Artist Greg Olsen is taking a major turn in his career — with help from Deseret Book
After 40-plus years in the art world — and roughly 17 of those years being self-published — Greg Olsen is ready to move on from the business side of his work. He wants to focus solely on creating
Greg Olsen wants to make one thing really clear: Although he recently turned 65, he’s not planning on retiring anytime soon.
Prominent in the Christian art world for oil paintings like “O Jerusalem,” “Worlds Without End” and “The Nativity,” the artist is far from ready to hang up his brush for good. He speaks passionately about a new painting he’s recently completed, a scene between a man and Jesus Christ titled “I See You.”
He speaks passionately, but not definitively. As he describes his own creation, he leaves the story wide open for interpretation.
“Maybe he’s a beggar, maybe he’s just going through difficulties, I don’t know,” Olsen says of the man in his painting. “But they’re looking at each other, and that phrase, ‘I see you,’ it can go either way. Jesus sees us — not just the physical us, but he knows us. He knows what we’re going through. He knows what we really are inside. What we’re made of, our divine nature. … I like to think he sees all that. And he certainly helps us see that in ourselves.”
Olsen leaves a lot of room in his paintings for people to insert themselves. There’s a thrill in creating something that resonates with others, and he’s not ready to give that up.
But after 40-plus years in the art world — and roughly 17 of those years being self-published — what Olsen is ready to put behind him is the business side of his work. He wants to focus solely on creating. He wants to give his art the attention it deserves, without logistical matters lingering in the back of his mind.
And, perhaps most importantly, he wants his family back. Over the years, two of his children, Nate and Kylie, have helped him with everything from the direction of his online business to selling artwork and customer service. They had a great working relationship, but it also meant that family time often led to talking shop.
Olsen wanted to go back to a simpler time, and passing on the business affairs to Deseret Book, the only retailer he has used for roughly the past decade, was a logical step.
So Olsen and Deseret Book recently struck what Laurel Day, president of Deseret Book, called a “historic deal” for the company: Deseret Book now owns all of the rights to Olsen’s work. It’s a symbiotic relationship that frees up Olsen creatively as Deseret Book expands its reach by handling both the wholesale and direct to consumer side of his art.
“For someone like Greg Olsen to trust us with his legacy, I just think is a great honor,” Day said. “We feel really honored to be the stewards of all of his great work.”
Here’s the story of how the deal came together — and what it means for Olsen and Deseret Book going forward.
A leading Christian artist
For 12 minutes, Olsen tells with remarkable vividness a story from his time as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Toronto, Canada.
It hadn’t been an easy decision for him to put down his paintbrushes for two years to serve a mission — he had a dream of making it as a famous illustrator in New York City. But while on his mission, he was tasked with painting a montage that depicted the many forms of missionary work. It would serve as a thank-you gift of sorts for then-church president Spencer W. Kimball, who was coming in for an area conference.
Olsen worked on this painting one day a week, for two months. In the back of his mind, he worried what the prophet might think of him “messing around on stuff like this on my mission.” But to his surprise — and relief — President Kimball met him with words of encouragement rather than a reprimand. He showed interest in his family and his passion for art, and asked him what he wanted to do upon his return home.
And as Olsen recalls, Kimball parted with a challenge: “When you get home, why don’t you do more of this kind of stuff? … I think perhaps we could use it in the church.”
For Olsen, it was an unforgettable moment. But it didn’t immediately come to fruition. There wasn’t a market for Christian art at the time — no galleries he was aware of carried it, he said. Over the years, as he focused on Western art and scenes of childhood, the market for Christian art gradually opened and he found his way in.
Now, Olsen is considered a leading Christian artist, according to Dallan Wright, a longtime collaborator of Olsen’s who is the art director for Deseret Book and helped secure the deal. On Facebook, Olsen’s official art page has close to 1 million followers. A big part of what makes Olsen resonate with a wide Christian audience is his ability to show a connection, Wright said.
“He wants to find things that bring people together. … He doesn’t celebrate conflict,” Wright said. “There’s not this evil over here and this good over here. It’s this peaceful calm that he has. ... If he knew that there was something conflicting, he wouldn’t paint it. It’s just not where he wants to be.”
For all of Olsen’s success, it may be hard to believe there was ever a time he thought it wouldn’t work out. But the image of the struggling artist is a familiar one for Olsen. At one point in his career, his house was in foreclosure and none of his works were selling. It marked the only time in his 43 years of marriage that his wife poked her head in the studio, with a bunch of bills in hand, and asked if he should maybe consider getting a real job.
He couldn’t argue with that, so they went out and bought a newspaper and sifted through the help wanted ads. After about a half-hour, Olsen said, it became abundantly clear he wasn’t qualified to do much of anything.
So he went back into the studio with a renewed sense of urgency.
“It doesn’t take long to be humbled in this field, that’s for sure,” he said with a laugh.
Striking a deal with Deseret Book
The way Olsen tells it, Deseret Book has long played a role in his ability to make a living and feed his family as an artist.
Olsen used to have a network of hundreds of galleries and bookstores across the country. But several years ago, largely due to all of the inventory that was required to maintain that network, he opted to stop working with wholesale accounts in favor of reaching customers directly on the internet. Deseret Book was the only exception.
The artist has known Wright, who has been with Deseret Book for more than a decade, since the 1990s (Wright was a photographer who would shoot and color proof Olsen’s work). After joining Deseret Book, Wright worked with Olsen from time to time to license certain images for the company. The pair worked together even more closely in 2014, when Wright approached Olsen about painting “The Nativity” — a monthslong project that has become one of Olsen’s most popular pieces.
Despite their collaborations, Wright says he was still taken aback when Greg’s son, Nate, approached him and said his dad was interested in Deseret Book becoming a steward of his art, asking if the company wanted “to purchase the rights to everything that’s been done and everything that would be done in the future.”
“It’s a lot of images,” Wright said, noting that Olsen has been painting commercially since the 1980s and has worked hard to keep his name out there. “It’s a lot and he’s been great at marketing them, so there’s a lot of great value there. ... I feel a lot of responsibility.”
The deal came together over 200 days, and Wright said he couldn’t help but become emotional as he thought about his relationship with Olsen and the power of the artist’s work.
As part of the deal, Deseret Book will handle Olsen’s website, meaning it will be in a better position to offer anything that’s available on the artist’s site in its stores, and that it can help customers track down more obscure pieces that weren’t popular enough for mass production. Deseret Book will also handle Olsen’s wholesale business, “selling into the Christian market and other retailers,” Day said.
Going forward, Wright said he plans to work with Olsen on bringing forth at least one new, major piece of art a year. And while this deal is specifically about Olsen’s work, Deseret Book hopes it expands awareness of other great artists the company works with — and brings even more artists into its fold.
“You can digitize art, but people still have a desire to have a framed piece of beautiful art on their wall. And so that’s a part of our business that we can invest in, knowing that there will always be a desire for that kind of product,” Day said. “Art is one of the few things that hasn’t been disrupted like so much of the other publishing industries, and so it felt like a really safe space for us to grow.”
A new chapter
Olsen can already feel a weight off his shoulders. At the time of this interview, the Heber City, Utah, resident was in Massachusetts with his son, learning about some of his ancestors from the Salem region. It was a beautiful area, he said, and he did some sketching. Business talk didn’t come up once.
“It’s been a great thing for me,” he said. “The business side of what I do, it just, it takes up a lot of time — more than you would think.”
It’s a liberating feeling, but Olsen acknowledges that the pressure isn’t entirely gone — he still has to create.
“Now I’m kind of like, ‘Hey, Greg, you don’t have any excuses. You better be more creative,’” Olsen said with a laugh. “I hope that I can just devote time and energy to do what I really love. But if I go downhill, it’s only my fault.”
Wright is a bit more optimistic. And that’s because he knows Olsen, and has seen firsthand the care and detail that the artist pours into each piece of work.
“I think we’re going to see some amazing originals that come in this next stage of Greg’s career,” he said. “I really do think what (this deal) means is that there are going to be originals that come out that Greg wouldn’t have created, because there’s not that level of daily stress. … I think there’s going to be some great work coming.”
Throughout his career, Olsen has tried not to focus too much on either the praise or criticism that comes his way whenever he releases a new painting. One of his biggest pieces of self-criticism, though, is that with all the demands of his career he hasn’t always been able to give a subject the proper research and attention it deserves.
“I hope with putting some of the business responsibilities aside, I can really focus on those kinds of things to really at least give it my best shot,” he said. “There’s always going to be people who could do it better, but at least know that I’ve given it a valiant effort from where my abilities lie.”