It is our delight at Segullah to introduce you to the expressive and skilled artist Nancy Andruk Olson. A prize winner in Segullah’s 2020 Art Contest, Nancy’s vivid artwork (in watercolor and in oils) is bold and transcendent. Her images will grace the banners and cyber-pages of Segullah for our Autumn 2020 season. Let’s get acquainted with Nancy. This interview is studded with many hyperlinks to provide context and give readers an enriched experience.
Segullah: Welcome, Nancy! Can you share a bit about your upbringing and art education?
Nancy O: I grew up in Los Angeles next to the Norton Simon Museum. My mother took us there on a regular basis, and thus I grew up on impressionism. I was so fortunate because I got to see the “real thing” first. That imprinted on my brain in a really formative way that can’t be undone. I know that we as a culture are over-saturated with reproductions of impressionism everywhere. This takes the aura out of the work and can make it seem mundane. However, because I can’t really get this 19th century vision out of my mind, I try to really work with it and interpret it in a contemporary way.
My mother is an artist and was an art educator. In fact she was the art teacher at my school. We have a family of girls and we very happily did art projects all of the time. I started painting daily around 3, my mother tells me. A favorite art activity was to go to Descanso Gardens, a local botanical garden and do plein air painting there. When I was 14 my mother took me on an art vacation to Art New England, which had workshops at Bennington college Vermont. She was a watercolor painter, and so we took a watercolor workshop. However the next class was being taught by Wolf Kahn. So that was it really. When I saw his work and the work of his students, I was like “I want to be him.” And so from then on I was a high-chroma landscape painter. He just passed away in March at 92. He was still having exhibits up until the end. He was a real influence on my work.
As a high school student, I studied at Art Center College of Design, with Ray Turner. He is a figure painter. He taught me how to paint with oil. I learned the strokes and movement from him. I went to BYU as an undergraduate mostly because my parents wanted me to. (I wanted to go to Rhode Island School of Design.) It was still a great experience, and I got to work with Bruce Hixson Smith who is an amazing friend and mentor. He taught me how to make paint, which has had a profound impact on my work. This is how I get the intensity of the paint.
Going to BYU was really eye opening to me because I grew up in Los Angeles in a completely different environment. I had no idea that there were church painters, or that it was even a thing to become a church painter. I had never really looked at LDS art and was not influenced by it in any way really. And to be honest, I still struggle with it. It doesn’t communicate with me because I have a hard time reading it. To me, it seems so far away from real life and from art history that I don’t really have a frame of reference for it. I always think that there must be other people like me who, even though they are LDS, were not really raised in the culture, who don’t understand these images. If this describes you let me know! I would like to meet you!
My point in bringing this up was that when I was at BYU this was a great debate, which still continues today. The question of what is LDS art and what should it be is an ever evolving dialogue. It was great to participate in that because now it is relative to my life. Now that I live in Utah and am constantly confronted with this question about religious art, it forces me to think about what needs to be done today.
From BYU I went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, where I had every intention of completing my MFA. It turned out not to be a good fit. It was not a positive experience and so I only finished one year and got a post Baccalaureate certificate. I really floundered around in my graduate school experience. It was shocking to me how critical of me they were in every way. I appreciate constructive criticism, because I definitely always want to improve, but this was not. In a nutshell they basically said to me why can’t you be like everybody else? Well, I just can’t. I don’t believe it is authentic and it is not in my nature to adapt to others expectations. So I left. I was totally disillusioned. Art was not fun or natural to me anymore. I just shut down.
Segullah: That sounds traumatic! What did you do?
Nancy O: After 6 months of wandering I decided to become a nurse. That way my income was not dependent on art, and I could think about something else. It was very good for me because it forced me to reach out of my comfort zone and use my brain in other ways. I worked with many indigent populations and that helped me have a better understanding of life in general. Because of that, I have more to give in my work. I have something to talk about and draw from. I still work as a hospice nurse with the dying population 2 nights a week. It is so great to be able to associate with every type of person and help and grieve with them.
Segullah: Impressive! That is noble work.
Can you tell us about how you currently coordinate you home life and professional lives?
Nancy O: I married late at 29, and I have 4 kids between the ages of 12-7. I juggle everything with planning. I keep a schedule and stick to it. That is how I get things done. That is the only tip I can offer. Just plan, plan, plan down to the minute.
I paint in my home. I have an art studio, but I have expanded to the entire home! My work is everywhere! It is a family affair – my children are artists, too. It is constantly messy. But it is a creative environment. My children have learned to stay away from my work and live around it.
I struggle just like every mother. There is more to do than time. Clutter is a constant battle. I really have a lot of interests and a busy life.
Segullah: I understand that one of your other skills is creating your own paint! Tell us about that.
Nancy O: Making my own paint is a niche thing. It does make my work much more vibrant and it is the only way to control what is in my paint. It is an art in itself. It doesn’t save money and requires a lot of research. Unless pigments are an interest of yours I don’t suggest doing it. It is time consuming. You also have to be careful with the pigment because they are all toxic. There is so much that goes into it, a brief explanation cannot describe what it entails. This could be a whole article in itself!!
Segullah: (laughing) Maybe next time!
I notice from some of your images that you often work large scale. And some of that is with watercolors. From my experience with watercolors, I immediately go to how drippy that medium is! How do you control that, or do you (literally) go with the flow?
Nancy O: When I work large scale I buy watercolor paper in a roll. I tack it to the wall. It is too big to size. I just let it drip on the walls! I do use a blanket on the floor. I just let myself be messy. But I have a dedicated space for this.
Segullah: Do you ever do artwork with figures?
Nancy O: I painted figures in college. This is the basis of all art, figure painting. So I had to learn it. I started doing landscape again in Boston, with the intention of adding figures in. They are slowly creeping in. I started doing Byzantine Icons recently. (I could write a whole article about this. It is a whole different topic and too much for this). I also use encaustic sometimes. Anything with paint! I am very attached to the activity of painting.
Segullah: What kind of support do you need and have as a working artist?
Nancy O: I belong to an artist group which has been a great support. I recommend it highly. If you can make group or join one, do it! It has been great to make connections and friendships. And it is great to help each other. I believe every woman artist has a response to help every woman artist whether you like their work or not. Every female artist is disadvantaged, and the only way we are going to achieve more is by working together.
Segullah: Tell us about some of the most satisfying art experiences you’ve had.
Nancy O: I recently had the experience of being the artist in residence at the Bountiful Davis Art Center. It was a great experience, in fact the best of my art career!! I had a studio space there, and I was able to create a site specific piece. I painted it on paper that I tacked on the wall in the studio and then fitted it in the gallery upstairs. This allowed me to really push myself and work on an even larger scale. And it allowed me to create a piece that was more enveloping and not limited to a frame.
I was able also to paint in Monet’s garden at Giverny as part o f the Art Colony there. In order to paint there you have to go with a guide and at the time the garden allows. This is before they open and after they close. This was on my mother’s bucket list and I was fortunate to be able to accompany her. This was a great turning point in my work that I did not expect. The hours spent there connecting with the landscape allowed me to see in a way that I wasn’t able to before. It was very enchanting. I see why Monet focused on it for so long. The space is dream-like and constantly changing. It has an intangible quality that you want to chase. Anytime that you have an extended period to explore a landscape that speaks to you, do it!! It is through that repetition and continued looking and searching that bringing a unique quality to the work. The more you explore the more interesting your work will become!
Segullah: Do you have a particular routine or discipline you use to keep productive?
Nancy O: I really painted every day until I had small children. Then my mind was blocked, and I couldn’t do it as much. As soon as they were in preschool, I started the daily practice again. This is what has shaped my work the most. The constant work. I still have more work. I still feel like I could get infinitely better. I don’t feel like I have arrived at a place that I can rest at and make lots of the same thing. I feel like I still have a ways to go. I learn every day. I push myself every day.
If you don’t know what to paint just take the first step. I did a small painting every day for a year when I didn’t know what to do. This naturally led me to other things. I have hundreds (and I literally mean hundreds) of bad paintings that I would never show. This is part of the process.
I feel like it is very important to follow your own voice. I think that is what make great artists great. They have listened to their inner dialogue and created something unique. That is why we remember them. So I have tried to do this in every way and not let other voices push me one way or the other. Of course I am not an island and completely free from outside influences.
Another thing that I think is important is to look at new art that is being made every day and know what is going on around you. This is another important part of my daily practice. But I think that it is important to not copy or emulate anyone else. Look insider yourself to see what is unique to you and what you can contribute. Things will develop naturally as you do this.
The one risk with this is that your own voice can lead you astray. This happened to me for many, many years. Don’t worry about it, it’s part of the process. Great work is not always measured sales or shows or by what others think. It is great because it has that ethereal quality that cannot be measured.
Segullah: What are your thoughts about the business end of being an artist?
Nancy O: Like all artists, I struggle to sell and get my work out there. I am not a great business person, and I struggle with the management of that. I just go by the seat of my pants!!
Last summer I made it my summer reading to read every book about art business that I could find! The best one by far was “How to Sell Art in Galleries” by Jason Horsej. This book was recommended by Katrina Berg. The reality is that she is the expert on art business. I would recommend using her Candy Colored Club and any other advice she has a resource.
Also, I would say stick to it. Even if you get rejected, just keep trying. One time I said to my dad that I get rejected about 50% of the time from things I want to do. He responded saying that’s great, you only have to bat a 330 to be in the major leagues. This is great advice. Anything you can do to get yourself out there is a drop in the bucket that will add up. Another artist I admire, Inka Essinhigh, answered this question by saying that great work invites interest. I think this is true, too. The first place to start is with the quality of your work. If your work is good it will resonate with others.
The energy and movement in my work is a natural thing. I don’t force myself one way or the other. I just let it happen!
Segullah: Any new directions you’re leaning?
Nancy O: I think my main project coming up is working on my religious work. This will be separate from my usual work, which I will also continue. I decided that I am tired of the debate about good and bad LDS art. I need to contribute something to the conversation if I want to see any change. I have decided to be the change I want to see. So I am embarking on a completely separate body of work that will remain separate from my own work which is about myself. This work will be about the LDS faith. I will keep you posted!!!
Segullah: Yes! Please, keep us posted! Thank you so much for sharing your art and life with us, Nancy!