Feb 14, 2018
by Sharon Feissel
Rik Olson, a man with great presence and with joviality etched on his face, thrusts out a welcoming hand en route to his studio. It is a surprisingly atmospheric setting with clusters of specialized tools, shelves of old books on his chosen arts, unfinished paintings leaning against walls, several presses--even an unusable mid-1800s press missing teeth. “Anything surviving from the mid-1800’s is allowed to have missing teeth,” he quips, eyes twinkling.
Drawers hold blocks of wood engravings and metal plates. Stacks of linocuts are plopped unceremoniously in stacks. “Wood engravings and plates are in drawers, because a scratch would damage them,” he explains. “Linocuts aren’t delicate. They’re a special linoleum composition for battleship decks and are relatively indestructible. I could use them for years, but I don’t. I only do a single edition of my prints.”
Glancing around, he muses, “I escape to my studio several hours a day to explore and give free reign to my creative urges. This was my man cave long before that expression existed.” The space holds Rik’s history as an artist. There is a path through it all, but, essentially, no spot remains unoccupied. Yet it feels cozy, rather than cluttered.
In addition to fine art, Rik does editorial illustration, packaging and book illustration, art spots, event posters, wine labels, and other niche items. The Sierra Club used his logo for a quarter century before replacing it. A piece for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center commemorated a new hospital wing. His art is on the back cover of every issue of the Gazette, custom illustrations for Fine Tree Care. He has done a decal for The Bohemian’s Best of Sonoma County awards and posters for Sebastopol’s Apple Blossom Festival and for the town of Occidental, even for Main Street Days, in Grapevine, TX, and an event in Puerto Rico, with other commissions from Mexico, Germany, Italy, the UK, and Japan.
Rik enjoys the challenge of commissions. Asked if one had ever gone wrong, he grins, “I’ve been fired. Trying to produce work matching someone else’s vision ensures there are differences to iron out. All in all, it has been a positive experience.” Currently Rik is doing illustrations for a book of poetry and designing several wine labels.
Internationally, Rik is a recognized master in several printmaking mediums, but a single skill underlies them all. “The ability to draw Is essential whether I use a pen, pencil, knife, or other sharp object. Interestingly, I work in opposites. In pen and ink illustrations, I add lines on paper to create an image. With the wood engravings, linocuts, and scratchboard, I carve out the negative space and leave the positive image. I also think in reverse, since a figure carved on the left will be on the right when printed. I like to say I do anything that includes sharp instruments and a dab of ink.”
Asked how he fixes a mistake, given the complexity of carving various mediums, Rik’s face crinkles into an amused smile. “It’s never a mistake...it’s a re-design opportunity.”
Rik explains his mediums. “Wood engraving is most difficult, then mezzotints. Linocuts are easiest. I transfer a drawing to a surface, whether wood, linoleum, metal plate, or scratchboard, as a map for where to carve or incise. With wood engravings, I work across the endgrain of a block, which allows me to achieve precise work with very fine details. Wood engraving and linocuts are relief works. A simple example is a rubber stamp with ink on the raised parts.
Linocuts, if printed in color, require a block per color. If yellow roses are in the drawing, one block will have everything cut away but the yellow parts, another will retain only green parts, etc. With each color printed separately, the paper passes through the press multiple times, each block adding its segment, with the end result being the image as originally conceived.
“Etchings use a copper or zinc plate coated with a resist layer that I draw through with an etching needle to expose the metal. The plate goes into an acid bath that eats into the metal, producing the image. With mezzotints, I put the copper plate on a rotating board, a device I developed, and, with a specialized tool, score the metal surface from 54 slightly differing angles, giving the ink hundreds of minuscule burrs to pool around. This can create quite a moody background or allow for a variety of shadings and texture—no acid involved.”
“Scratchboard, ‘the poor man’s wood engraving look’, is economical—a black-ink surface baked onto a white clay layer on a backing. I scratch away the ink with sharp tools. The black and white incised board is itself the final work, although it can be photographed or scanned to make prints.” The arresting image on the March cover of The Sonoma County Gazette 2018 Gardener's Resource Guide is a scratchboard rendition. In this case, Rik scanned the carved image into the computer and added color digitally. “I don’t title commissioned work, but this image is composed of California natives, so that could be the title.”
Asked if he is ever tempted to give up carving and etching and his well-worn physical printing presses to join the digital age by drawing images in the computer--something he is perfectly capable of doing--Rik cocks one eyebrow and shoots out a quick dart of a look. “Why would I do that?” he asks, incredulous. “I like the hands-on part, and there has been a resurgence in appreciation for the master arts of printmaking.”
Surprisingly, Rik began his artistic career as a photographer and painter, even having exhibitions in Germany and Florence, Italy, during the eight years he worked as an arts and crafts instructor on American bases after serving in the Army. In Florence, on days off, he began working at a print school. That experience solidified his interest in classical printmaking methods. Now he uses his camera solely to capture subjects he may want later. However, he still draws inspiration from his photographs from Europe. “European scenes have great charm, and, I suppose, remind me of a simpler, more picturesque life. I especially like to capture moments of stillness like a pause in activity or its opposite, the peak of action.
That being said,” he comments, “nature is a frequent subject, regardless of medium. Look at where we live--beauty everywhere. I particularly like to look underfoot, close to the ground, or along the roadside for delights most people pass right by. So some subjects are from my past, some from the possible future, some have humor, some are serious, and some come from the center of my head.”
Rik’s impressive résumé, his mastery of difficult mediums, his versatility and longevity in the arts, and his interest in continually challenging himself are quite remarkable. Musing, he says of his life in art, “Maybe it all stems from my third-grade drawing of a spaceship on the moon, which won first place at an Art Festival.” He still has the certificate tacked to the studio wall. Asked if he feels he has reached the pinnacle of his art, he replies. “You never reach your pinnacle. Even Michelangelo, at the end of his life, said he was still learning. There is always something to learn. At the very least, you give old techniques your own new twist. The trick is to get that big hunk of gray matter to focus and produce.”
For 30 years, Rik has taught at the San Francisco Center for the Book, which calls him a master printmaker with “a vast wealth of knowledge about all things illustration.” Beaming at the sheer unlikelihood of it, Rik talks about the Center’s annual fundraiser. Artists submit 3’ x 3’ engraved blocks which are laid on the street, inked, then covered with paper overlaid with carpeting to protect the paper. Hundreds of onlookers watch as a 7-ton steamroller, serving as the press, rolls over the block forward, then backward. Voilà! Large prints! The 2018 Roadworks Steamroller Printing Festival is scheduled for September. In 2014, Rik began organizing a similar fundraiser for Sebastopol Center for the Arts, “although they only use a four-ton roller.” The local event is scheduled for July.
To follow in Rik’s steps, catch his workshops in his studio, at Sebastopol Center for the Arts, and at the San Francisco Center for the Book in San Francisco where in April he will teach a class on multi-color linocut processes.
View his work at Laguna de Santa Rosa Environmental Center until early May, continuously at Graton Gallery in Graton, and at his studio in Sebastopol during Sonoma County Art Trails ~ and by appointment. Website: www.rikolson.com.
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