Twyla Olsen: A creative force

Written by Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat February 21, 2013 08:37 am

The Mother Lode has a one-woman creative whirlwind, and her name is Twyla Olsen.

Olsen hasn’t stopped at being a college professor, painter or jazz musician. Instead, she’s been all three — though she wishes there were more hours in the day.

“I don’t understand when people say they’re bored,” Olsen said. “There’s so much to do.”

She spends 10 to 15 hours a week in her art studio, a shared space called Studio B on Bradford Street in downtown Sonora. There, she paints with watercolors and has put together about 20 colorful, abstract collages. 

She identifies many of them as self-portraits, even if they don’t depict her face in a literal sense. 

For example, one shows the figure of a mermaid and seashell over a watercolor background. It was inspired by a quote from the French writer Anaïs Nin about mermaids having “no fear of depths but a great fear of shallow living.” 

Having learned about her collages, Olsen’s friends drop off materials for her to use. The table in her sunlit studio is a work of art unto itself, strewn with tubes of paint, brushes and miscellaneous items such as a square of wire mesh. 

“I like to call myself the messy one,” Olsen said. “When I realized I didn’t have to do everything perfectly, I was set free.” 

Studio B is a spacious room that houses the workspaces and paintings of six artists. Olsen is right — her space, at the northeast corner of the building, is by far the most chaotic.

But that’s all part of the creative process, which she loves to talk about. She’s the type of artist who needs to have a surplus of materials on hand at all times, but the end result is at least some order out of chaos. 

The other artists in Studio B are Mike Kiriluk, Allison Blansit, Sherie Drake, Jodi Sigala and Irene Deaver, who has been working on a set of paintings depicting barns. They all feed off each other’s energy, Olsen said. 

As an artist, she’s something of a late bloomer. She was born in Texas and grew up in the Bay Area. She took art classes in high school and college, but started painting seriously in 2004 and joined Studio B in 2009. 

Olsen said being an artist requires an investment of time she didn’t make until more recently. It started as a way for her to occupy herself while watching TV, taking off from there. 

Watercolors, usually considered a challenging medium, are a favorite for Olsen. Their colors are more difficult to control than other kinds of paint, since they can run together or bleed through the page. 

“You don’t have a lot of control over them, but that’s why I like them,” she said. “They’re kind of a surprise.”

Much of her artistic inspiration comes from the vivid colors and landscapes of New Mexico, where Olsen perceives a less hurried view of the world. 

Along with the other Studio B artists, she was featured on a February broadcast of “Artists of the Mother Lode” — a program on Cable 8, the public access television station in the Sonora area. The show will air again at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 1. 

Olsen’s work is also being exhibited at Talulah’s, a downtown Sonora restaurant. 

When her “muse” comes, Olsen is sometimes so full of creative energy that she can’t sleep. She’s explored plenty of other artistic outlets, too. 

About six years ago, she and three classmates from a Columbia College jazz improvisation course started their own band called “Twyla and the Torches.” Olsen, Steve Lampl, David Rhoades and Bob Lehmann recorded an album at the local Autumn Lane Studio, with her alto voice over instrumentals. 

She conceded, though, that there’s a “season for everything.” Consumed by her acrylic and watercolor painting, she hasn’t done as much music this year. 

As a day job, she teaches communications and public speaking classes at Columbia College, which she said is the perfect teaching job for someone who loves to talk. It unites her hyper-creative right brain and organized left brain, she said. 

She moved to Columbia as a young mother in the 1970s and worked in medical transcription. She said the environment wasn’t varied enough for her. 

She went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication from California State University, Stanislaus, with a minor in diversity management. 

“That was when I started to see that everybody learns differently and how you learn to maximize those differences rather than view them as obstacles,” Olsen said. 

She went on to get a master’s degree and participate in a San Francisco-based institute focused on managing change in the workplace. She credits it for teaching her about the often tricky dynamics of working in groups.  

Communication in the office is far more challenging than it may sound, Olsen said. For example, sending and receiving hundreds of emails a day can cause people to communicate “more but less effectively.”

Technology and other challenges are the subject of a Columbia College professional development program that Olsen is helping launch this spring, targeting local businesses and nonprofits. 

The upshot of both her on-campus classes and the professional development program is that many classic workplace nightmares can be solved with open, honest communication. 

She’s hoping the Columbia College Professional Development Institute will help revitalize the local economy, which she sees as having great potential — especially since it’s so full of creative people, she said. 

“I’ve tried moving away and it just doesn’t work,” Olsen said. “There’s always something that draws me back.”

The Mother Lode has “probably the most visual and performing artists per capita than anywhere I’ve lived,” she added. 

Her goals for the immediate future are clear: “Probably painting, singing and teaching,” she said. “Maybe not necessarily in that order. But those are the things that bring me the most joy in my life.”