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Retirement Spotlight: Professor Sarah Olson, Art Department

May 24, 2021

Today we’re recognizing the contributions of Professor Sarah Olson. Professor Olson taught at Schoolcraft College for more than 30 years as both a part-time and full-time member of the faculty. She also served as the Department Representative for the Art Department.

Beginnings and Journey to Schoolcraft College

Sarah Olson

I’ve been immersed in art all my life,” Professor Olson said. “In 1947, my mother, Gloria Ellen Jacobus Olson, graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Architecture and moved to Midland, Michigan, to work for Alden B. Dow’s architectural firm. Dow designed a house for my mother and father, George Edwin Olson, who was recruited to work for the Dow Chemical Company after the war.

“Together they reared a family of six children in the ‘mid-century modern’ house. I’m certain that aesthetic has informed my sense of harmony and balance. I can’t remember not wanting to be an artist. I was fortunate to have been surrounded by artists, architects and art lovers in the community.

“After I graduated from Midland High School, I attended University of Michigan. As soon as I graduated from the School of Education, I applied and was accepted at U of M’s School of Art.

“Upon graduating from the School of Art, I taught art in the public schools to support myself while developing and showing my work. During an exhibit in 1988, an employee from Schoolcraft noticed my work and put me in contact with Lincoln Lao and Robert DuFort, Schoolcraft’s two full-time Art Professors. Within a week, I was hired to teach drawing and design part time, a position I held until hired for a full-time position in 2000.”

Exhibition Record and Current Work

Over the years, Professor Olson has shown her work in juried exhibitions produced by the Livonia Arts Commission, Northville Art House, Midland Center for the Arts, the University of Michigan’s Slusser Gallery and the Michigan State Capitol. Her work also has been featured in many solo exhibitions, including notable venues such as J. Walter Thompson Detroit and the historic Michigan League. In addition to painting exhibitions, Professor Olson was Breed Illustrator for American Kennel Club Magazine, and her work appeared on the cover of Dog World Magazine.

Describing her Own Work

“My primary media is paint on canvas or board, with occasional bas relief elements,” Professor Olson said. “Although I’ve worked with a variety of subjects and methods, the common thread through all my work is energy and motion. This thread continues regardless of media and whether the work is abstract or figurative. I attempt to convey a sense of continuing transformation throughout the entire composition. Hence the overarching name for my entire body of work throughout the last three decades and beyond is ‘Transfigurative Improvisations’.”

Favorite classes to teach

Professor Olson is perhaps best known as a painter, so it’s no surprise that subject was a favorite as well to teach.

A class of students holding up their paintings

“I enjoyed watching students develop confidence as they became familiar with the materials, methods, color theory, composition and form,” she said. “The course starts with basic theory and technique, and culminates with students expressing themselves on their own terms. Group critiques were always very lively!” (See group photo routinely taken at the end of each semester.)

Life Drawing was another favorite subject to teach.

“I love the ‘real time’ aspect of Life Drawing, where students had the opportunity to draw from live models,” she said. “It was three hours of calm immersion. At its best a three-hour drawing session would have a meditative atmosphere in which students were engaged in translating their direct observations of a three-dimensional figure to a two-dimensional picture plane.

“I encouraged students to ‘draw what you see, not what you want to see.’ Our culture very much loves thin, athletic and young physiques, and not all our models had those qualities!”

“An annual extracurricular activity was the production of the Art Department Open House, which showcased the best student work from all of Schoolcraft College’s Art courses held during the Fall and Winter semesters. The community was invited, and students were proud to share their outstanding work with their friends and families.”

Historic visit to China

In the summer of 2005, Professor Olson and another colleague were awarded a Fulbright Grant to explore China. “We visited major industrial developments and urban projects throughout China,” Professor Olson said. “We were awed to be taken to the very top of the Three Gorges Dam as it was nearing completion. I was visitor #3015, and I have a badge to prove it! Popular tourist attractions such as the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian and the Forbidden City in Beijing were also on the itinerary.

“The variety of experiences and venues was impressive,” she said. “Trip organizers ensured our group got to see so many sides of China. Each morning we attended a lecture about an aspect of China at a university or college. Then, in the afternoon, we had the freedom to explore the local environs. Although we experienced some of the best of China’s culture, we also witnessed much poverty and hardship.

“We had the opportunity to visit the Tianjin Fine Arts Academy. The facilities were impressive and the student work indicated exposure to leading and current trends in the art world,” Professor Olson said. “Throughout the trip we viewed a tremendous range of Chinese Art, ancient to modern. This intensive exposure continues to influence me as an artist, and I’ve often drawn on this trip to enrich Schoolcraft’s art curriculum.”

The Heart Beats On

Professor Olson’s piece that is best known to the Schoolcraft College community is “The Heart Beats On,” which is displayed in the VisTaTech Center.

Painting on display

“My focus was to reflect Schoolcraft’s message of inclusivity and diversity which is central to the College’s image,” she said. “I hoped to accomplish this without resorting to symbolic stereotypes. I intended to convey continuity using the EKG line as a symbol.

“Although styles change, people retain their personal uniqueness. I wanted this work to be timeless. My goal was to create a piece that remains relevant no matter the current social climate.

The work was influenced by Professor Jon Lockard, who was a founding faculty member of the University of Michigan’s Department of Afromerican and African Studies and an art professor at Washtenaw Community College.

“Professor Lockard taught me to draw,” she said. “He specifically emphasized that an individual’s features and facial expressions transcend culturally imposed stereotypes. He stressed the importance of respecting the subject’s individuality.”

What’s next?

Although now retired from Schoolcraft College, Professor Olson will continue to paint and explore new avenues for creative growth.

“I look forward to having sufficient time to reflect and develop new directions in my art,” she said. “Teaching requires imagining projects that release creativity in students. I now have the luxury of time to renew that creativity for myself.

“Adding to my comments on ‘The Heart Beats On,’ I am exploring ways to encourage people to see past the visual filters through which we evaluate the worth of other people. I believe that a different way of “seeing” one another is fundamental toward the elimination of stereotyping.” Perhaps I could develop a workshop that includes those objectives.”

Final note from Professor Olson: I have so many poignant memories from my time at the Art Department. When I peruse the collection of Schoolcraft photographs, I am particularly struck by how forward-looking the Art Students appeared. The enthusiasm was palpable as students charged through each semester with an abundance of energy. It always went too fast… as has my time here at Schoolcraft. But I feel forever blessed that I have had the privilege and honor to be a part of the Schoolcraft community!