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Picturing the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Greg Olsen
"I have witnessed firsthand the beauty, grace, and strength of the feminine spirit."
Greg Olsen has been one of the most significant and beloved devotional painters in the Latter-day Saint community for decades. Wayfare Art Editor Esther Hi'ilani Candari sat down with Greg in his Heber studio to discuss how his career as a painter began, the pressures of depicting the divine, and the motivation behind his striking new artistic direction.
To give people a little bit of a background and overview of your work, can you tell us about what motivated you to start painting religious images to start with? How do you cultivate the type of thinking and living that can produce a lifetime of religious images?
I have observed artists through the ages and always been impressed by their attempts to portray that which is sublime and divine. I attempted a pastel portrait back in high school depicting my imagined version of Jesus. I think I was about fifteen years old. From that time on, “religious” art was something I continued to personally challenge myself with. However, I found virtually no interest in that subject matter among the galleries and art publishers that I began to work with. This was the early 1980s and I found myself being funneled into subject matter that would most readily feed my young family at the time. This included western art, genre scenes, and a variety of commissions and portraiture.
Then, in 1988, a generous collector offered to take my wife and me to the Holy Land, suggesting that I needed to see this place because it might influence my work. The experience had a great impact on me, and I produced a number of images inspired by that trip. Gradually, interest in this subject matter grew and thanks to the patronage of collectors and the willingness of galleries and publishers to create a bit of a renaissance in religious art, it seemed to take on a viable life of its own.
The answer to your second question—how do I find the inspiration—has multiple facets. One involves the most basic of needs and concerns for any young artist. How can I provide for myself and my family? If a particular subject matter begins to be well received and perhaps even requested, as a poor starving artist, you pay attention! Survival thinking doesn’t require much motivation.
The very idea of trying to visually express divine ideas with crude earthly materials is very intimidating, daunting, and even discouraging. By any standard of comparison, I’m afraid I know I’m going to fail before I even begin! It’s like trying to paint a picture of a bowl full of oranges and all I have is a single tube of blue paint. Part of the thinking involved in pushing through that fear of failure is simply accepting my mortal limitations and the physical limitations of paint and canvas.
I’ve had to accept that I am creating outward reminders and visual symbols of what are often inner spiritual experiences and ideas. For this to be effective I have come to accept the truth of another important thought: the viewer must become involved. Unlike music, which seems to immediately grab the audience and more easily take them wherever it pleases (I’m so jealous!), the visual arts encourage the audience to slow down and initiate a conversation with the imagery. It invites us to ask questions, ponder possible answers, and observe our feelings and reactions.
As a visual artist, I have learned that I have limited control over whether or not those conversations take place, and if they do I have no direct control over how they will go. I realize that religious art takes you into some very delicate, sacred and personal territory, for the artist and the audience. Thus the audience often responds, “Well, that’s definitely not how I would’ve imagined it.” In this arena the likelihood of offending, disappointing, or irritating an audience is high and an artist’s thought process must be resilient. I have tried to find a restful middle ground where I don’t take praise or criticism too personally.
Finally, the answer to this question has another component. It involves my own inner creative and spiritual world. I have a loft in my studio (my high place), where I sit and meditate regularly. Meditation is a very helpful doorway for me into an awareness of the spiritual realm that is always around us, and a constant source of peace and inspiration. I also have a swing hanging from the ceiling in my studio. Using it when I experience creative block always reminds me that there is more to spirituality than prayer and meditation. For goodness sake, lighten up, laugh, play like a kid, it’s all okay. Have fun and enjoy the process!
I have known you for a few years now, and have followed your work for my whole life. But what prompted me to reach out and ask you to do this interview was a post I saw about a month ago talking about some new pieces you have been working on that focus on the Divine Feminine. To me it marked a bit of a shift both stylistically and topically for you, and I was very curious to learn what had motivated this shift. Why don't you give us a brief introduction to this series you are working on.
What is the motivation for this shift? To answer truthfully, I feel like I’ve said so many of the things I have wanted to say since I first attempted a portrayal of Christ nearly 50 years ago as a young art student in high school. My passion for Christ-centered art hasn’t waned, but I do want to be more discriminating about my process. I really want to feel like I personally have something new or important to express before I approach that subject the next time.
In the meantime, I found myself becoming more aware and increasingly passionate about the female aspect of our beings, our creation, and our spiritual nature. In a recent Facebook post, I gave a sneak peek of some new images that have developed from this area of interest. I mentioned that the Divine Feminine is an expression I use, in part, to refer to the qualities that women tend to possess, such as compassion, empathy, intuition, kindness, and love. As a husband and father of five girls, I have witnessed firsthand the beauty, grace, and strength of the feminine spirit. This series is a tribute to all the significant women in my life who have been my angels on earth and have taught me how important it is to embrace and emulate the special qualities they exemplify.
There is a quartet of paintings that starts off the series. They highlight some of the aspects and qualities I find exemplified in feminine nature.
The heavenly attribute of empathy is a divine gift which allows us to see, not just with our eyes, but with our heart, and to feel what another feels. That shared experience connects and draws us closer together in love and understanding.
Divine female energy is an encircling guardian of that which is good, tender, and kind. It embodies moral courage, divine guidance, and strength. It is a powerful quality that protects, heals, and inspires all of us.
Female sensitivity often leads to a natural, sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress along with the desire to alleviate it. These tendencies towards compassion create literal angels among us.
How many times has heaven answered our prayers through the angelic kindness, service, and love of inspired human beings here on earth? “Lightworkers” are those tender souls who serve humanity in numerous ways, great and small. Their inner light is a beacon of hope, healing, peace, and positivity to all the world.
I love how you focus on the need to build up and empower the women in your life in a patriarchal society. For me personally one of the unique Latter-day Saint doctrines that has helped me the most to see my divine worth and identity is the knowledge that I am a child of Heavenly Parents. Meaning that I am not a secondary knock-off of a male god, but that I am a child of a Divine Woman, a Heavenly Mother, and I am made in her image. In reading the Facebook comments in response to the images you posted, some Latter-day Saint women read these images you are painting as images of Heavenly Mother and one of her daughters. How do you feel about that reading and do you see yourself ever creating work that more directly depicts our Heavenly Parents?
I’m thrilled at the diverse interpretations of these images. Hopefully there is room for a variety of positive and uplifting messages for women and men. As for the idea of depicting Heavenly Parents? Well, if you think depicting Jesus of Nazareth is challenging and ripe with potential for brutal critiques and lively controversy—just try Mother and Father Gods! Then again, criticism and controversy haven’t stopped me so far, so who knows? If passion takes me there, then something will eventually find its way out of my soul and onto the easel.
These images are also distinctive in that they use a Baroque or maybe Neo-Classical stylization of a heavenly being, most likely an angel, including wings and Greco-Roman inspired clothing. This is new aesthetic territory for a lot of Latter-day Saint viewers, and some may not be sure what to do with it. What advice would you give for people when they are approaching religious art that challenges their cultural expectations of what religious art should or can look like?
My advice for audiences who are confronted with artistic imagery that challenges their cultural expectations or even their personal preferences, is to consider something I mentioned earlier, which is to slow down and open up a “dialogue” with the artwork. Ask questions about the imagery, the message, the possible symbolism and metaphors. As a viewer, question your own bias, judgments, and reactions to an image. How would you describe your response and why?
A simple example is the use of wings in some of these images. Artists love wings! Why? Because they’re just so, well…artistic! But in our culture, some people feel put off by them and start a debate about whether angelic beings really have wings. Can angels be female? Do angels even have gender? And on and on…. Speaking for myself, I’m not concerned about any of that stuff. For me, the inclusion of wings is a simple metaphor representing a divine connection. They allude to Heaven’s influence and energy, to freedom, protection, the ability to soar and reach new heights that would be otherwise unattainable.
So as viewers of religious and spiritual art, we may do well to resist the tendency to take everything literally. Consider the possibility that in some way, each image is a symbol and a reminder of some idea that is meant to be, at the very least, thought-provoking. As a person participates in this kind of a conversation with a piece of art, they greatly increase their chances of having a positive and even an inspiring experience.
Your work is some of the most iconically Latter-day Saint work that has been in circulation for the past few decades, and in many ways you contributed to these cultural expectations that you are now deviating from. Other than you getting to try new things as an artist, what benefits do you see for us as a community in broadening our aesthetic scope?
“For the fun of it” may be reason enough, but I think it is healthy and helpful to find the divine in everything. Limiting inspirational subject matter to depictions of scriptural events and characters is to confine the divine to a very small box. What a noble quest for artists to aspire to, that of revealing the divine in whatever we see! Our community would certainly be enriched as well as become healthier artistically by expanding our aesthetic scope. There’s a breathtaking artistic menu to be developed out there. To use the culinary arts as an example: Italian cuisine is delicious, but dining can become boring if we order lasagna for every meal!
A conversation I have with a lot of Latter-day Saint artists is where to start when it comes to educating oneself on racial literacy in our work. Many of them, like you, didn't grow up in environments where they were exposed to this essential education. What advice would you give for artists who are trying to fill in the gaps in their knowledge as adults?
The advice I give to myself and other artists when it comes to increasing our racial literacy in our work is to study our history and the history of racial issues. Listen to the stories of people’s lived experiences, and don’t discount them. Ask sincere questions. Listen and learn. Identify our blindspots and find common ground. Become involved in worthwhile grassroots efforts where we can work alongside people who have different life templates from our own. Express love, kindness, and understanding to those whose story may differ greatly from our own. Then, with that new awareness and sensitivity, go forward and continue to create and see what happens! Creating token placeholders in our artwork for racial and life diversity isn’t the cure. Creating personal awareness, true understanding, and sensitivity to the stories of our real life sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors, can change not only our art, but transform the world around us.
There is so much that has shifted, evolved, and expanded about the Church and the world in the last decade. Sometimes these shifts can feel overwhelming and the tension they cause disconcerting. But change is also very hopeful. What are some things that make you hopeful about the future of Latter-day Saint art and culture and how do you plan to be a part of those ongoing shifts?
One of the things that I have observed about the artistic evolution of Latter-day Saint art and culture is the sheer number of artists that are contributing. The hopeful part about this increase in participation is already evident. When I began painting spiritual images there were few, if any artists, doing the same, little diversity of style, thought, or culture, and almost no professional opportunities. Now, there is wonderful diversity, varied points of view, the talent pool is enlarging, and the quality standards are rising. These changes are hopeful!
As artists, we can have unique roles to play in those changes. Like it or not, we tell stories about the human experience: personal spirituality, encounters with light, struggles with shadows and darkness, fears, hopes, and joys. My heart tells me that sharing these stories, through whatever medium we choose to practice, is part of an awakening that is sweeping the Earth. It’s an awakening to who we really are, to our own divine nature, and to the divine nature of everyone around us. It is an awakening to our own independent and direct connection to the divine. I hope to simply be a part of that awakening!
Learn more about this series and see some of Greg’s work up close and personal at Restore this year. You can learn more about Greg and his work at www.gregolsen.com.