When Peter Olsen told his parents he wanted to be an artist, he was six years old. He never veered. His story began in New York City as the firstborn and a first-generation American, in a loving Christian family. Academics and ministry were priorities set for him and his siblings. His pastor brother and AP teacher sister followed that path, but Peter was determined to seek a different road. At 15, he entered a private art academy for a five-year classical study of painting, drawing and sculpture and discovered a passion for oil painting and surrealism. Even today, his art style is a mix of both structure and freestyle, combining technical precision with the funky freedom found in modern art.
Despite his early training, he felt there was a hole in his art, a missing aspect so that no matter how long he worked on a piece, it was good but not satisfying. In an artistic statement, Olsen describes what he was looking for in his work as the “‘ME’ quotient… something that satisfied yet challenged me.” His unique journey was about to transform his art into a tool to share God’s Word. In 1974, a friend of his parents gave him the book The Late Great Planet Earth, and the apocalyptic narrative inside captured his imagination. At first, he did not realize it was a “biblical” narrative. He randomly opened the book to a page that overwhelmed him with a desire to paint the scene exactly as he read it, and he created The Rainbow Angel painting (left, Rev. 10). Turning the page, he read of two men with great powers prophesying. This became the painting The Two Witnesses (Rev. 11). The power of reading God’s Word changed Peter’s life and career. He knelt in his studio, prayed and gave his heart and talent to God.
Realizing the book’s vibrant narrative was from the book of Revelation, he decided to research the scripture and create a five-canvas project. He had no idea that this would turn into much more than a small project. As he fully immersed himself in the work, he realized that his journey into spiritually driven art was only beginning. He began to experience a new passion for his creations.
When first starting the project, Olsen intended it to be a short reprieve from his typical commissions, but “I was energized! I realized that by painting the narrative, I was doing something completely different, and I liked it! It felt right! It felt satisfying yet definitely challenging!” One day, he was struck with the need to pray about the direction of his art, and in a moment of clarity, he felt led to continue painting and illustrating the book of Revelation.
Olsen had found the missing piece to his art and his ultimate muse, the character of God revealed through the Bible.
His Revelation paintings are striking, and viewers are overwhelmed by the detailed and seamless mixing of styles. Unsure what to call his work, art critics described the paintings as “surrealism, symbolic realism, even fantasy art.” The surrealistic tradition is evident in his curious exploration of one of the most mystical and abstruse books of the Bible. The positioning of his subjects follows the template of the Flemish style while his “symbolic realism” takes symbols from various verses and incorporates them into a landscape with figures. He combines traditional symbols of Christianity with modern pop culture references, such as a Coca-Cola sign in his painting, The Museum of Mankind. All these elements work together to create a magnificent interpretation of the intensely spiritual encounters outlined in Revelation.
Olsen acknowledges that while beginning his Scripture-based artwork was a joy to create, it was not without challenges. The biggest was cancer. First, it was colon cancer, then bladder cancer.
But Olsen has an amazing work ethic. Although both cancers were aggressive and required surgery, Olsen managed to continue working throughout his chemo treatment. Looking back on his “cancer odyssey,” he notes that it was during his time of physical weakness that he painted The Museum of Mankind, which is considered by many one of the greatest paintings of his collection. He attributes his recovery to the grace of God and the power of prayer, knowing that his faith was the thing that helped him survive the hard days.
His Revelation collection is comprehensive and large. Each of the 22 chapters and 404 verses have been painted, illustrated in pen and ink, or created in wood. Much research goes into preparation before the brush or pen begins its magic. Its correlation to the Old Testament led him to a series of works in wood on the tribes of Israel and the Patriarchs, plus a magnificent oil on canvas series portraying the twelve minor prophets. He created another series based on the women of the Bible. Currently, he is illustrating in pen and ink each of the 1,533 verses of the book of Genesis, exploring the beginnings of creation and the foundations of the relationship between God and His people.
Peter also loves of teaching, and since 1981, he has shared the joy of creating and fine art at area Christian schools as well as classes at his art studio for children and adults.
Peter Olsen’s story highlights the beauty of finding God in an unconventional way. Through his wanderings of the book of Revelation, he found not only the missing ingredient to his art but also a faith strong enough to help him weather the storms of life. His passion for art and Christ exudes from the stunning masterpieces he creates as his story continues to impact people today.
Feature Image of Peter Olsen courtesy of Living in Oakland Park