Taking a Second Look at Tess Olson’s Wild Landscapes

Smells Like Licorice, oil on canvas, by Tess Olson. 2014. Winner of The Art League Best in Show Award.

Take a look at this best-in-show painting, and what do you see? An abstracted landscape, bold brushstrokes, vivid colors.

Spend some more time with it, and questions will start to emerge from underneath the beauty: What accounts for the bright orange and red? What does the title, Smells Like Licorice, mean? We asked the artist, Tess Olson, for the story behind this painting, and got answers to those questions and more.

What’s your creative process like, from an idea to a finished painting?
Tess Olson: My usual process is to spend time sketching in a totally freeform way with watercolor and markers. I use a variety of sources such as books, magazines, the news, nature and my imagination as starting points. Then I look through my drawings to find something that inspires me to pursue it as a painting.

Abundance, oil on canvas, by Tess Olson. 2016. (From the “Strange Terrains” series.)

When I start painting, I have a general idea of what I want, but I keep my mind open to let the painting evolve naturally. As I’m working on the painting it starts to reveal itself to me and I understand what it is about. It’s all very intuitive but linked to what’s going on in the world and my current musings.

How did Smells Like Licorice start out? Is it based on a landscape?
I was exploring the general theme of “Strange Terrains” so it started out as an abstract landscape that evolved into something more specific as I worked on it. In this case it quickly became apparent that the painting was about the toxic waste spill in West Virginia that contaminated the water for over 300,000 people.

Waterfall, oil on canvas, by Tess Olson. 2015. (From the “Strange Terrains” series.)

What does the title refer to?
When I read articles about the toxic spill in West Virginia I noticed that the people said their water “smells like licorice” which was the perfect title for the painting.

How did this series start, and where does this 2014 painting fit in the series?
The “Strange Terrains” series started because I was thinking about why I enjoy abstract paintings so much, and it has to do with not knowing all the answers. I like not understanding a painting after one viewing so my mind can be challenged. This led to a series of abstract landscapes where they seem familiar but are different enough that you are curious about what they might mean. It’s like traveling to a new country with a different language, money, etc., where even getting a cup of coffee is an adventure – your senses are all on alert and that makes you feel alive.

Smells Like Licorice was the first painting in the series.

The juror praised your color palette specifically as a stand-out in this show. How did you arrive at this palette? Is it typical for your work?
I love working with grays and a spot of color, but I don’t put any rules on myself. For this painting, color was an important part of the painting. It started as an abstract landscape with a lot of blue grays; so bright orange was the best color to represent the toxic spill that permeated the beautiful landscape.

Smells Like Licorice (detail) by Tess Olson

What was your goal with this painting?
My goal was to create a painting that expressed my thoughts about something in a way that made sense to me, but was not completely spelled out to the viewer.

Why are you a painter, and why oil, specifically? What keeps you coming back to the studio year after year?
I love oil painting because it feels freer than some of the other mediums — I love the richness of oil paint and the way it handles. I keep coming back to the studio because struggling with ideas and how to express them is challenging and rewarding.

Whirlwind, oil on canvas, by Tess Olson. 2014. (From the “Strange Terrains” series.)

What are you working on now?
I just started exploring a new a new group of paintings, but I’m not ready to talk about them yet.

The March Open Exhibit is on view through Sunday, April 2, 2017.

Aftermath, oil on canvas, by Tess Olson. 2016. (From the “Strange Terrains” series.)

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