Staniar presents Kathleen Olson’s Passage in a new and colorful exhibit

Staniar Gallery celebrates W&L professor Kathleen Olson’s career during Alumni Weekend.

Catherine McKean

On May 7, Staniar Gallery hosted an open reception of Pamela H. Simpson Professor of Art Kathleen Olson’s work, which displays in the gallery from Apr. 25-May 26.

Raised amidst a family of women artists in Southern California, Olson has been involved in the creation of art her entire life, getting her foot into the art world as a student at Berkeley under the mentorship of Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown. After graduation, she attended the Pratt Institute in New York, where she began to develop an interest in portraying the relationship between interior and exterior spaces and deal with the transitory periods of her life, evident in the series of window paintings on display at Staniar. She continued her graduate studies at Yale University, where she found herself drawn to mentors who specialized in figurative, expressionist and landscape paintings.

As a student, she began taking trips to Europe, where she was mesmerized by the landscape and architecture and the light in the world. As an artist, she continues to take inspiration from her travels in France, Greece and Italy.

Olson first came to the Washington and Lee campus as a newlywed in 1987, and she has continued to develop her work while teaching students and bringing them to the same Mediterranean countries where she was inspired until her retirement this year. Her more recent works explore memories of family, light and a return to the relationship between nature and architecture.

Many visitors to the exhibit remarked on the vivid coloration and emotion found in Olson’s paintings. Arden Floyd, ‘24, who interns with the galleries and helped put together the complementary catalogs at the exhibit, was fascinated by the energy of the works.

“The pure saturation of colors is what really stands out to me – especially the pinks and oranges, which I don’t believe you see very often at this scale,” said Floyd. “I’m also very appreciative of Olson’s ability to portray emotion. You can tell exactly what she wants to show you.” 

Olson’s former students who were in Lexington for the Alumni Weekend, many of whom are now professional artists or art teachers themselves, were also given the opportunity to view the exhibit and reunite with their professor.

“It’s always great to be back. These were the best four years of my life; I was an art major and Kathleen [Olson] was my professor, back when we were still having classes in DuPont Hall,” said Wendy Doak, ‘92, now an artist based in Baltimore. “She was actually working on some of these paintings, including Yellow Terrace and Chambre Neuf while I was a student here.”

Doak and other students congratulated Olson on her retirement throughout the reception.

“I found out that she was retiring when she sent out an email letting us know that she would be holding a reception during Alumni Weekend,” said Doak. “I have a similar art style to her, and it’s just nice to be able to connect with her in person again.” 

Over the course of her 33-year career at W&L, Olson has cultivated communities of student artists, produced numerous artwork and invited dozens of artists to campus. She will be greatly missed by the Washington and Lee art community.