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Robert Olsen was a badass. Smart, humble, dedicated, skilled, and just damn nice. I met Robert in my first painting class at UC Davis in the mid 1990s. All of us were typical art kids – passionate, naïve and unfocused. Robert was different. He was quiet, he painted a lot, and his paintings were of a higher caliber. It was almost intimidating because he was so good, but instead, he was inspiring and approachable.

We painted in a similar style and bonded over art genres, paint brands, different techniques, and punk rock. It helped that we liked similar music. He came to see my punky surf band, the Tiki Men a few times and came to one of my parties at the warehouse I lived in when bands played. We got along great, but he was different. We didn’t connect completely because he seemed insanely intelligent and driven. I was in my 20s and felt like a dolt most of the time.

There was an incredible art history instructor there at that time, Janice Coco, one of the best teachers I ever had. The first time I took a class from her I worked my ass off and got a C; by the third time I had taken a class by her I learned how to learn and appreciate her craft. I got an A. Robert was in one of those classes. After one of her mind-meltingly great lectures on how the Nazis raided all of the great art in Germany for being “profane” during World War II, I, like many students, headed to the cafeteria for a burrito with creases in my forehead cursing those fucking Nazis, but not Robert. He skipped lunch and headed to the library to get books on the topic so he could learn more. See what I mean? Driven.

We ended up having several classes together, and at the end of one, the teacher announced that he had reserved a gallery on a Second Saturday, a night that featured several gallery openings. These were well attended and special events. For our final, the teacher said that we had this show booked and it was up to us, the class, to organize and collectively put everything together. We had to elect leaders, pick a theme, work out deadlines, quantities, etc. Good move on the instructor’s part, as we learned a lot.

Since it was a figure drawing class, the theme seemed pretty obvious. The idea was to create a work of art from the series of life drawings we had done in class to exhibit. Of course, Robert’s was brilliant. He put together a tryptic of three small oil paintings, and titled the piece “Micro Disaster Series.” The first was a male figure, up close, laying down on pavement, eyes open, with a white line around his body. The second was just asphalt, with a single drop of blood, and a white line. The third, a female form, lying on her back, eyes closed, on pavement. So simple, so dark and thought provoking!

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The night was fun. It was great to interact with the guests and other artists. As we were packing our stuff away, I joked to Robert that I would give him five bucks for his paintings.

He said, “Sure.”

What?! I was joking, I pointed out, but he said he wasn’t, and he’d take five bucks for them. I couldn’t get my money out fast enough. I had the piece framed, and it hangs on the wall behind my easel to this day and brings me great joy.

UC Davis was weird. I learned a lot about art but nothing about how the business end of it works, or even the correct way to paint. So much of academia involves theory, so business seemed superficial. Ok, whatever. And it turns out, there is no correct way to paint! This baffled me. I was the first of nineteen grandchildren to go to college, and I was paying for it myself. I wanted to learn HOW to paint! It turns out you learn by experiences. Three of my most profound learning moments came from these experiences.

Squeak Carnwath was an amazing painter. I loved taking a class from her. Her style was so completely different from mine, but so brilliant.  She came to class one day and started a conversation with, “I was thinking about your paintings while I was in the shower this morning.” That got me right there! She was giving consideration to how I approach painting on her own time? Me? She cared, and she always explored and thought about how and what people paint. She taught how to paint by illustrating how to think first. Why you do what you do.

During one critique, Dave Hollowell, a fantastic painter and instructor, was sitting quietly in the back of the class. It was my turn to put my new painting up. The class loved it. They all said complimentary things and I was feeling high. Stoked. At the end, Dave asked if everyone was finished before he spoke. Then, after staring at it, he asked, “Is it done?” “Well…yeah…sure…” was my apprehensive response. He said it looked more like I got tired of dabbling and just quit. The truth hurt. Then, he pointed and asked what something was. I said it was a wall, then he asked what color it was. I said, “Kind of beigey.” He raised his voice with authority and said, “If I was going to paint a wall beige, paint a beige wall! Stop pussyfooting around with ambiguity!” He was right. We had a big conversation about commitment, follow-through, pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and being affirmative about when something is finished. I learned how to paint a little more, not realizing it. Those instructors were top notch.

One critique summed up Robert at UC Davis in a nutshell. Many students were critiqued first with their paintings – the good, the bad, the ugly, typical stuff. Then Robert put his up. It was great; everyone loved it, had nothing bad to say about it. The subject ruled, composition was on point, and it was expertly painted. The teacher asked a question, and Robert gave a clear, well thought out answer that was solid. The teacher asked another. Robert’s response was the same. This happened again. The teacher just looked at Robert and said, “Well, it sounds like you have it all figured out! Why don’t you just move to New York and start exhibiting your work?” Robert responded dryly, “Thinking about it.”

Soon after, I graduated. It had been eight hard years of being broke and going to school – the studying, the papers, the exams, holding down a job, and playing in three bands. Lots of debt that would take many years to pay back, but I never regretted a day of it.

Robert moved to LA, finished his Bachelor’s of Art degree at California College of Arts and Crafts, then went on to get his Master’s Degree from UCLA. He started showing, a lot, at high booty places too. One day I picked up a copy of the New Yorker. I’d always flip through the art stuff to see who was showing and where. There was Robert’s name! At Davis, he seemed to be pursuing this dark, lonely, urban, nighttime creepy aesthetic in a realistic style. I did some research on him and found the most haunting paintings of ATM machines or empty bus stops at night. So cool. My favorite was a close up of an open car trunk at night, with a body wrapped in plastic inside. Fuuuccckk! He was doing it! He obviously continued being a badass.

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A couple of years ago I did a painting for my friends, Ed and Janelle, at Magpie Cafe. They were moving their restaurant from one location to another and were figuring out their artwork. I was happy beyond belief to have one of my paintings there.  I loved them, believed in what they were doing, and it was one of my favorite places to eat, anywhere. I did a still life, titled “Made in California.” A vintage Bauer bowl, made in Los Angeles, filled with fresh persimmons – so California, sitting on the surface of a table designed by legendary Californians, Charles and Ray Eames.

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Ed asked me questions about hanging it on a masonry wall. Ed is a great chef, and maybe I was a neurotic control freak, but I just didn’t trust him to hang it himself so I offered to do it; we just blamed it on his broken foot. We set a time, I grabbed too many tools, and headed over. Ed then asked if I could help hang a couple of the other pieces. The big ones by Cactus Pete and his son Miles were already hung, but he wanted help with a piece by Katherine Lemke-Waste, a great painter I shared a show and gallery with, and one other. I felt totally at home.

The other piece was a painting of magpies. Simple, striking colors on a black background. I recognized it from the previous location and loved it, but never asked anything about it. As I was hanging it, I told Ed that I really liked it and asked who did it. He said Robert Olsen.

I told him I knew Robert, loved his work, and had great memories of times shared when we were at Davis together. Ed talked about how Robert would come to the old location a lot, he and Ed would have a drink and share stories and laughs. He worried about the new location having that same kind of feeling. It was a new spot and Robert wasn’t around anymore. What? He told me about how Robert passed a couple of years back. He was at his parent’s house in Citrus Heights and had a heart attack while he was sleeping. I was shocked, this was the first I heard. It was so sad, Robert was only forty four. Dammit. He was such a good dude, and honestly, his brilliance was just starting to materialize.

For you Robert, I will not shed a tear, or try not to. Instead I will put on a Johnny Cash record, crack open a beer, and imagine you chuckling as you finished the last brushstrokes on the painting of the body in the trunk. I know you thought it was funny in the same way I do.

The world suffered a huge loss when you stopped being a badass.

www.robertolsenart.com