One of the most influential Minnesota artists of the 20th century, Bettye Olson, has always known that art would be an essential part of her life.
“I’m 95. I’ve been around and alert — and I’m still painting,” says Olson. “I never retired and never will retire either. Creative people do not retire.”
Being a creative has always burned deeply in Bettye’s heart, and she has interpreted nature through her paintings over the course of her 70-year artistic journey.
“As a child, I just always painted or drew and loved doing it,” she says. “It’s something that was so much in me. I just had to keep doing it.”
Olson’s paintings have been fixtures in public and private art collections across the state and around the world. In Minnesota, her work has been featured at the Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota History Center, the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the American Swedish Institute and St. Catherine’s University, among many others.
Internationally, Olson’s art has been showcased in many places, including the Provincial Museum in Vaxje, Sweden and a Minnesota exhibition sent to Modena, Italy. Additionally, she presented her work to the King of Norway during his visit in 1987 and has brought her art to many other countries during her career.
Enthusiasts and art critics have compared Olson’s style to great historical painters like Edvard Munch, Vincent van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe. But her impact in the arts goes beyond her own work, as she has helped support many women artists over the years. In 1964, for example, Bettye founded the West Lake Gallery, a space where young female artists are encouraged to showcase their art.
“Who can say that the art world didn’t change but for the persistence of women artists like Bettye,” wrote Kristin Makholm, director of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, in the introduction to “Persistence of Vision,” a recent book detailing Olson’s life and impactful career.
“Each of Bettye Olson’s artworks is but a single image in the prolific flow of her distinguished body of work,” says Patricia Olson, art and art history professor at St. Catherine University.
After high school in 1941, Bettye decided to continue her education and received her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in art education at the University of Minnesota. She also took classes at the University of New Mexico and Cranbrook Art Academy.
“Then I got to the point where I said, ‘No you shouldn’t study more. You got to be yourself,’” Olson says. “That’s when I started developing myself.”
In 1947, Olson was planning to leave Minnesota to continue pursuing art, but an opportunity would lead to a change in her plans. She had entered two of her sketches in the Walker Art Center Biannual, an event that gave artists the opportunity to showcase their work. Her sketches were chosen for the biannual, marking the beginning of her diverse artistic career right here in Minnesota.
“I have always saved those sketches,” she said.
Olson married her husband Howard the summer after graduating from the University of Minnesota. They had three children during the 1950s, a time when a woman’s occupations were often limited to mother and wife. But that didn’t stop Olson from pursuing a career in art. She made sure to find time to work on her art every week, even if it meant painting late into the night after her children were asleep.
Her passion for art has also given her the opportunity to travel to more countries and continents. “I’ve gone to Norway, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, Africa and Italy,” she says with a smile.
Olson says she embraces the true Minnesota spirit with her love for nature. That love for nature permeates her work as her artistic views have evolved over the years.
“I feel your life always changes and with those changes your art will change,” Olson says. “After painting flowers for 12 years I said, ‘You gotta stop this!’”
That’s when Bettye decided to paint water, waterfalls and the ocean using Van Gogh inspired brush strokes. “I was letting the lines describe the painting,” she says. Years later, she switched to painting trees and creating monoprints.
One of her largest pieces is an Easter painting for her church, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul. It’s 14 feet tall and six feet wide.
“I told them any God that can raise and resurrect a human being must be powerful and full of love,” Olson says. “The white is God and the yellow is his love radiating out, and there’s red on the tips to remember the crucifixion. It goes up every year.”
Today, Bettye enjoys painting in her new home at The Waters of Highland Park, a senior living community in St. Paul. “I lived in a condo in Roseville, but my kids didn’t like that I had to walk to the garage and mailbox,” she said.
Another way Bettye stays active is by giving talks to the residents in her community. “Whatever it is, find something you enjoy and keep doing it,” she says. “Celebrate your passion.”
Olson plans to continue going to her art studio at least once a week to continue her work.
“It’s sort of my special place,” she says. “I didn’t say I’ll hang up the brushes.”
Andrea Magaña is a regulator contributor to Face Aging MN. If you want to reach her or have any questions, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have your own story to share? We’d love to hear from you.