If you took a dash of Salvador Dali, smidgeon of Hieronymus Bosch, smatter of street art and soaked it in dizzying pattern and shrieking colors – what would you have?
With the talent of artist Peter Olsen, you’d have a collection of fascinating artwork, at once somber, intriguing and at points humorous. Even the Apocalypse.
At 74, Olsen has accumulated enough skill to pull off what would likely run hideous to abysmal in other hands. Over a long career that began in his teens with a classical art education in New York City, his life and career are only getting more interesting.
Olsen never intended to move into the spiritual realms with art. He was happily employed painting interplanetary, sci-fi scenery until 1974 when someone gave him a copy of “The Late Great Planet Earth.” Since then, his biblical art has definitely gone “where no man has gone before”.
After reading John’s description of the Rainbow Angel of Revelation, he relates how his “imagination danced like never before.” Olsen had a burning desire to paint the Apostle’s words – “seven thunders uttering when he cried out.” A massive being straddling sea and land with legs like pillars of fire – how do you paint that? Few have attempted or done it well. It requires a language of symbology and metaphor … and utter foreignness. Art describing such things must be a bit odd, eccentric, perhaps even grotesque in service of the supernatural, such as Bosch or Grunewald perfected.
Olsen was enraptured with the Apocalypse and never looked back: “Nothing has been the same since I began painting this wild apocalyptic narrative.”
He sensed a new direction and energy working on pieces inspired from the last book of the Bible and wanted to continue. That was far from the only change the menacing angel brought him. Olsen rededicated his life and pledged his talents to God – but had no idea where that promise would launch him.
Beginning with the “Four Horsemen” and the “Seven Churches of Asia,” his interpretations in paint multiplied: 24, 48 and 72 paintings. Next he did 100 collages. Why?
“Revelation is filled with adventure, surrealistic themes, promises, warnings and the repeated exhortation that if we read it, hear it and remember it, we will be blessed,” Olsen says.
Perhaps the blessing also extends to those who paint it.
In 2007 he began to receive requests from pastors and professors for art on specific verses in Revelation. Responding to that, Olsen now has about 1,000 illustrations of some type from the book.
“Some verses were so moving that I had to create multiple illustrations,” he explained.
They come in many forms: drawing, pen and ink, sculpture, paintings, mixed-media and even pyrography (wood burning). Sizes vary wildly – from a few inches to a 20-foot polyptych.
With the art came serious Bible study and in-depth research. Speaking with James Davis, Olsen describes exactly how deep.
“Revelation has 12,000 words, and I’ve researched them all,” Olsen claims. “Even common words such as ‘up’, ‘but’ or ‘people.'”
He checks every word in context to get sense of how it should be painted.
Linguistic research isn’t the only study Olsen uses to prepare for his art work. He turns to history, customs, archeology and Apocryphal works.
“When people look at my work, I want them to have a visual insight into the Bible,” Olsen explains.
He remembers the disappointment that washed over him as a child learning to read when the pictures stopped showing up in books. It just wasn’t the same.
While not diminishing the awe and threat of the Apocalypse, Olsen manages to make it a pleasure to observe, demonstrating compassion and solid theology. His art on the end of the world is even wryly amusing at times.
“Behold the White Horse” ventures far into altered reality with a futuristic interior that carves the dread subject and eschatology down to visual bites we can understand. A visionary, carnival décor atmosphere reigns here. Horses of various types intruding across the scene: classical, disintegrating, a wraith with chem-trail tail, wallpaper horses and one that could be Gumby’s ride. Olsen miraculously makes this all work and none seem out of place in this surreal scene from the edge of the abyss. That includes three graffiti-like Christs, including one on a camel.
Here Olsen bombards us with a deluge of pattern and imagery, saturated with vibrant colors, personal ciphers and codes. He calls this “narrative art,” using iconography from medieval times to now. Bugs Bunny, Shakespeare, Marilyn Monroe or Warhol, whatever works. There is an occasional whiff of Haight-Ashbury aura – the Apocalypse may be very bad trip for some.
Any artist working with the spiritual struggles to portray the transcendent by material means. No eye hath seen nor ear heard. Did prophets Joel and Micah wrestle for the exact words to describe their visions and oracles? Incidentally, Olsen also created a series on 12 minor prophets among his biblically themed art.
Olsen creates a personal iconography for his Biblical works: Firecracker doves – or dying ones – morphing into long black fingers of blame; holy men are walking white triangles; nightmarish men appear with branches and tendrils; ears melt and mutate to “hear” the Word of the Lord for the church; projectile tears from a crystalline iris – while the eyes stand for “knowledge, perception, enlightenment.”
One of Olsen’s most remarkable paintings is “The Museum of Mankind” (Rev 1:7):
The Scripture reads, “Even also they which pierced him; and all kindreds of the earth shall wail.”
This is so complex and full of seemingly disjointed images, that it can barely be absorbed at first pass. But the artist has a purpose. In another not-so-funhouse interior, this “museum” depicts how mankind turns against God and rejects his love.
Olsen’s classical art background is more evident here with an El Greco Pieta on the left and dead bodies from some Holocaust tumbling from a painting on the right. In the midst of all this sombreity, something resembling deranged Robert Crumb characters lounge in the foreground, taking it all in. Beavis and Butthead attack a Star of David while Stalin and Anne Frank remind us of our sins. Idols devouring lesser idols.
References to anti-Semitism show up in several of Olsen’s works, and his interest Jewish history and Scripture is evident. He is doing new pieces for an exhibit hosted by the City of Pembroke Pines, Florida, related to Jewish History and the “The Holy City” is the result.
Women aren’t ignored or relegated to only “Whore of Babylon” or standby status and stand in Olsen’s work. A current project was suggested by his wife, who encouraged him to illustrate every woman in the Bible.
“Throughout biblical history, every event was influenced directly or indirectly by a woman,” Olsen claims.
More of the fair sex show up in Scripture than you may think, so Olsen is limiting it to a mere 500. Obviously he has no intentions on retiring soon.
Olsen is convinced that the visual arts are important element in spreading the gospel and a gift to the church. Several of his works illuminate this, but this one especially, “The Studio (Tree of Life)” in reference to Rev 22: 1-5. Here an art studio with a canvas depicts the “water of life flowing from the throne of God” as well as the Tree of Life and promise of peace. Far in the background, almost imperceptibly, Vermeer paints a woman in a curtained alcove.
Interviewing with “The Venue Newspaper” Olsen shared a message to the world: “Dream big, live large, love every precious moment and be the best at what you do. My favorite four-letter word that I share with each of my students is W-O-R-K.”
While Olsen awaits a patron for his Revelation collection, he’s created a more user-friendly way to share his visions with viewers. His illustrated “Book of Revelation” hosts a mere 404 pen and ink illustrations, one for each verse of the book.
Olsen has received large offers for individual art works from his Revelation series but feels a responsibility to keep it intact, as one body of work. A professor from Knox Seminary told him there has never been anything close to what he’s done – not on that scale.
What edifice or venue is up to hosting more than 1,000 wonderfully bizarre illustrations of the Apocalypse of St. John? An old brick slaughthouse? An acre of Roman ruins? If you know of a suitable place or have the imagination to visualize one, please let him know.
Upcoming exhibit-studio info: Olsen exhibits with the City of Pembroke Pines in a “Celebration of Jewish History” opening spring 2015. Studio address is 4380 NE 5 Ave., Oakland Park, Florida.
Sources: Peter Olsen / beliefnet.com / Sun Sentinel, James D. Davis / www.peterolsenart.com / Sasha Richardson, goodnewsfl.org / Julie Bernier, The Venue Newspaper