Dealing in concrete subjects

Jamie Olson speaks slowly, with a trace of a Midwestern accent, on the phone from Bluff, Utah, where he makes a living fashioning what he calls wearable art — necklaces, pins, and earrings.

He creates playful designs, human and animal, with a universal feel and he considers carefully how he wants to describe them. “[They’re] whimsical and imaginative,” he says, “whether a female form, or Anasazi, or Navajo, or Ute, or a Hopi maiden.”

With the same designs he uses for jewelry, Olson also builds life-sized concrete sculptures for yards and gardens. “[Both are] timeless, with no particular race or creed to me,” he says.

“Well-balanced and pleasing to the eye is what I’m looking for, whether it’s a 3-inch [broach] or 5-foot-8 [statue]. They have a contemporary Southwest feel, a prehistoric feel, or even a shamanistic feel.”

His creates his designs from pictures and books. He also uses ancient Native American pot sherds, some 2,000 years old, which he buys from people collecting them on private property.

“What I call recycled refuse, because [the Indians] broke those pots and threw them away.”

Olson particularly likes pot sherds because Bluff sits on Native American ruins. Some of the town’s early residents built their houses of rubble from cliff dwellings. He also admires the ancient Indians’ society. “It was a simpler time.”

Jamie Olson lives simply himself, in a 1965 Winnebago that measures 15 by 7 feet. The trailer also contains his wearable art shop. His concrete works happen in a shed behind his home.

His life experience led him to his media. After growing up in Palatine, Ill., about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, he followed a girl to Greeley, Colo., where she attended college.

An acquaintance owned a jewelry shop in town, and Olson went to work for him “for about two years,” long enough to learn jewelry-making.

“Then I got a regular job, forgot about the creative aspects, and began leading this other life,” he says.

To make a living, he poured concrete for buildings. He also drank. “I’m an alcoholic,” he says bluntly. “So I led an alcoholic lifestyle of drinking and working. That’s about it.”

During the summer, Olson poured in Colorado. The winter brought him to Arizona. The drive between the two states led him through Bluff.

“I saw the town and I liked it,” he recalls.

He continued working concrete for 20 years. Then, about 11 years ago, he decided he needed some changes in his life. “I quit drinkin’ and quit concrete, and kind of became a free man, able to do what I wanted to do.”

What he wanted to do was make art again. “I wanted to create things that people didn’t need, but wanted.”

He returned to jewelry, creating designs into templates for pieces. He rarely produced one-of-a-kind objects. Around 2000, he brought some work to the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff. The post manager bought the pieces, and Olson decided to settle in town, half a block from Twin Rocks.

Until recently, he made wearable art out of wires and metal. Now he’s added stones, turquoise, jet, pipe stone, and pottery sherds. He still works from a template.

About 2004, he began trying his designs with concrete. “I wanted to do something nice with concrete — something creative to look at. All the concrete I poured had a purpose.”

He projects a shape onto a board and traces it, to make a sculpture. That process produces the forms into which he will pour the concrete. Three or four hours after pouring, he removes the molds, and cuts details into the damp sculpture’s surface. He must work fast. Concrete dries quickly.

Olson finishes his concrete pieces on three sides, intending them to stand against walls, fences, and shrubs. Often he makes a sculpture in parts, which he later connects. Soon, he hopes that he can make his living from the sculptures instead of wearable art.

But, “it’s taking a while to get the concrete down,” he explains. “There’s only so far you can go with a certain medium, and you have to find out what they [the limits] are.”

He has sold two sculptures and has had what he calls “good responses,” to his work. Over Labor Day weekend, he exhibited some in Moab, Utah.

He is showing in Santa Fe, and plans to approach art galleries in Sedona and Carefree, Ariz., this winter, to see if they will exhibit pieces.

This November, he might show sculptures at the Bluff Arts Festival. If not, he will display them at Twin Rocks Trading Post, along with his jewelry.

“I’ll give [sculpting] six months or so, and see what happens. If people like ’em, I’ll find out. If not, I go back to the drawing board and do something else.”

He’ll also expand his jewelry-making. “You can get into a rut, you know, and that’s no good.”

Olson enjoys adapting his designs across media. “Anything can go wrong with concrete. That’s the nature of the beast,” he explains. “When you pour it, it better be right. With jewelry, you have to get into a different mind set — a very patient mind set. That’s what I like.”

Olson’s concrete sculptures and wearable art are available at Twin Rocks Trading Post, 913 E. Navajo Twins Drive in Bluff. The phone number is 435-672-2341

From Arts & Entertainment, October 2006.