When Harald Olson was a boy in Huntington, West Virginia, he lived in a large home with an altar and stained-glass window in his bedroom. His mother, a devout Catholic, had it built as a place for her only child to pray.
Harald has long since left West Virginia for Shelter Island, where he’s lived and worked as a caretaker, health care assistant and artist, but that stained-glass window has followed him around, if only in his imagination, an image from a former life that emerges in his work.
Ten of Harald’s paintings, some as luminous and jewel-colored as sacred windows, will be on display in his one-man show on December 9 and 10 at the David Rankin Studio, 126 South Midway Road.
Harald’s father was the golf pro at the Spring Valley Country Club in Huntington and golf coach at Marshall University after serving in the Air Force in the 1940s. Harald said,
“The upbringing I had from Dad mainly stuck with me.”
And by that he meant good manners and being polite. When Harald was 8, his father died, and three years later, so did his mother.
After a tumultuous period living with relatives, he entered Fork Union Military Academy near Charlottesville, Virginia. “We had to study for two and a half hours every night. You couldn’t move away from your desk,” Harald said. “It was discipline, and I needed it.”
In 1975, Harald turned 21, and was back in Huntington. Whatever wealth his parents had left him was gone, and he struggled to take care of the house and support himself without a family to help. “You can’t dwell on the past,” he said. “I don’t blame anyone.”
Seeing a television program about abstract art, he was seized with the urge to go beyond the drawings he had been doing all his life. “I got some bedsheets and tacked them to plywood I found in the house, and I found some paint in the garage,” he remembered.
Taking his first painting upstairs, a friend saw it, and Harald had sold his first work.
Still trying to support himself, he spent two years working in a logging camp in the Tongass National Rainforest in Alaska, where it rained every day summer and winter, and the work was dangerous.
But logging was not the worst job Harald ever had. That distinction is reserved for driving a cab, which he did upon returning to Huntington. “I could pick somebody up who looked perfectly fine, and then find out a minute down the road they were psycho,” he said. “I had three robbery attempts.”
During these years, Harald married and divorced, and continued to draw and to make abstract art. When he was back in West Virginia, he started to sell his work, even settling a loan with one of his paintings.
He began to develop a particular approach to his work, building up layers of paint and sometimes layers of canvas and newspaper to make very thick, textured works. “I paint the first layer very quickly,” he said. “Balance, color, it’s got to have something worth keeping or I paint over it. Maybe some of it is representational, but I don’t think about it.”
Harald resists giving his painting titles because he feels that it compromises the way people experience his work. “An abstract painting is a thought,” he said, “People see different things.”
It was through his ex-wife that he found his way to Shelter Island. He came here to work for one of her friends, who turned out not to need his help. But Harald met Lisa Perry on that trip and they became friends. “Lisa is like my little sister,” said Harald. “She’s got a heart of gold.”
In 2002, Harold left West Virginia for Shelter Island when Lisa offered him a place to live in exchange for helping her with her house. In the years since, he’s worked as a provider of home health care for a number of Islanders, while continuing to work as an artist.
After finding some canvases at the town Recycling Center, Harald began to paint larger works, and when the community of Shelter Island artists heard, people started giving him canvases to work on.
In 2007, with the help of Jean Lawless, he was in a group show at the Mosquito Hawk Gallery on Shelter Island, and then another group show, the Un-Hamptons Outsider Art Exhibition at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company Gallery in August 2011.
In January 2010, Harald had a solo show at Andre Zarre Gallery in New York City called “Pumps, Boxes and Glass Paintings,” based largely on work he’d done in a studio space that local builder Jim Olinkiewicz had given him.
In his 14 years on Shelter Island, Harald has befriended many people, and been the beneficiary of their love and care. Jim Olinkiewicz provided him with a place to paint and has been a staunch supporter of Harald’s art, “a good friend and a good man,” said Harald.
Artist David Rankin and his wife, writer Lily Brett, have also supported Harald, and his upcoming exhibit will be held in David’s studio, with the further support of Kenny McGuinness, the manager of the studio, and Allison Weibye, studio assistant.
And as far as Harald is concerned, he has a family; three cats named Jerry, Ziggy and Tinker, all 12 years old, who won’t put up with anyone but him.
“I bless my house when I get home. I bless my kitties,” Harald said. “And then I kneel down and say a prayer.”
You can view examples of Harald Olson’s work at haraldolson.com.
What do you always have with you? My rosary.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Where I live.
Favorite place not on Shelter Island? I’ve never been there, but I think Arizona because it is warm and it gets no hurricanes.
What exasperates you? All the nonsense news.
Best day of the year on Shelter Island? Any warm day.
Favorite movie or book? I like atlases. I wonder what the map is going to look like in another age.
Favorite food? Eggs.
Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family? Father Peter DeSanctis. His devotion to his cause. He is for real.