Sitting on a table in George Olson's spare bedroom-turned-art studio is a clear vase containing an early-blooming prairie flower.
It's called golden Alexander (zizia aurea), a perennial forb of the carrot family. Most people wouldn't recognize it because it isn't one of the more known varieties. It's no pale purple coneflower or common milkweed, for example.
But Olson knows it well. He picked it from a wetland planting in his backyard in Woodhull, Ill., and later today or tomorrow he will pick up a hard lead pencil to begin a detailed drawing. From there he will move to watercolor, and the plant will become one of the hundreds of prairie plants Olson has painted in incredible detail in the past 30 years. His work has earned him a reputation of doing for prairie plants what John Audubon did for birds.
You can see 15 examples of Olson's work at the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, now through Sept. 4, in an exhibit called "Picturing the Prairie: Tallgrass Q-C."
The show features five other artists, but the spark for the show was struck several years ago when Figge director Tim Schiffer was attending an event at the home of Augustana College president Steven Bahls and saw one of Olson's paintings.
Schiffer wasn't familiar with Olson or his work at the time, but he was struck by the painting of blackberries that hung over Bahls' fireplace. The overall design and masterful detail was so compelling that, after making inquiries, Schiffer decided the Figge needed to host an Olson exhibition.
"Doing this is so hard to do, it's so complicated to draw," Schiffer said, pointing to one of Olson's works during a tour of the exhibit. "Try drawing a dead leaf."
Among Olson's signature pieces is a painting of dried leaves.
"He is a master of the genre," Schiffer said.
As the idea for the Olson show developed, Schiffer decided to add several other regional artists to the mix and to make it a bigger exhibit.
Who is Olson?
Olson is a Minnesota native who attended Augustana College, Rock Island, then the University of Iowa. He spent 37 years teaching art at the College of Wooster in Ohio and, concurrently, became an artist who has had more than 80 exhibitions. These include the 15th Annual International of the American Society of Botanical Artists in New York and in the British Museum of Natural History in London.
Just out of graduate school, Olson did big oil paintings, then moved to relief prints, then eased into plant studies.
"Then it dawned on me in the 1980s that I had connections to the tallgrass prairie and I became more specialized," he said at an interview at his home.
Olson finds himself in Henry County, Ill., about 40 miles southeast of the Quad-Cities because when he retired from teaching, he and his wife, Pat, decided to move there to take care of her father.
After her father passed away, they stayed. The farm Pat's father left contains some bits of prairie so, in addition to painting native vegetation, Olson also cares for it. This includes burning, a form of management that discourages invasive plants and invigorates the prairie species. The Native Americans burned to green up the grass and attract bison, Olson explained.
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"It's quite spectacular and hot," he says of his small burns. "It makes you wonder what the original prairie fires must have been like. They must have been horrendous."
When Olson first started painting native plants in the 1980s, he "didn't know one from another," and "you had to look to find someone interested."
Knowledge of prairies and prairie plants has increased since then. As part of his own education, Olson had the good fortune to meet up with John Madson, author of "Where the Sky Began," a seminal book about the wonders of the prairie ecosystem. Many consider Madson the father of the modern prairie restoration movement.
Olson met Madson when Olson was on sabbatical at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, and its nearby Shaw Arboretum, now Shaw Nature Reserve. Knowing that Madson lived relatively nearby in Missouri, Olson wrote to him about his prairie paintings. The two met at Madson's prairie on a cold day in December.
"It was fun to walk through with a prairie enthusiast," he said.
Olson notes that "there is a lot of confusion" about prairie plants. Some people will call any big open space a prairie when, in reality, it may be a cow pasture or a hay field. Some residential developers try to sell people on "wilderness" areas when, really, all they have to offer is a ditch with weeds, Olson said.
"Once you know what to look for, it's like antiques, or quilts. You have to be experienced in what you're looking for."