that he puts so much paint on his paintings that you can’t read the numbers. We joke,” says West.

Olsen’s studio in his back yard is painted in Vietnam colors: yellow and red with green trim. A sign from the Thunderbird Lounge, the officers’ club in the tent city of Bien Hoa, where he was stationed in Vietnam, hangs in the window. The inside of the studio is crammed with hundreds of paint tubes, stacks of art, CDs, ladders, papers on the floor, stacks of books, brushes in jars, brushes in heaps, layers of colored pencils, the ends of wooden frames not yet used, photographs on the walls, everything reaching to the ceiling and oozing out from under tables and cabinets. He has placed a painting board on top of a filled trash barrel set with two cups and two green glass bottles of sparkling mineral water. Two chairs, both folding chairs, covered in paint splatters are positioned near the “make do” table. He is ready to talk about his art and about Vietnam, in the space he has created. He seldom sits, jumping up to get a book, pointing out the “Wall #I” painting, moving paintings to demonstrate relationships between them; he moves – constantly moves while talking about art and Vietnam.

Rusty Wallace, a former student and an artist, says, “Ole brings a vitality to any conversation about art that leaves you energized and encouraged.” As I watch Ole move about the studio and talk art, I totally agree.

The Exhibit: “Art as Experience: Richard James Olsen and the Vietnam War” will be at the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art in Buckhead, April 16 to June 6. steffenthomas.org

Paintings by Richard Olsen are available at TEW Galleries in Atlanta (tewgalleries.com)

Online collection of Richard Olsen’s art in the permanent collection of NVAM can be found at collection.nvam.org

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