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Rik Olson: Steamroller Print Retrospective

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You’ve seen engraving prints, but have you seen huge prints pressed by a steamroller?


Rik Olson, a living master of wood engraving and illustration by anyone’s standards, told me that a typical wood engraving is about three inches by three inches. For the last nine years, though, he’s been making limited edition linoleum prints exponentially larger- three feet by three feet. And not only are they all big, but they are pressed by driving a steamroller over them. The San Francisco Center for the Book’s (SFCB) is hosting a retrospective of his steamroller print work opening this Saturday at 7:00pm at SFCB… and it’s FREE!


Since winning his first “Award of Merit” at the Walnut Creek Art Fair for a crayon illustration of a spaceship landing in third grade, Olson has spent the last forty years freelancing as an illustrator. Over his career, Olson has illustrated over 200 books, along with posters and custom illustrations for everything from wine labels to the crest for a bishop.I got the chance to talk with Olson about his work and his upcoming retrospective.

Me: How did you get started? What drives you as an artist?
Rik: I won my first prize in third grade, and I went from there. I’ve been freelancing for the last forty years. I enjoy getting the varied assignments. Each one represents a fresh challenge. I’m driven by Visualization of ideas. Something influences you from the outside- maybe the light hits just right, maybe you have a nightmare in the middle of the night, or maybe a pleasant thought, and it’s just fun to play with it and see what you can do with it.


What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on the 9th block for this exhibition. I’ve done one every year. Steve Woodall, the first director of the SFCB, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in doing a block 3 feet by 3 feet, which is big for block printing. A typical big wood engraving is 3 inches by 3 inches. It’s a challenge to fill that much space. In a small block you can’t put as much concept or detail into it, but in these larger blocks, you can put a whole face. It’s the same types of strokes, but the tools are bigger and you can create this great illusion with the black and white.


What are some of your favorite projects over your career?
One of the visual images I did commercially was the symbol for the Sierra club, the tree and the half-dome. That’s still hanging around and I like it. Also, the kind of illustration I love is when I can put humor into it. It doesn’t happen so often that they let me do that, but I like when it does.
What are you excited about for this retrospective?
This will be the first time ever that all 9 blocks will be seen together and in context. It’s interesting to see them up an in a row, since normally I just see them one at a time while I’m working on them.
I’ve created a sculpture for the show as well. I saved all the cuttings from the blocks for the shows over time, and I’ve taken those cuttings and displayed them in bell jars. I found a big chunk of redwood for the base, a portion of a stump cut in the 1880’s, I imagine the tree itself is hundreds of years old. I counted 188 rings, and you can see the history of when the water was good and other things like that. I’ve attached the bell jars with the cuttings inside along with some gold leaf for glitter. I call it “Reliquary to the Negative Space.” It’s a print-makers reliquary.


Rik in Detail: A celebration of Rik Olson
Exhibition Opening Reception
San Francisco Center for the Book
Saturday, September 15, 2012

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Scott James - Paperback Pundit

Scott James - Paperback Pundit

Author of Sidewalk Ritual, self-publishing teacher, lover of coffee and IPA.