- "Birth of Venus With Toys"
No one looks at a 15th-century Italian painting and thinks, SpongeBob SquarePants! No one except Plainfield artist Emilia Olson, that is. Her takeoff on Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" — "Birth of Venus With Toys" — replaces the supporting figures of the original with the perpetually excited blue-and-yellow cartoon star, as well as Bert and Ernie of "Sesame Street" renown. All three are draped in flowy fabric, the sartorial standard of the Renaissance; a diaphanous veil streams from Bert's topknot. A bunch of tiny toys, including rubber duckies, tumbles through the 63-by-109-inch scene as if on a breeze. The naked Venus is nowhere to be found.
This is one of five large oil paintings in Olson's current exhibition at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. The works are startling for their ambitious scale, refreshing humor and flawless execution. Each of these paintings includes bright toys or small animals, set against a subdued landscape much like that of the Italian original. Helpfully, a sheet of paper hung alongside each of Olson's works contains an image of the classic work and the artist's commentary.
- "Baby Deer"
The exhibit title, "Painting With the Past," is a double entendre. Not only does Olson borrow from the Renaissance, she also revisits her own history. In fact, this exhibition, organized by Highland Center curator Maureen O'Connor Burgess, is something of a resurrection.
After graduating from Montpelier High School in 1997, Olson earned a degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. For a time, she apprenticed with a muralist in Boston. And then she put her artwork on the shelf — or, actually, in a box in her parents' home. Olson moved back to Plainfield and began an interior painting business. She didn't paint on canvas again for 15 years.
"I was really hit with how complicated and difficult being an adult was going to be, paying my own bills, being in a studio 12 hours a day," Olson said in a phone interview. "Now I had to work full time, keep a relationship going, etc. I was torturing myself every day that I wasn't painting. I felt bad every day."
- "Sleeping Venus With Toys"
Her solution was to abandon the idea of being an artist. But the irony is not lost on Olson that she continued to handle the medium. "I even worked in a paint store for a couple years!" she said.
Enter Burgess, who also curates the gallery at the Central Vermont Medical Center in Barre and whose own children had attended school with Olson in Montpelier. In 2018, Burgess approached Olson and cajoled her into putting an exhibition together for the hospital the following year.
By that point, Olson was ready to reconsider making art. Almost. "For several months I just had anxiety dreams around it and no constructive work," she said. "At the same time, I was thinking a lot about the storage box with all my old paintings. I put my whole self as an artist in that box. I was fearful of what I would see in there. But when I had this show, I had this goal in front of me."
Olson opened the box. "For some reason, I saw the work more clearly," she recalled. "I thought, Now I need to actually finish these paintings. They're not done, and I have the opportunity to actually finish them."
The works that Olson pulled from her box and reworked were smaller paintings on panel — some of which are included in the Highland show. To her, finishing meant scraping and scratching them, sometimes revealing an underpainting, sometimes adding more paint.
- "Sacred and Profane Love With Toys"
Since school days, she had the idea of integrating toys into her compositions, evident in such works as an 18-inch-square oil titled simply "Sponge Bob." In it, the character is perched on a sort of platform and faces an abstracted yellow mass that might be a tree. A heavy shadow behind Bob — and nothing else — emphasizes the stage-set-like quality of the work.
In other paintings on panel, Olson variously scraped away to reveal tiny animals, or added text, or played off another of her obsessions: cheesy greeting cards. In a 48-by-24-inch piece, a green column down the center of the surface has been scraped so that the titular words "I Promise I Will Always Love You" can barely be deciphered. A little mouse holding a hunk of cheese poses at the bottom of the column.
"I was trying to point out the camp," Olson said, "but my mother hung that painting in her office for years." Ultimately, the artist believes, her works are sincere.
- "Virgin of the Rocks With Toys"
Olson noted that three of the large canvases in the Highland show were started back in 2002 but were rolled up unfinished. She completed them and added two more.
In "Sacred and Profane Love With Toys" (64 by 137 inches), a white plush rat inexplicably wearing a tigerlike headpiece sits on a carved stone wall opposite a Hummel-esque figurine of a big-eyed boy. Both of them hold tiny toy bunnies, while a three-eyed Martian toy at the center rides atop a bright-yellow oversize insect. The painting's 1514 predecessor is by the Venetian master known in English as Titian.
The oddest painting in the show is arguably "Virgin of the Rocks With Toys" (46 by 57 inches). In fact, writes Olson in her description: "Leonardo da Vinci's landscape in this painting is quite strange. I've made it even stranger by mirroring the painting." Also by replacing the Virgin and her entourage with plush white rats.
Da Vinci's grim, apocalyptic grotto is grim times two in Olson's remake. And, in her arched images, the identical rodents seem to be playing catch with a red ball — the only detail in the painting that is not replicated. Somehow, it's OK to have no idea what this means.
- "Joachim Among the Shepherds With Cats"
Olson's "Joachim Among the Shepherds With Cats" (44.5 by 47.75 inches) removes the men and sheep from Giotto's original, leaving a stark rocky outcropping that presents a mysterious doorway. But, as Olson writes in the caption, "I've taken the liberty of adding two of my cats, Elliott and Cinder." One of the felines is disappearing into the doorway, tail held high. The other is washing its face underneath a green plastic lawn chair.
"Painting With the Past" brings together Olson's love of exquisite Renaissance tableaux, her delight in painting bright, incongruous toys and her restored interest in going big. One hopes she is out of the box for good.