Enough leaves to make you shake – Pamela OIson
MINTURN – Oil paint might seem like a difficult medium, but it’s a literal drop in the bucket compared to the materials of choice on Pamela Olson’s palette.Come to think of it, Olson doesn’t have a palette. She’s got a cargo truck. In it, she carries thousands of carefully maintained maple leaves, hundreds of pounds of sand, porcelain casts of seed pods, and enough tools to make a carpenter cry.Olson, a former Vail Valley resident who now lives in Boulder, is no stranger to watching genuine awe spread across the faces of those who gaze upon her work.For one thing, when seeing one of her enormous wheels with a myriad of warm colors, it’s almost impossible to believe that any one of the leaves, much less all 8,000 of them, are real. “I go out every fall and collect 20,000 to 50,000 leaves – I don’t even know how many – thousands upon thousands, which takes forever,” Olson said. “I collect them right after they fall off the tree. You have to get them before they start drying and curling up. I go out every day to certain trees that I’ve found that I like.”There’s a certain maple on Spruce and 11th streets in Boulder that has yielded a successful harvest this year. From collecting the individual leaves, Olson takes them home – the entirety of which is set up as a leaf molding center of sorts – and separates them accordingly.
“It’s a very cautious process, from the moment you get the leaves,” Olson said. “You can’t bend them, because they’ll crack. I handle them very carefully. I go home and sort through them and lay them out, one by one. I lay them very carefully between sheets of drywall. My entire house is full of drywall and newsprint. I change the paper as it’s needed. The leaves get sorted into sizes and colors. So, like with the yellows, I’ll have a board with the lightest, then small, medium and large. They go from all different yellows to a deep, wine red.””I call her ‘the leaf lady,'” said Justin Brunelle, owner of Soke Fine Art Gallery in Minturn, which wowed several passerbys with Olson’s exhibit at its grand opening in October.”She’s covering a lot of space.”Just the tip of the treeBut leaves aren’t all Olson works with. Her work has caught the interest of people throughout the country and she constantly travels to various universities and galleries installing her work. And the installation is often the art itself. Part of last year’s exhibit at Soke was a “temporal” piece, built directly onto the wall, meaning it had to be destroyed when removed. But the temporary quality is part of the message Olson is trying to communicate with her work.
“It makes you think about the change of seasons and the cycle of life,” she said. “All my work is about that.”Olson’s feature piece this time around is a giant mandala consisting of more than 1,000 cast porcelain seed pods. The piece resembles an eight-pronged snowflake and is called “Life Cycle.””This mandala specifically is full of symbolism from native American ideology as well as Eastern philosophies,” she said. “This symbol with the eight stars is the symbol of the eight-fold path of right speech, right action, right living, basically. The star also represents the cardinal directions, which is what a lot of Native American sacred circles and healing circles will do. A circle has no end or beginning. The word ‘mandala’ is Sanskrit for ‘circle.’ People who know what it is will see it. A lot of people go, ‘Oh, it looks like a quilt,’ or, ‘It looks like lace.'”The seed pods feature everything from thistles to helicopter petals to lotus pods. Their placement in the circle is also symbolic. “The thistles go on the outside of the of the circle,” she said. “Farmers and indians used to plant thistles on the borders of their gardens or around where they kept their cattle or chickens because it’s a natural deterrent, a natural fence. In the Buddhist philosophy with the mandala, a lot of the wisdom is in the center. The center is very concentrated. You have to pass through gates to get there and the outside of the mandala is protected.”
Reaping the rewardsOlson also works with sandpainting, clay sculpture and hanging porcelain leaves. Her privately commissioned pieces have included an enormous porcelain garden and vine work in the Hollywood home of David Jacobs, director and screenwriter of “Dallas,” and “Knot’s Landing.”Jacobs saw Olson’s work in Boulder and hired her to create something unique in an unfilled area of his house.”That’s what I like to do,” she said. “People have a space within their home and they say, ‘We can’t find anything for that, but we really like your work.’ So, I go and consult with them and see what their taste is like, and what they liked about my pieces. I want to get to know who they are so there’s an alignment.”Although gathering leaves, seed pods and other organic materials, plus hauling everything around and then doing the installations can be physically painstaking for Olson, she says the awe that appears on people’s faces as they view her work is the most rewarding part about what she does.”At the Arvada Center for the Arts, I remember a group of kids came by and sat down in front of the hanging leaves piece. They were just like, ‘Wow. That’s really cool.’ To see their faces – my installations are different than your normal painting on the wall-type art,” she said. “To see that excitement about a real leaf piece on the wall, seeing people get something out of it is really important. I like the ‘wow.’ I also like my own time. It’s really quiet when I’m out collecting the leaves. I look at every leaf. It’s a reverence for nature. To me, each leaf has it’s own painting in it.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 610, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail Colorado