Photo by Author Joe Trey: Self Portrait by the Artist Brian Olsen
Be yourself, be creative, and take chances. You never know what you might discover. But, whatever it is, do it with all your heart. - Brian Olsen
In January of 2020, most Americans had yet to hear about COVID-19, myself included. Our January brought something closer to home. Performance artist Brian Olsen passed away.
His death was unexpected. It continues to be heartbreaking for everyone that knew him. Not a day goes by that I do not think about him. I couldn't forget him if I tried. In part because his creations hang in prominent places in my home. But more so, because he was my friend and colleague.
Around the World
Photo by Author Joe Trey: Artist Brian Olsen in Loch Lomond, Scotland
I watched from the side of stages around the world as Brian entertained thousand of people. Jumping, clapping, and leaving his mark everywhere. Flinging paint and juggling many brushes in each of his hands. Colors flew everywhere! Sometimes, he even got some of it on the 6x4 foot canvas in front of him.
Others might have been puzzled by what he was creating. Some might even have thought they were finally witnessing him fail. But each time, in the nick of time, enough color always hit the canvas just right. Sometimes he'd have to flip the canvas over to help his audience out. Then they'd see what he always knew was — a celebrity, landmark, executive, or corporate logo.
He didn't paint as much as he revealed images within the negative space of a black canvas. Enclosing the canvas with color so his audiences could see what was clear to him before he even started. For me, as a fan, that was when he was at his best. Using enough paint to let the image appear.
Brian was exceptional beyond belief. Far more than he ever knew. His shyness often had him looking for a swift exit at the end of events. It was my job to coax him back out to mingle with his fans. Sure he'd shake hands with some insistent executive. He'd look over his shoulder and smile with mischief in his eye. THen reach his hand towards his unsuspecting fan.
These were men and women, respected and occasionally feared in a boardroom. But they lit up like children when they looked down to see their hands soaked in streaks of wet paint.
That is the Brian I want to remember today. I don't want to morn, I've done enough of that. It will not bring him back. I want to remember the laughter and good times.
In the Beginning (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
I was working for his parents at a Project Management Company when I first met Brian. He breezed through the offices. As a lost blue-haired kid, not as an artist—someone not so much trying to figure out their life as not caring. He was taking life in as it came. I liked him right away. However, we wouldn't become close until many years later.
Brian took a job as the road manager for legendary Performance Artist Denny Dent. Recognizing a talent inside Brian, he offered to teach him his technique. Brian would go on to be Denny's only pupil. In March 2004, Denny passed away. This was mere weeks before Brian was set to perform his first live show as Denny's protege.
Photo by Author: Joe Trey (Original Painting by ARtist Brian Olsen)
With Denny's passing, Brian soon found himself in demand. In need of support, he reached out to me. I assisted him with his first promotional video. Since he had no money, I offered to work for the price of a single painting. I asked for his first Tom Petty portrait.
As Brian learned to trust his talent, future versions of his paintings would need less paint. I preferred Brian's less is more approach. Later he gifted me a Hendrix painting with minimal color. When I look at it, I "feel" rather than "see" Jimi. It's hard to explain, but he seems to burst from the emptiness of the canvas. To me, that's when Brian was at his best. He made you feel art!
But, in those early days, I told him I wanted the first Petty. Not because it was my favorite, but since he couldn't afford my services, it would be worth the most when he died.
Whenever he painted Petty in the future, I never hesitated to tell him how much better it was than the one he had given me. I often suggested I swap a new one for the old "practice one" hanging up at my house. Of course, I never did. Nor would I ever sell it.
Being a huge Tom Petty fan, when he died in 2017, I felt crushed. But grateful that I had seen him many times. This included his and the Heartbreaker's last two nights at Red Rocks. I called Brian on October 2 to say, "look, that painting of yours has finally gone up in value." Adding, "if you were to die, it would be worth so much more!"
These were not morbid comments. That's how we talked to one another — always trying to make the other laugh. Brian was younger than me. We both knew I'd go first, or so we thought. Tom and Brian will always share space in my memories. I cannot think of one without thinking of the other, and now they are both gone.
Where the Hallway Ends!
Brian and I traveled to exotic places together. He was always up for an adventure. Once there was a last-minute trip to Korea with German-speaking hosts from Audi.
Photo by Author Joe Trey: Original Audi Painting by Brian Olsen Olympic Park in Seoul Korea
Another time he performed at a castle in Scotland. Live bagpipers marched through the castle halls. Others approached across the waters of Loch Lomond by ferry. As the fireworks burst overhead, the pipers were replaced by a recording. The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" blasted a top volume.
Moments later, Brian tore at his canvas. He ripped away a section of the Jackson Pollock-like painting. Revealing the logo of the event's prize-winning company. Unlike the song, everyone WAS fooled!
One of our more bizarre adventures together was at the hotel. We were the only two people staying on the top floor. At the time, it sounded pretty rockstar. It turned out the lack of guests was for a far more practical reason. The floor was only 1/2 finished. Literally, it ended at the end of the hall. Plastic sheets hung floor to ceiling to keep curious guests from falling over the side.
Just when we thought THAT would be the most bizarre part of our trip, we got to the gig. It was a private event. The event had the typical technical challenges. Wrong sized space. Poor lighting. No sound system Priceless art within feet of the performance area. But none of that compared to Brian's finale.
The client commissioned a custom painting. As the performance was ending, Brian dipped his hands wrist-deep into two separate cans of paint. He then turned to face the audience, allowing the paint to drip through his fingers. We always brought our own carpet, so I wasn't concerned. He turned back around to face the canvas. I knew what was coming next. I could see the faces of those in the first few rows. They had watched him for over an hour. They, too, knew what was coming.
With his back to the audience, Brian could not see the horror in the eyes of his otherwise amused audience. He couldn't hear their audible gasps over the music as he flicked paint from his hands towards the canvas. Peppering it with dots.
A signature moment. This action usually had crowds cheering and on their feet. That night a hush fell over the room. The guest of honors was an art lover. She sat horrified, watching Brian desecrate his beautiful creation. Of course, he wasn't. The splatter is a signature of his art form.
Photo by Emily Griffith Griffith Photography: From Brian Olsen Photo Archive
Photo by Emily Griffith Griffith Photography: From Brian Olsen Photo Archive
Dots of Sherwin William's Interior Latex peppered the portrait; "Memphis Yellow" and "Isle of Capri" to be exact. Brian was asked to return to the next day and "remove the dots." While not possible, he did his best to smooth things over by talking about art with the guest of honor privately for some time.
White Courtesty Telephone
There are so many other stories. Such as the night we partied with Skid Row Drummer Rob Affuso. He was very generous and one of the nicest celebrities we had ever encountered. But that's a story for another time.
I should mention several of the other people that supported Brian on the road. This included my friends Mark (also Brian's brother in law), James and Benjy, to name a few. Once, I had to turn down a gig in Germany. It conflicted with a family vacation to Barcelona, so Benjy stepped up to help.
For our family flight to Barcelona, we arrived at DIA (Denver International Airport) early. We were half asleep. Looking to perk up the kids, I walked them down to the terminal McDonald's. The promise of Hashbrowns is almost as powerful as caffeine to kids under 10. As we waited in line, I heard an announcement over the loudspeaker.
"Paging Mr. Olsen, Mr. Brian Olsen. Please Go to the Nearest White Couresty Telephone." I thought to myself, "No way. It couldn't be. Could it?" A moment later, the message repeated itself. The third time the announcement played, the girls and I were walking back to our seats. We juggled our various Mc-breakfast items. Moving to the side as two frantic men came bounding up the stairs towards us.
Busted! It was that Brian Olsen. My Brian Olsen. Benjy had taken the Germany Gig. One of the road manager's main jobs is to get "the talent" to the gig. In this case, Brian and Benjy were in the airport lounge. They lost track of time and missed the announcements calling for them to get aboard. They missed their flight, and I've never let Benjy live it down. In his defense, as a consummate professional, he still got Brian to the gig on time.
The Beat Goes On
Dan Dunn and David Garibaldi are two artists similar to Brian. They shared a friendly competition as well as a mutual appreciation for one another. Today, my older daughter attends online art classes put on my David. Dan has gone on to include his son in his PaintJam Act. Something I always wondered if Brian would consider doing with his young son as he got older.
I doubt Brian is doing much painting where he is at now. If I'm wrong, then I hope he is continuing to improve his Tom Petty portrait. Perhaps Tom could even sit for him so Brian could learn to paint him properly!
That is the kind of joke Brian would have liked. I occasionally find myself talking to him. It's a one-way conversation. I suspect he's too busy to reply. He's sitting somewhere in a rowboat. Drifting in a gentle wake, with Bodhi, his black lab that passed before him.
I imagine they are fishing together. Brian turns to Bodhi. Repeating a story that Bodhi has endured a thousand times before. Brian was always good at repeating a story. "Did I ever tell you about the time I narrowly avoided going out of business in 2020? No? Well, you see this thing called COVID . . ."
Just then, there is a tug pulling on Brian's line. Bodhi gets up on his front legs to look over the side. A bass breaches the water before going back under. Brian reaches for his landing net, careful to keep just enough tension and slack on the line. "Never mind Bodhi, we've got fishing to do. I'll tell you another time." Relieved, Bodhi lies back down.
The Buddhist concept of Bodhi means "spiritual awakening and freedom from the cycle of life." I love and miss you, my friend. I hope wherever you are, that you feel awakened and free. Thank you for the good times and the art and inspiration that you leave behind.