Crows, Skulls, and Binary Code. These are a Few of His Favorite Things
This article is part of a series highlighting local talent in Natrona County.
I was introduced to Mike Olson's work at a popular lunch spot downtown. Someone handed me a mug of lemon tea, and as I held it in my hand, I thought, this is an exceptionally lovely cup. I asked the giver where it came from... and voilà.
Cut to the new Visual Arts building at the Casper College. I'm sitting in a sunny office across from Olson asking him about how he got here.
It's a very Wyoming story. Olson tells me his uncle moved to Oil City first. He was drinking a beer at the Alibi when someone convinced him to try rough-necking. At this time, Olson's family had moved to Castle Rock, Colorado, and his uncle was one of the closest relatives they had, so they would visit and go camping, hunting, and fishing.
After Olson's military career was over he came back, taking all the art classes he could at the Casper College. The ceramics teacher Lynn Munns "cattle prodded me along," recalls Olson.
He began adjuncting "in '96 or '97" and in the beginning it was painful for the introvert. But now, sitting in the office, I can see he's quite comfortable; several students pop in to talk to him. "In here I'm a buffoon," he confesses. This is his happy place.
There's a frenetic end-of-the-semester energy in the air as students finish projects they've put many hours into. Olson will continue to teach over the summer -- "that's how much I love it" he professes.
As we chat I can't help but glance around. There's art everywhere. He points out a few of the pieces he's done. "I like small things," he says, and he means that in general -- rocks, insects...
Serendipity is baked into the clay he creates with. "Random chance becomes part of my dialogue," says Olson. Life is messy and it's beautiful.
Crows, skulls, and binary code. These are the motifs of his work.
"They're very smart," he says of the black-feathered beasts. Olson's heritage is Norwegian, and in Norse mythology, he tells me, Odin -- god of war and death -- has two ravens: one for thought, one for memory.
On the subject, Olson shares wives tales concerning numbers of crows. For example, seven crows means something mysterious is about to happen. You can find subtle messages like that in Olson's work.
Hard to miss is a deep appreciation for the ground. "I love the human story," he says. He's currently reading a ten-pound tome called Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology.
That's where the skulls come in. One of them grins at me from atop a shelf.
Olson says a big inspiration for his art has come from Eastern cultures. From age seven to 12, he lived with his family in India.
He's fueled by the outside-world. Walking, hiking, backpacking, and fishing help him stay calm, peaceful.
We talk about mistakes and where he keeps them. Olson says he has a shelf for those. They remind him of where he went wrong. Like "the most beautiful teapot I ever made," the potter smiles, yet he accidentally glazed the lid shut.
I gather there's a lot more to the kiln than us non-potters would guess: there are many types and techniques therein.
Olson explains the way the kiln's flame licks the pottery to create swirls of different colors. There are little oddities in every piece based on the way they were fired.
After decades of practice, Olson says he's getting better at dancing with the fire. "Hopefully soon I'll be able to tango. Right now I can barely waltz."
We move to the outdoor space and look at giant kilns holding dozens of student pieces. I am impressed by the sophistication of each one.
I ask him what he tells students the most.
"If you're not having fun, you shouldn't do it."
He encourages risk-taking. "There's no right or wrong. Only successful or unsuccesful."