Robert Olsen (1969–2014)

Robert Olsen, Motel Room (Winnipeg), 2002, oil on panel, 7 3/4 x 9 3/4”.

THE STRANGEST PART about Robert passing away young is that I always felt that Robert was looking very forward to being an old guy. His unkempt beard would be even more stately once it had turned to gray. I imagined him in a professorship somewhere: old, huge, and holding court. Teaching freshmen art students about cadmiums, and underpainting, and Bruegel. Still not really taking the best care of his appearance or health, but all that was now just part of the classic “old painting professor” package. Robert deeply enjoyed learning, and you could tell he quietly enjoyed being a go-to authority for a great many things.

It seems eerily fitting that Robert was so obsessed with traditional painting techniques—ways of working that were laborious, time-consuming, and too expensive for a lot of people. Done in the name of permanence. Imported pigments, sanded underpaintings, washes, whole tedious opuses about the chemical makeup of plywood versus MDF panels: all to make sure his work would hold up for as long as possible. Many times it was almost a chore to hear him wax on about the technical aspects of his paintings, but now it is his meticulous obsession with his work’s permanence that will leave everyone with a record of his talent, and his keen eye for the succinct. His care and attention will be his legacy, long before he ever intended it to be.

When I think back, I very rarely remember ever seeing Robert angry. He was a calm presence, just as his work depicted a calm presence.

The true power of what he painted was making people see the potential beauty in forgotten and bypassed things, things that we would only really ever consider in a cursory way, were it not for him. I’m not sure how many times I would have driven out to Palm Springs in my life and glanced at the power-generator-fan fields while driving by, never stopping. It was with Robert, though, that I did stop, so he could take pictures for paintings. We stood there in the searing heat, getting unexpectedly sandblasted by winds that you had to lean into to not fall over. We kept grinning and nodding to one another, understanding that we were having ten minutes there that would stick with both of us for a good deal longer. Those fans are interesting when you drive by, but they are majestic if you stand under one, and it’s a day that I will always look back on, and be thankful that Robert drove me out there, just to go . . . there.

Robert was a good carpenter. He was a good son and brother. He could run a theory class, but he could also tear up a karaoke bar.

Lately, I hadn’t seen that much of him, as we lived far apart, and we had come in and out of our frequency of communication. But in all honesty, he was one of the those people that you feel you could call in an emergency, no matter how long it had been, and he would be there. And I know that perception holds true for other people who knew him as well.

I’m going to miss seeing my tiny dog hop up on Robert’s huge belly and voraciously clean his beard when he would come over. He always closed his eyes and let it go on just slightly too long. He loved it, the dog loved it, I loved it.

Paul Cherwick is an artist based in Los Angeles.