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Dennis Olsen, a widely respected educator and artist, passed away on Thanksgiving Day after a nearly four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 73.
Olsen, who was born on Dec. 2, 1941, Springfield, Ill., is remembered with affection by many of his students and colleagues in San Antonio where he was an art professor for 33 years, and in Florence where he co-founded what is now known as the Santa Reparata International School of Art.
“He was a very generous participant and teacher,” said Meredith Dean, his wife of 23 years. “He loved his students, who are now all over the arts community. His generosity and spirit made him an important part of the community.”
Despite many previous close calls since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, he managed to beat the odds longer than most. Olsen is survived by his wife, son Erik Olsen, daughter Rebecca Olsen, stepson Loren Dean, and stepdaughter Kirsten Boudreault.
Dennis received a master’s degree from UCLA in 1967. That same year, he won a Fulbright Scholarship to study printmaking in Florence, where he called home for 14 years.
“He was a big part of the art scene in Florence in the ’60s and ’70s,” Erik said. In 1970 Dennis co-founded what was then called the Santa Reparata Graphic Art Centre.
“Because he was a modest person who was driven by his passion for art rather than by personal glory, very few people know that he founded an art school in Florence,” said Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen. “I was on their board of directors and remember keenly the stunned silence when he announced his cancer at a board meeting, matter-of-factly saying that we needed to plan for when he was no longer around.”
Olsen returned to the U.S. in 1981, when started teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He taught printmaking, drawing, and computer methods, ultimately retiring as professor emeritus in 2014.
“Dennis and I were the printmaking team (professors) at UTSA for 33 years. We were a team and now, sadly, that era has come to an end,” stated local artist and photographer Kent Rush in an email. “He was the maestro of intaglio, monoprint and multicolor printmaking. He was an equally fine draftsman and watercolorist. He was a natural – he had that finesse, that facility, he could think fluently in the language of printmaking and so he could write elegant poetry in color and ink.”
Many of his former students became friends and colleagues.
“I first got to know Dennis as a teacher where he inspired me as he taught with a mastery of subject,” stated local artist Mark Hogensen in an email, “He became my mentor and was a model of what it meant to be an artist. Finally after my artistic ‘apprenticeship,’ I became a friend. Dennis took his creativity seriously and expected no less from his students, from those he mentored and ultimately from his friends.”
In 1976, together with his first wife, Suzy Harmon Olsen, Dennis discovered a Tuscan village which had been abandoned since WWII. According to Erik, he began a renovation of two of the eight houses, with the help of friends.
“A lot of people saw a pile of ruins and didn’t realize its potential,” Erik said.
According to Dean, “There were holes in the roof, no plumbing or electricity.” Yet Olsen was undaunted. He continued working on it until he could no longer do so.
“He learned how to build walls,” Erik said. “He taught me that I could create my own environment and not be afraid of something I haven’t tried yet, like home restoration.”
He and his family spent every summer in that village, which is now home to an eclectic assortment of American and British residents. He was considered to be the unofficial mayor and founder, according to Erik. He worked in his studio and taught periodically at Santa Reparata, which is currently under the direction of his daughter, Rebecca.
“My father was, well, my father, my friend, and a co-worker. We shared the same taste in humor, films, TV, music, books, art, food, travel, politics, people and friendship and loved to talk about all of it…a lot,” Rebecca said. “We were alike in many ways, though I could never fill his shoes – he set that bar far too high. Everything I am now I owe to the example he set and the curiosity for life that he shared with me.
“Probably the part of our relationship that is most special to me is the music that we shared. My father taught me to play the guitar and we as a family sang together regularly. Our repertoire, as well as so many beautiful evenings spent singing as a family and with our friends, will forever stay with me and remind me of how beautiful life is.”
His prints, paintings and drawings have been exhibited in over 50 solo exhibitions and 110 group and invitational exhibitions in Europe, South America, and the U.S., including the Smithsonian National Gallery of American Art, according to his obituary. He was invited to give lectures, workshops, and demonstrations more than 100 times in the U.S., Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Peru, and Russia.
Dennis and Meredith hosted their final exhibit together at REM Gallery in May 2014. At the time, he was still in relatively good health and was eager to discuss his works with visitors during the opening reception.
Olsen utilized many different techniques in his work, including both traditional methods and new technologies. He was relentless in his pursuit of new methods.
“His subject matter and the content of his work varied greatly over the years from traditional interiors and landscapes to abstract, formal works that referenced books, manuscripts, codes, and text,” he wrote in his own obituary.
“We had similar goals,” she said. “We both understood our need for studio time. We cared about many things.”
“Dennis was a creative force. He was an amazingly talented and innovative artist,” stated REM proprietor Dana Read in an email. “Dennis was fearless in his art and his life. The work in the first exhibition Dennis had at REM in 2009, was elegant, abstract. For the next exhibition in 2011 he said, ‘Dana, I was looking at images on some foreign currency and drawing the images upside down and this portrait appeared.’
“The portrait became a catalyst for his signature series, ‘Fictive Portraits,’ portraits of inhabitants of a timeless village accompanied by narratives,” she added. “Dennis taught everyone that knew and loved him to be more daring, to do something different, to “’draw upside down.’”
Olsen was a great lover of music as well an accomplished amateur musician. He was a lyrical whistler who sang and played guitar, recorder, crumhorn, autoharp, and harmonica. In 1976, he even took part in the recording in Florence of an album of American and Irish folk music.
“He is a superb example of what we should all aspire to as artists, colleagues, and human beings here in this community, and, on this planet,” said local artist Ken Little of his friend Dennis.
In 2013, Olsen was interviewed in his studio by artist Gary Sweeney for a short video documentary, produced by Walley Films. Along with sharing his latest work, Olsen talks his experiences and his printmaking processes. He also performs on several musical instruments.
“Dennis was the most innovative printmaking artist I have ever met or of which I’ve ever been aware,” stated banker Tom Frost III in an email. “He had no limits to what he would be willing to explore to advance the methods of printmaking. He took traditional methods and incorporated many other medias of art, especially photographic techniques. Dennis became even more productive after he was diagnosed with cancer. His drive to find new and better techniques to express his vast creativity was endless. His artistic abilities to create was both refined and broad. He is one of my favorite artists.”
The following Saturday, Dec. 12, an exhibit of Olsen’s work will be on display in the gallery.
In lieu of flowers the family requests that donations be sent to the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation www.npcf.us/donate or a charity of your choice.
*Top image: Erik and Dennis Olsen in Tuscany circa 1970. Photo courtesy Erik Olsen.