Anytime you pick up a new pursuit, you’re working your brain’s “creative muscle” and contributing to your wellness.
Painter and musician Chuck Olson has exhibited widely with over 300 solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
His work is included in the collections of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Osaka Museum of Modern Art in Japan.
Chuck sits down with Jim to discuss how creativity creates the opportunity to keep your mind young and active.
Chuck Olson: You know, if you think biologically, all right, we’re all on a bell curve of some shape, right? All of us, but I’ve come to learn that when you’re engaged in the arts, it’s expansive, it is not a bell curve. If you’re a football player, it’s a bell curve, but you can be a better writer later in life. You can be a better player, you can be a better recording engineer and direct projects. One of the things that I’d like to say here is that—and maybe because I’m just retired is that I understand that there’s two forms of youth and one form of youth is date of manufacturer, look at your driver’s license and all that entails. The other one is that when you do something for the first time, you are young with it. And that’s exceedingly important at any age. If you take up gardening, as you mentioned, when you’re 80, you’re now 10 years old with gardening.
Jim Donovan: It’s true, yeah.
Chuck Olson: I mean, and this is what I learned when I took up a guitar at 48. So I’m sitting there and trying to use my left hand, which is nothing more than holds the steering wheel or it’s a paperweight and I’m trying to make a G-shape or a C-shape or a D-shape and once I get a clean G-shape, yes! I’m excited. Oh, excuse me, I’m 48 I can’t be that excited, right? I’ve learned that there is youth to cultivate as you age and you can have experience and have youth when you take on new things.
Jim Donovan: Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to take advantage of a free resource I made for you. It’s called the Sound Health Newsletter. In it, I share the latest research in music and health plus you’ll learn music and wellness exercises that you can use every day to feel your best. You’ll also get discounts and first access to all my products and events. Remember, it’s completely free. Just come visit me DonovanHealth.com to get started today. That’s DonovanHealth.com.
Jim Donovan: Welcome to the show, this is Jim Donovan, I am so glad that you’re here with us. Got a great show with a really good friend of mine. He’s sitting right across from me. His name is Chuck Olson. Chuck is one of the most creative guys I’ve ever met. I can’t wait for you to hear about how he thinks, how he does his processes. He is an artist, so he paints, he has shown literally all over the world. He’s an educator and he also sings and plays a guitar of all things for an artist to do. Chuck, Hey, welcome to the show so that could happen here today.
Chuck Olson: Thanks for that intro Jim. It’s great to be here.
Jim Donovan: You were telling me that you just got back from Italy a couple of weeks ago. What were you doing over there?
Chuck Olson: Well, I had an exhibition, a solo exhibition near Bologna and it’s something that I always try to do every year is to really take a reach and put my work in places that you don’t expect to see them and it was a great, great two weeks with the Italians, believe me.
Jim Donovan: So when you have to ship paintings over there, do you ship them ahead of time or how do you…?
Chuck Olson: The logistics is the question. I kind of like design problems and the logistics of getting your work over there because usually I work in really big formats, but what I did this time was to work on panels 18 by 24 panels and send one to my framer in Parma, Italy for her to design the whole show and put the show together for me and then I could come over in my carry on with the rest of the show. It’s all designed.
Jim Donovan: Design and stealth. It’s kind of James Bond-ish.
Chuck Olson: The design and stealth, there is a stealth moment, there is nothing to declare.
Jim Donovan: I love it. You and I met quite a long time ago. We have quite a history together. We worked together at the university and so many good times. I’m wondering if you could tell the story about how you and I first met.
Chuck Olson: Well, it was at the IUP.
Jim Donovan: Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Chuck Olson: That’s right and Rusted Root was doing an outdoor concert and I believe it was being run by generators or something like that and I knew Dana, who was your road manager at the time and I knew Michael. And I came to the event and in the middle of something, the power went completely out. And what do you do? What does the band do when the power’s out and it’s an outdoor concert? I watched in amazement how you organized percussion because that was the only thing that was going to work until they got the generators backup. You taught the crowd how to call and respond and you composed right then and there with your bandmates and the crowd, which was a really incredible moment during that concert and after the concert, I had said to Dana, I said, “I want to meet Jim. He’s a born teacher.” That night started a lot of things.
Jim Donovan: And that was right at the tail end of me being in that band. I was getting ready to jump out and I didn’t know what I was jumping out into. I just knew that I have three babies at home and I had to get off the road. It was a turning point and it was probably one of the most frightening times up till that point.
Chuck Olson: As department chair, my wheels were turning when I saw that performance.
Jim Donovan: Yes. So Chuck was the chairman of Fine Arts at St. Francis University where I teach. And the week that I left Rusted Root, I somehow… I don’t know if you knew this or if it was just sort of the universe conspiring, but I get a call from Chuck and he says, “You know, if I could create a position for you where you could design your own curriculum, you could come and do like a big drumming ensemble, would you take it?” At the time I’d never considered myself a teacher, even though I ran drum circles and I did workshops, but university teacher was the last thing I thought would happen and he took a chance on me.
Jim Donovan: It was an incredible chance because one of the questions he had he said, first of all, I said yes to the offer and he asked me, “Do you have your college degree?” And I said, well…
Chuck Olson: Well, you had a BA.
Jim Donovan: I didn’t.
Chuck Olson: Really?
Jim Donovan: I had 12 credits to go.
Chuck Olson: Ah, that’s right.
Jim Donovan: And it was 2005 and you said, “Well, I’ll cover for you, but you need to produce a piece of paper in December. You need to go get these credits right now.” And so I had just left the band, I got three babies at the house and I got to go back to college and I’m going to start teaching at a university. The reason I’m telling everybody this is because I want people to know that you’re the one who believed in me before I believed in myself and you saw something that I didn’t see and then you gave me all the freedom to figure it out and you gave me the mentorship to help it happen in a way that wouldn’t have happened under any other circumstance. So it’s like I’m eternally grateful for that, I just need you to know that.
Chuck Olson: One of the stories that I need to throw in on that is the idea that when you’re in academia and things are governed by degrees—and there’s a reason for that in a lot of ways—but as an artist, I’ve come into the idea that there are art professors who don’t produce work. And mine was always to do both and I always understood the practical necessity of someone who decides to act and to make things. I remember one of the things from that period that I found… I always like to tell this story, so I’ll say it just in case. I asked you for references and you came up from Pittsburgh up to my office and you walked into the room and you had three sheets of paper that were not on letterhead, that did not have signatures. And he said, “Here’s my references.” And I looked at them and I was ready to say, absolutely not. Are you out of your mind? They’re not on letterhead, they’re not signed but yet I took them because he drove up so far.
Chuck Olson: The first was a paragraph from Carlos Santana about you and as I was going down the list that included Jimmy Page and some other people, there was a line that said, “Man, you’ve got a groove from heaven itself.” Steve Tyler, Aerosmith. I just kind of thought, I’m taking these to the faculty, this is going to be interesting. And when I read those, when you are hired to the faculty, there was a great, great lifting in their souls.
Jim Donovan: Wow, I dared not even ask at the time how it all went and how it all happened, but I just knew that I was being given a chance and first I had to figure out how to get over my fear of public speaking, which was very pronounced. Even though I had been a performer, I was always behind the drum set rarely in front without any protection, there’s no drum set in front of me, there’s no band in front of me, there’s no security in front of me. I had to also get used to the idea of people not clapping after class. Like no one’s applauding.
Chuck Olson: No they don’t.
Jim Donovan: No one is asking for autographs and definitely no one’s buying T-shirts.
Chuck Olson: Well, the school has been better for it and your colleagues have been better for it and everybody won when you came on board.
Jim Donovan: Again, I just want to say thank you publicly. Thank you for that, it’s been like a very big deal for my personal development. What originally sparked you to pursue a life in art? Like was there a certain time or was there like a collection of things that happened? How did it go?
Chuck Olson: It’s always a good question. I think all of us that are involved in the arts have a moment. For me, I wanted to go into medicine. I was going to be a general practitioner, but there were art shows on TV and I would follow these things in the morning. I get up before my parents and let the dog out and then I turned the TV on and with orange juice I would do John Nagy drawing lessons. Well, that was a belief that I could draw. I would follow his patterns. Now they call it art with a twist with a gin and tonic but this was at a different level. But it kept me there and the other event that happened a few years later was my father died and we were very, very close and that vacuum was really important to try to fill.
Chuck Olson: Since I had lost him, I felt that I really wanted to make things.There was a bigger light on making things. And so the interest in medicine started to wane and the interest in really doing drawing and making things. My mother was completely on board with that and I went to IUP because it was the largest art school in the state. That was the start and there was identity there. There was also the idea that it was a solo path that I wasn’t going to follow a predictable curriculum or that within that predictable curriculum I could do different things, and that appealed to me.
Jim Donovan: The flexibility of that discipline.
Chuck Olson: Absolutely, I wanted flexibility.
Jim Donovan: You started drawing first?
Chuck Olson: Oh yeah. And drawing is visual literacy.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. Okay.
Chuck Olson: That’s literacy for artists, I think.
Jim Donovan: Like music theory, almost.
Chuck Olson: Like music theory or like piano, you know?
Jim Donovan: That makes sense. Do you have any sense of like over the course of all your painting and drawing years, roughly how many works you’ve made?
Chuck Olson: Well, I don’t start counting until I got out of college because as one prof told me, which I always love he told us when we were seniors, “There’s nothing in the museum that was done by a student.” So it was all to do I would say well over 1500, 2000 pieces probably.
Jim Donovan: Wow. And so every year you’re still producing, right?
Chuck Olson: Oh yeah.
Jim Donovan: Roughly how many a year?
Chuck Olson: It’s a question that has really nothing to do with quality, but it has something to do with motivation depending on the person. For me, I’ve always said 40 to 60 pieces a year.
Jim Donovan: I’ve seen so much of your work, like they’re wall size. What’s the dimensions of the really big paintings you did?
Chuck Olson: The biggest ones I’ve ever done were 9’ x 12’ canvases. I’ve done 16’ x 6’ canvases. I love working large. I just started last week, two vertical, 8’ x 5’ but I love working small too. So you have to build a vocabulary. So I’ll work small. I mean, there’s a method to all this. Of course there’s drawing and of course this printmaking too.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. Nice. So like 40 to 60 works a year, that’s like a large chunk of the days in the year. What’s your routine? It’s not like you get a painting done in a day.
Chuck Olson: The routine’s really important.
Jim Donovan: How does it go?
Chuck Olson: Anyone that’s embarking on doing creative work has to really come to terms with their personality and how they design a routine. And my routine was that I would work in the evenings because I was teaching and then married with children 4:00 to 7:00 when I would get home from teaching was the routine of dishes and food and helping with homework and that kind of thing but 7:00 to 7:30 was out of the house. Marie put the kids to bed. I didn’t. I was at the studio and I would work 7:30 to 10:30 something like that. Now when you say work, it’s not like you’ve punched a clock. I would go and usually I have anywhere from 7 to 12 pieces going, I don’t get stuck on one and it holds everything, all the traffic behind it. No, I moved to other pieces.
Chuck Olson: And so sometimes I would go up there and just make a mark on one. We’re going to see a movie tonight, really? Okay, I’m going to go up for 15 minutes. Psychologically, that told me that the room was different. That I went up there, I looked, I checked in, I saw something, I’d got some charcoal out. I re-sketched a form 10-15 minutes, I’m done. I go home satisfied knowing the room’s different.
Jim Donovan: Something has moved forward.
Chuck Olson: Something has moved forward, exactly. It doesn’t have to be eight hours of work, sometimes it is, sometimes one thing leads to another. I listened to your interview with Scott Blasey and he said about just showing up, that’s been my credo. Absolutely, you just show up because I always felt that if you listened in your routine to these invisible angels on your shoulder that tell you to go now, because everything is ready, you’re going to be disappointed in yourself. So if you show up to a place, it can work on the unexpected and your duty to yourself is to come through that door and take a look.
Jim Donovan: So what I’m hearing you say is that you’re putting yourself in the spot that you create, whether that’s your couch or your studio, and even if you’re not feeling it, you’re going there anyway.
Chuck Olson: No, especially when I’m not feeling it because I’ve seen it all was chuckles and I’ve seen like, Oh boy, I can’t wait. I’m like a Labrador running in tail wagging and it’s terrible. You know? And other times I go in like I’m really low and I’m just really morose and something starts to turn.
Jim Donovan: It’s not like you’re waiting to get in the zone and then you pick up your brush or then you pick up the charcoal and start going. It’s different than that.
Chuck Olson: You see the thing about it, I’ve always had a studio that’s outside the house, so I’ve always had this room. Sometimes small, sometimes large. When we rent a place, if we’re over overseas in my wife’s village in France, we rent a house. I make sure there’s a designated studio even for two weeks. But when I walk into the room, I have this idea, you have a key to a door and you have no idea what you’re going to do that day and to have that in your life, to have a space where all kinds of things can happen, whether it’s your laptop or whether it’s your sound studio or wherever it is. I mean this is something people need to understand and to me it’s a fountain of youth.
Chuck Olson: When you go into that space, it can’t just be your art work for me, that gets you motivated. There have to be books, there has to be music, there has to be something else. I’ll go to the studio to listen to books. I always paint or play guitar while I’m watching the paint dry. Then you go to the studio to play guitar, but oh, surprise, surprise, you’re painting now.
Jim Donovan: So you’re pre-planting ways to make you get to your studio. Like the allure of the guitar is there, the allure of the audio book is there and so you can sort of like play the game with yourself.
Chuck Olson: Life bullies you. I mean, life really bullies you and if you go and do what we all do. We have children and we have a house and we have responsibilities and you have all these things that are standing in front of you between you and your work and how you manage those things is really, really important.
Jim Donovan: What happens on those days where you’ve shown up, you’ve done your duty, you’ve listened to your audio book, you’ve played the guitar, you’ve listening to the Rolling Stones, and you look at the work that you’ve been working on for two weeks and you start to hate it and you feel like it’s just not working. Now, what?
Chuck Olson: Well, there’s a few paths. The thing I want to avoid is the Chinese guy with a suitcase in front of the tanks.
Jim Donovan: Okay.
Chuck Olson: Okay. You go around him, you find different ways because you may be different every day with this. When it doesn’t go well, one of the things that I lean on is the idea that the creative process has three stages. Something that a vulnerable old painting professor told me, which is really still resonates. The first stage is the initial stage where you have some motivation to work, either it’s a deadline or you’re genuinely motivated. One reason and another you start to work and there’s some inertia or lack of inertia behind it. That propels you into the middle stage, which is the largest stage of unknown dimension, which is called the health stage because that is what the work looks like and that’s how you feel. The good thing about the health stage is that when you’re in it, if you’re in hell, well guess what, this is new, this is something new.
Chuck Olson: This is not a cliché of the better work that you’ve done before. This is something new and you’re going to have to deal with it. The final part is a solution where you just tear it up, paint it out, go back to initial or go back to an earlier part of hell but you’ll never know how, what bought there in that great middle space. I’ve always told students, you have to learn to love that stage.
Jim Donovan: Yeah, fall in love with the stretching that comes from the unknown.
Chuck Olson: Absolutely, without a doubt, yeah. If you can do that, I think you have a good chance of success. You can honestly do that.
Jim Donovan: What I’m hearing you say too is that creativity, if it’s starting to be too easy, we may be in the trap of being derivative of something that we’ve already done, like sort of regurgitating almost like a karaoke kind of a mentality.
Chuck Olson: But I think there’s a cycle if you’re really devoted artist to your work. There’s a cycle that you will fall into something wonderful. You will find a way to reproduce it and from one painting to a whole series or maybe to a whole exhibition and then you’ll do it some more and then you’ll start to get bored with yourself a little bit and I think, and you have doubts and all of that I think is very healthy. As long as you act on that boredom and you act on those doubts and you start driving it. It evolves, things evolve.
Jim Donovan: How you pull yourself out when that situation comes up. You’ve worked and worked and you realize that it’s just not happening but you’ve got your deadline. You’ve got a show coming up, you got to send this stuff to France. How do you turn it? Or do you turn it? I don’t know.
Chuck Olson: Well first what I do is that I have a body of work that I’m working on. I will organize it in a way, like a calendar left to right all through the studio. I will come up and I work on the next one in my agenda is do one thing today that improves this one piece, I don’t care if it takes 10 minutes. But then collectively you start looking at things and that part where you’re stuck, the answer might come from the piece that’s five pieces to the right, but you don’t know that yet. So you have to go through your work, you have to keep going through your work so you understand what collectively the work is and then you can apply it to these things.
Chuck Olson: So I do these run-throughs of all the work for the show, like I just did for Italy, that I would put it all on the wall and a calendar like format and run and run until it all started sharing the best stuff. But the other thing you can do, at least what I do when I really get frustrated is I’ll just do something dramatic with it. Like I’ve exhausted left, right, up, down, I can’t, okay, so let’s just hit it with something. Let’s come and shake my shoulders and do something.
Jim Donovan: Just like throw an exclamation point of energy.
Chuck Olson: Absolutely, yeah.
Jim Donovan: Into whatever the thing is.
Chuck Olson: And if you have enough work around you, that’s not so precious. You can afford to do that.
Jim Donovan: It’s interesting because you are simultaneously working on, it could be 8 to 10 pieces and you’re working on each individual piece, but then there’s like this meta thread that goes through all of the pieces that are in the room that come from jumping from piece to piece and simultaneously working each one so that they become a cohesive body of work.
Chuck Olson: Yeah. And that’s my idea anyway.
Jim Donovan: It just reminded me of making records we make a record and even though I don’t ever want any one song to sound like the other, that there’s some sort of energetic theme that goes through the whole thing that connects the songs together as the album or as the EP. Right now we’re in the studio that my band, Sun King Warriors have made the last two records and in here that’s exactly what we do. One day we just cut lead vocals, but then we take a couple of days and record drums on all the songs and then we come back and we do bass on a couple and I can’t really look at them like you can look at yours, but we can listen to them.
Chuck Olson: Oh, it would drive me crazy to do what you do that way.
Jim Donovan: It drives me crazy too but I’m in love with it, like you said.
Chuck Olson: You don’t know when you get started, what you’re doing completely. You just have to know enough to get started and knowing that you’re excited about something and that position is always temporary. As you move through it, you learn more about yourself, you’re learning about what you have and the potential of what you can have and so you can’t do that from home and take it to the studio. Now I have to go and do this because you don’t want to turn creative work into cutting the grass and shoveling the sidewalk. To know before you start, what you’re going to get when you’re done. Why bother?
Jim Donovan: Yeah, so it’s the unknown that word keeps coming back where I find this to be true too. In songwriting, it’s letting myself be in a quiet spot where I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m just open to it happening.
Chuck Olson: It makes the life bigger, you know?
Jim Donovan: How old were you when you picked up a guitar?
Chuck Olson: 48.
Jim Donovan: 48. You hadn’t played a guitar before that?
Chuck Olson: No. Well, my parents bought me a guitar with green stamps and gave me a bad teacher and I was intimidated after the second lesson, and that was that. So my sister taught me to dance and the music was always out there. There was that unrequited love of driving away in a Huff of vocal lines and not having the guitar I wanted when I was 14 or 15. But at 48 Marie bought me one. I thought, what is this guitar? It’s a beautiful thing, it could be like a child. It could be the symbol of my neglect if I just hang it on the wall and say, “Oh yeah, you see my guitar over there on the wall, that’s my guitar, yeah. Don’t ask me to play it.” Or if I take this thing and start playing it, it’s going to maybe change the environment in the house, which it really did. The first time Rob James looked at me and said, “You play guitar?” I said, “Absolutely, I’m not playing guitar in front of you, not ever.”
Jim Donovan: Rob is the guitar player for The Clarks.
Chuck Olson: And Rob said, this was in my house, he said, “Come on, we’re going in the kitchen and we’re going to play guitar.” Because he had his guitar. And so I’m in my kitchen with Rob, intimidated and he looks at me and he goes, “Teach me a song.” And I said, come on. And he says, “No, teach me a song, come on.” And then he said it. He said, I always learn from everybody I play with.
Jim Donovan: Wow, that’s not surprising.
Chuck Olson: And that’s Rob. I mean, Rob is incredible. So he put me at ease in front of him and we played Dead Flowers, no surprise and he said to me, “Look, you come in on gallery business to Pittsburgh. I live off of East Carson Street, you come by the house, we can play some music, blah, blah, blah. We can continue this conversation.” And that’s how things got started and then a year passes and I get a call from Rob and Scott about coming and doing three songs with them at a Nick’s Fat City event. And I had never been at a live microphone, I had never been on stage, there were 700 people there and that was my baptism thanks to those guys.
Jim Donovan: Wow, that’s incredible. And again, you show up.
Chuck Olson: Well yeah, because you’ve heard me say this, so it’s probably an appropriate time to say it. I had this idea that your passions are like domestic animals. And painting for me is this huge elephant that lives in my house that I have to feed clean up after take care of, take to the vet and take care of, and music for me is a cat. But I play with people now for whom it’s a big elephant too. So it’s in that regard, I could fail, right?
Jim Donovan: Whatever that means.
Chuck Olson: Yeah, whatever that means but the cat doesn’t care. The cat’s not going to ask so much of me but the experience was absolutely remarkable.
Jim Donovan: Now, you haven’t stopped since. You haven’t stopped playing and singing. I know you and I we played together we have a band with some of these guys in the Clark’s called the Six, we have some shows coming up and what I’m wondering is when you’re practicing, like when whenever you’re sitting at the house and you just playing the guitar or you’re singing or both, what’s it do for you? What happens like physiologically? What do you notice?
Chuck Olson: A couple things, that’s a good question. Your voice is a good indication of your health. And sometimes if I’m fighting a cold or something, I want to sing, I want to play, put the energy in. I discovered when I was playing guitar initially that I would come home from a long day at school and a longer three hours with a family and now I have to go to the studio. If I start to play guitar for a half an hour, I’m back. Because this isn’t my job necessarily. This is my vitamin, I don’t need Red Bull.
Jim Donovan: It’s like a rejuvenator.
Chuck Olson: Yeah, absolutely and I will do that almost like medicine in the studio. If all of a sudden I feel tired, I put the guitar on, let’s play something and this is going to sound strange maybe because you’re a musician. I’ll sit there and I’ll get stuck on a painting and I grab the guitar and I say to myself, “Okay, you got to do something.” A 12-Bar in E is going to be a lot easier than this painting. So I’ll sit there and play 12-Bar in E and howl something or howl some blues chant to mock the painting and eventually I’ll be looking at the painting long enough and say, “Okay, I know what you need now.” Guitar gets back on the stand.
Jim Donovan: You’re putting your brain and your whole psyche into a different mode just by putting your fingers down onto the strings and plucking them and singing like you deliberately are changing your frame of reference.
Chuck Olson: Yeah. Right, but I’m still in the context of the studio. That’s why the studio is a large studio with lots of open space so I can see things from a distance and I can treat them with a certain intimacy where you’re there with a brush in your hand and you’re tickling a painting six inches away. Or you can look at them as that annoying stranger from across the room and I’ve got my guitar and I don’t need you. Something like that but it helps me in so many ways.
Jim Donovan: What it really sounds like to me is that it’s problem solving. The painting presents a block. Something about it isn’t revealing itself and no matter how long you stand there with a brush in your hand, whatever that answer is, doesn’t seem to be presenting and so in this instance you’re using, moving into a different spot in the room that’s containing you changing something about what’s happening, even if you can’t affect the painting in this moment and often that brings the solution.
Chuck Olson: Music came into the studio. I mean, this is something I remember specifically. Music came into the studio when I was in grad school. Of course this was before people had iPods and things like that. Even God probably before they had Walkmans. I had this big project in printmaking that was very difficult and very tedious and had to be done right. It was very surgical and I came home to make dinner before I was going to pull an all-nighter with this project and the print making studio and there was this whole hour of Mozart. All I could think of as I was making my hamburger helper was I have to think like Mozart to get through this process. So I listened to every note and it really inspired me. So it gave me the clue that when I would paint and get into various kinds of trouble, who do I need? Do I need a Gregorian chant? Do I need Tchaikovsky? Do I need a Duke Ellington? Do I need the Rolling Stones? Who do I need to like be my background give me some spine on this?
Jim Donovan: Like a musical prescription to solve the problem?
Chuck Olson: Absolutely.
Jim Donovan: It makes such great sense. I just had never thought of it in that way because each of those artists will put you in a completely different spot.
Chuck Olson: Yeah, Mozart will get you to think clearly. Duke Ellington, will go get you melody, will give you this, you’re fine. You know? Yeah. And sometimes you want to howl too.
Jim Donovan: You and I spent a lot of time over in Parma, which is in Northern Italy on study abroad programs. So we took students from St. Francis over for sometimes a month, sometimes eight weeks, sometimes a little longer. And I remember very first year being there, I didn’t speak any Italian and you did, which was wonderful. And we ended up at one of the very ancient buildings that had this sort of underpass where you could go sit on steps, but there was stone walls and stone ceilings everywhere.
Chuck Olson: It was the Pilotta in Parma, it was the oldest Fénis Castle Chateau. And the entrance stairs to the museum, which were where the carriages used to pull up and the guests would come out for a huge parties upstairs. Oh, I remember that night.
Jim Donovan: Yeah, I was carrying around a big African djembe I was carrying on my back. So in Parma we didn’t have a car, so we were all on bicycles. And you had a guitar on your back, Rob from the Clarks was there he had his guitar. I think we had a friend of ours Michael Madigan who had a penny whistle.
Chuck Olson: I remember it being just the three of us, it being a Sunday.
Jim Donovan: Something like that, yeah.
Chuck Olson: And classes were going to start the next day and you guys had just come to Parma. We had arrived Saturday morning and it was on Sunday.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. So we’re still kind of jet lagged. We ended up on these steps.
Chuck Olson: I think it was your idea. You had said to Rob and I, “Hey, let’s go grab a couple of guitars, come on to take a walk and see the town and play some music somewhere.”
Jim Donovan: Yeah, so we did. So we sat there in this place, it’s near a like a big open square park and there’s trees and then can you pick up the story from there, do you remember?
Chuck Olson: Oh sure. I remember this place is incredibly beautiful—big two story arches everywhere, maybe 30 of them and this incredible scala, this incredible staircase and you grabbed a djembe and started walking around hitting it to test it acoustically.
Jim Donovan: I wanted to hear what it sounded like in there.
Chuck Olson: And Rob and I were sitting up on the stairs and the three of us started playing songs and just really being happy to be together in that environment and gradually people stopped. Until I remember we had a 30 some people watching us play and this was like from 10:00, 9:30 to about 11:30 or so. And I remember you saying to me, “Hey Chuck, tell them we’ll be here tomorrow at 10 o’clock. We’ll bring the students, tell them we’ll be here tomorrow.” And it wound up that we did that three nights consecutive until the police stopped it when we had about 100 on the last night. But the thing I really remember about that particular night outside of just playing together was I was walking, we were in Parma, Italy and Italy in general. Sunday night at 11:30, you can go to a bistro and be served a full meal by men in black bow ties. And so we dragged our instruments there to the bistro and on the way you said to me something like, boy, I’m really glad you’re there, Chuck, we couldn’t do that in Pittsburgh.
Chuck Olson: And Rob right away says, “Oh yeah, that wouldn’t happen in Pittsburgh.” And I’m going, what are you talking about? And they said, well you’re kind of new at all this, so you’re kind of naive. So you just start because you don’t know any better but thanks for being there because that was a lot of fun. And that was the start of us just playing together because then we took it to Dana’s studio.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. And did we not meet some people on those nights that we ended up being friends with for years.
Chuck Olson: Paolo Sckokai?
Jim Donovan: Yeah, Paolo is a phenomenal world-class guitar player.
Chuck Olson: I remember a guy coming in on his bicycle was an upright bass on his back. I remember gypsies with tambourines. I know that sounds like I’m making that up, but no, there were gypsies with tambourines.
Jim Donovan: It was beautiful because we are hanging out with these people. I couldn’t speak with them at all, but was this kinship that happened because we decided to take a chance and sit down on these steps and just start playing. We didn’t know what we were doing.
Chuck Olson: Well, and there was something about our friendship with music. I think when you get in the arts and you mix with good people, your friendships make manifest some of the things that you’re doing. And that’s what’s happened to us, the six of us. It started there. The next night there was anticipation of what are we going to play and how’s that going to feel and who are we going to meet? And it seems like now when we do a Six show, there’s that same anticipation and who are we going to meet because it’s very innocent that way. Just like it was back in Parma under the Plata.
Jim Donovan: Yeah. It’s an expression of the friendship.
Chuck Olson: Yes.
Jim Donovan: I’ve been thinking about this question. You’ve taught countless students throughout the years and I know that it’s the case that for some people, they’ll take an art class, but then just realize, you know what, this, this really isn’t for me. I’m going to get through it and that’ll be that. But what I’m wondering is, have you ever run across a student that at first was like that, only to find as they stuck with it, that it became everything to them?
Chuck Olson: I swear and you know this from your experience too that I would say every academic year, maybe every semester there was one. And because of that student, I would re-up and sign the contract for the next year, for 42 years. I think when you’re involved in the arts, it always seems there’s an aspect of like you’re doing missionary work. You’re preaching the gospel here and you’re not trying to really convert people, but you’re trying to give them a bigger life that they have something, another form of expression.
Chuck Olson: You mentioned Italy and I mentioned France. When I went to Italy, someone said, “Why do you want to go? You know France. Why do you want to go to Italy?” And I said, “Well, I want to learn Italian. I want to meet new people.” And why do you want to learn Italian? I said, “Every time you learn a language, it’s like another life. So I want a third life.” But that metaphorically I think is about what learning the arts are because all of a sudden your space changes, you make other things. There is this idea that, and actually it was an art movement in the 90s very brief, but I think poignant was the idea that when you sit on the couch and we all have to sit on the couch with our remote and watch Netflix, but when you sit on the couch and just start changing channels, you are resigning yourself to being involved in your culture.
Chuck Olson: Someone else’s making the things you’re watching. I would think like back in the day when you would go rent movies at a Blockbuster, a place like that, I always thought like, Oh, I’m so sick of this. I’d be there on a Saturday night and nothing. I’m thinking and I just wanted to scream and say, “Hey, you guys want to like form a band or something? Hey you over there, you’ve got nine hours, you’ve got like five movies there and you have time. So don’t give me this junk about you don’t have time because you do have time. Can we do something else? Can we play softball? What can we do?”
Jim Donovan: I’m imagining I’ve got some listeners out there that might have an interest in trying art, some sort of expression that way. Even though this is the Sound Health Podcast, I think we do ourselves a disservice by not pulling from all kinds of disciplines. That’s why I’m excited to have you here. If we’re thinking about that person who might want to try but just has no idea where to even start, do you have any advice for them? Things that they might be able to try out?
Chuck Olson: There’s a lot of ways to think about that. I had alluded to the fact that I watched TV and watched a program on television. That was my real first time thinking I could draw really. But after further review, I can tell you I really wasn’t drawing. I was just following orders, and that’s not drawing. I remember the TV man showed me how to draw a bridge. It was a stone bridge, but you couldn’t take me down to the Smith field bridge, the Clemente Bridge and draw it because I only had one bridge in me. It didn’t teach me to see. There’s a lot of continuing ed programs, there’s a lot of auditing for from universities Pittsburgh center for the arts has been really important in the community here in Pittsburgh.
Jim Donovan: So you could go somewhere?
Chuck Olson: Right. What I would really say no to—and there’s things I would say no to. I mentioned it earlier in this program—art with a twist where you just copy something, everybody copies it and they pretend they’re artists. Maybe that will orient you and you like paint and then you get out of there and do your own thing kind of thing. But you have to understand that the best thing like you said with Scott Blasey was writing the new songs. This is writing the new songs and there’s so many paths you can take, whether it’s ceramics, whether it’s sculpture, whether it’s print making or painting… but it is an evolution. It’s not like throwing darts at a board and you have to get it right. I always would tell students there’s progress in science but because science works with the present to build a future, but within the arts, all of the arts, music, literature, cinema, it’s all the accumulation of everything. Those two together are very important in our culture but if you’re going to learn to do artwork or you’re going to learn music, think of it as evolution. Like you think with your exercise program.
Jim Donovan: Like growing garden rather than going to the grocery store.
Chuck Olson: Exactly. And then what’s the design of the garden and what’s the garden for? Maybe the garden’s for reading.
Jim Donovan: Yeah, right. What do you notice when you’re creating art in your mind? How do you notice it affects your mood physically?
Chuck Olson: I feel like I’m a farmer and I’m plowing trying to make something grow, or an archeologist trying to discover something about myself, or how, for example, the life that I’ve lived or the life any of us lives is made manifest in the work you produce. If I’m at the studio at the end of a bad day, is the studio the sunshine that wakes me up or is it a mirror that reflects? Yeah, that was a bad day but I’ve never seen that color before. I like to talk about the art that you produce and the music that you listen to is like a mirror. That’s somebody holding up a mirror to you and you get to understand yourself a little better or you get to understand that you’re expanding.
Jim Donovan: And to be open to the possibility that there’s something that you still won’t know when it’s complete. When is a painting done?
Chuck Olson: I’ve had paintings in museums that have come back to me and I think you know how what? I have, yes. Or painted them out just like, I don’t want that going back.
Jim Donovan: I never liked you…
Chuck Olson: Well, there you go. The presence of those things in a room.
Jim Donovan: That’s so good. Hey just to wrap up, what else do you have coming up?
Chuck Olson: What I find myself in right now is a period from now until probably May where I am just going to produce a lot of large scale work and unencumbered by other thoughts except that I’m involved with a university show in maps because I often paint on maps that’s coming up in September. But that’s what the studio is for too, is sort of scheme about where you’re going to take these things. There’s a possibility of doing a show in Krakow in Poland. That’s a logistic nightmare. We’ll see if I’m up for it. Right now I kind of like have free running room for about five months to make some large new things, which is what I’m doing.
Jim Donovan: Nice. And it’s interesting even to hear the way that you talk about it is that your creativity is creating more, both unknown and opportunity for what you do with it. So it’s a continuation of that, the stretching and the unknown part.
Chuck Olson: Well if you think biologically, all right, we’re all on a bell curve of some shape, right? All of us. But I’ve come to learn that when you’re engaged in the arts, it’s expansive. It is not a bell curve. If you’re a football player, it’s a bell curve, but you can be a better writer later in life, you can be a better player, you can be a better recording engineer and direct projects. One of the things that I’d like to say here is that and maybe because I’m just retired is that I understand that there’s two forms of youth and one form of youth is date of manufacturer, look at your driver’s license and all that entails. The other one is that when you do something for the first time, you are young with it and that’s exceedingly important at any age. If you take up gardening, as you mentioned when you’re 80, you’re now 10 years old with gardening.
Jim Donovan: It’s true, yeah.
Chuck Olson: I mean, and this is what I learned when I took up a guitar at 48. So I’m sitting there and trying to use my left hand, which is nothing more than holds the steering wheel or it’s a paperweight and I’m trying to make a G-shape or a C-shape or a D-shape and once I get a clean G-shape, yes! I’m excited! Oh, excuse me, I’m 48, I can’t be that excited. Right?
Chuck Olson: I’ve learned that there is youth to cultivate as you age and you can have experience and have youth when you take on new things and that youth could be in the next album project you do or pushing your doubts into doing scales or whether it’s okay, no one’s going to buy this 10 foot high painting. Let’s make one.
Jim Donovan: Let’s make one. Yeah, that idea. Cultivating youth. That is powerful. We can do that. That’s something that I can start immediately and just dig into the new thing and let myself not know.
Chuck Olson: Absolutely. And there’s this adage that people used to say that, Oh geez, if I knew then what I know now, that kind of thing when you think about it what I’m saying here is that now you can because you have all your experience. If you start something new now you have experience, plus you have the new thing and don’t hold back in your joy.
Jim Donovan: That’s it Chuck, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate this conversation. I think I’m going to be re-listening to this one over and over again, so thank you for all the wisdom and for everything that you’ve done for me through the years.
Chuck Olson: Right back at ya, you know that.
Jim Donovan: Yeah, I do. And would you mind coming back sometime with another conversation?
Chuck Olson: Absolutely.
Jim Donovan: Wonderful. Well, hey man, thanks so much and we’ll see you next time.
Chuck Olson: Thank you.
Jim Donovan: Now before you go, I’d like to let you know about a free resource I made for you. It’s called the Sound Health Newsletter. In it, I share the latest research and music and health and an easy to understand form. I also share beginner friendly music and wellness exercises that you can use every day to feel your best. When you sign up, you also get discounts and first access to all of my sound health products and events. Remember, it’s completely free if you’d like it, just visit DonovanHealth.com and enter your name and email address, and I’ll start sending you new issues right away.
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