Rose Olson begins her luminous abstract paintings by finding the right wood and sanding it and sanding it smooth. “It has to glow, the grain has to glow at the start,” she says. Then she paints directly on the wood veneer—no gesso or primer—with patterns of horizontal rectangles and bars applied in thin, glossy, translucent layers, one after the other, up to 14 coats, so that that they capture the light. Think jewels or stained glass or sunrises.
Her current exhibition, “Bright, Cool and Hot,” continues at Boston’s Kingston Gallery through Dec. 30. The retired art teacher lives in Beverly and grew up in Boston’s South End, where she’s long kept a studio though illness of late has kept her out of the big city. When she was regularly riding the train in from the North Shore, she says, “All the time I’m watching the colors, the sun, the light, the water. It all goes into my brain.”
“I’ve painted since I was born. I had a red and blue pencil. It was all I had,” Olson says. “You’ve got to make do with whatever you’ve got.”
Olson’s flat, hard-edged, geometric compositions can bring to mind the midcentury abstractions of Mark Rothko or John McLaughlin. Though hers are more crisp than Rothko’s airy glowing TV clouds and shimmer more than McLaughlin’s opaquely painted Zen graphics.
“This is a total change from the abstract expressionism work I was doing before,” she says. Before 2000 or so, “I was doing large paintings on canvas, they were enormous.”
Then, she says, “I got a hold of a piece of wood. I needed a change. And it was a beautiful wood. I tried painting a horizontal line and another horizontal line. I tried painting a diagonal and I didn’t like it at all. I did the next one and I thought, ‘Why do I have to paint it white [with primer] and cover up the beautiful wood?’”
“There’s no grain that I’ve ever seen that matches another grain that I’ve ever seen,”Olson says. “They’re as unique as the human fingerprint.”
She says, “I started liking everything where the grain was obvious.”
Olson’s thin glazes of color sit up on the wood and glisten, rather than being absorbed as would likely happen on canvas. They’re about light passing through the color and bouncing back imbued with harmonies of reds and oranges and yellows and lilacs and overcast blues. The effect is sensitive to changing atmospheres. Olson says, “They want open air, open light, open windows.”