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Robert Olszewski

California, USA

What did you dream you would grow up to be?

Artist or Archaeologist.

What was it like growing up in Birdville?  Is this the Birdville in Allegheny or Huntingdon County?

The boyhood Birdville of my life is in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and this is the first that I have heard of the Birdville in Huntingdon County.  My brother and I were always drawing or building something.  Two of my favorite projects were balsa airplanes covered with tissue and match stick log cabins.  In my early years, TV hadn't really begun so I spent a lot of time in interactive creative play, playing with building blocks, tinker toys, and Lincoln logs.

Did you live in any other countries or experience other cultures or languages as a child?

Until I was 23, the furthest I had traveled from Birdville was to Cleveland, Ohio.  At 23, I graduated from college on a Thursday, got married Saturday and left for California Monday morning.  This was the starting point of my wanderlust that has continued to this day.  Being visual, the trip for me was extraordinary.  The windshield of our car was like a large TV screen.  I watched the landscape change as we made our way to California on old Route 66.  This was 1968 and much of it [Route 66] was still intact.  I can still distinctly recall watching the landscape gradually change as we drove through Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.  Following that trip I drove across the United States, five more times with my family in the 1970s.  In the 1980s, I did 450 shows covering just about every state in the U.S., plus an extensive travel schedule into Europe, as a designer with Goebel.  Now, four times a year I enjoy my trips traveling to China.

What were your favorite activities as a child?

I enjoyed making models, drawing and building shacks in the woods.

How was art nurtured during your childhood?

I know that the foundation of my visual life began while looking out the upstairs windows of our red brick country home.  Years later when I was 35, I embraced this important time by painting a work based on a photograph taken by my mother.  We had lost our father at a young age (he was only 43) and I used this process of painting each brick as a way to deal with his loss.  Each morning as I returned to my studio to finish all the brickwork, I would recall every happy detail I had of his memory.  When that painting was complete, I was able to set aside this painful event, and embrace the happy memories and move on with my life.  Today, I am 61, and the painting hangs in the entryway of our home and it makes me happy to see it each day.

In addition to the subject matter, what inspired your early paintings?

My early paintings were mostly biographical.  Art had become a tool for me to process my life experiences.  Taking these events, and slowly redefining them in a two or 3D form, allowed me to come to terms with many complex issues.

Consequently, since I liked retelling my own life, I came to admire artists that did the same in a realistic style.  As much as I love the decorative arts, the majority of my work still revolves around story telling and reporting what I have experienced.

My very favorite artists are:

  • Edward Hopper
  • Charles Burchfield
  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Grant Wood
  • Walt Disney
  • Thomas Hart Benton
  • Charles Wysocki

All of their work inspired me, because they have each tried to define their own personal fascination with the world and their experiences.

[Try using an image search at using the name of each artist.  Browse through the images and look at some of the sites.  Then visit the Olszewski Art Gallery (here at Imagiverse) and see if you can see how these artists might have inspired Robert Olszewski.]

What path did you take to your present career?

My career path formed to achieve the goal of making a living from my art full time.  As I stated earlier, my father passed away young without life insurance.  Our mother had an 8th grade education and supported us as a cleaning lady and by ironing shirts and my step-father was out of work for two years during my junior and senior years in high school.  So I decided that if I was to get ahead I would have to find my own way.  My first step to my goal was to become an art teacher.  At 17, I read "Lust for Life" the Biography of Vincent Van Gogh.  To see such an extraordinary artist struggle made me realize that I, while teaching, could make a living, develop my skills, and eventually do art full time.

With the full time art goal in mind, the sequence of my career evolved like this.  To put myself through college, I worked as a laborer and railroad clerk.  After college, I taught art for 11 years at Haydock Elementary School in Oxnard, California.  In 1977, at the age of 34, I began making a living from my art.  I worked under exclusive contract as a miniature artist, painter and sculptor for the Goebel Company of Germany for 14 years.  I left Goebel in 1994 and, in 1995, I began creating miniatures for the Walt Disney Company.  In 2006, my brother Ray and I launched the Olszewski Studios website.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

My favorite subjects were art, plane geometry and English (as in writing).  Plane geometry was a visual math and I liked the order and logic of it.  Writing, just like art was also a good way to redefine and explore my experience.

Did you have a favorite teacher?

My favorite teacher was my art teacher, Robert Hild.  We still visit today over 40 years later.  When I was 15 to 20 years old, I discovered the cultural richness of our country.  This richness included the careers of painters, sculptors, writers and musicians who had been working since the mid-1920's on.  During the 1960s, you could enjoy Jazz, Folk and Rock music at the same time.  This same broad choice existed with painting and writing.  Throw into this the Bay of Pigs, Civil Rights, the Cold War, and the emerging Vietnam War and we were all confronted with serious issues to consider.  As a role model, Bob Hild was a hip, contemplative, intellectual, artistic art teacher, who became an answer as to how I could function in such a complex world.  His dialogue and probing questions helped to define my own place in the world and that became a world of the mind, visual and thought.

What were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?

My least favorite classes were classes that required memorization, especially Biology.  If I can look up the answer, I just can't force myself to commit information to memory.  Instead, I have always been interested in the "why" of life.  If the information contributes to helping me answer the question "why?", then, without effort, I would remember the detail, because the detail became connected to a path of understanding and was not just an isolated fact.  So in college, each semester I would assess the subjects I was taking.  I would decide ahead where I would put my effort and plan on where the A's and D's would fall.  As long as I could reach my goal to graduate, having D's was acceptable to me.  Consequently, I got D's in memorization classes like Biology and History and A's and B's in Art and Philosophy.  Today, I am extremely interested in world history and biology because now, I am not studying to be tested for a grade but am curious to know what has caused things to occur.

Do you speak or understand any other languages?

I took Chinese as a language in college in 1967 when no one was taking it.  I think we had a total of 5 people in the class.  Being visual, I took Chinese because the script was so pictorial and I was curious as to why the language evolved into such a visual writing form.  I don't speak it today, however, I find that I can travel in China pretty well as the country is making a major effort to teach English in their universities.

What is it like to travel so frequently to China?

Of all my travels, China's impact on me has been the most profound.  The western European cultures were easier to identify with.  In Europe, I traveled and enjoyed seeing the work that I had come to know from my study of art history.  In China, I had arrived with a deep historical appreciation for Chinese porcelain, but I was not prepared for the impact of the diversity of the day-to-day culture.  It has been 6 years, with trips as short as 2 days to trips as long as 21 days.  In the first 2 years, I traveled to Northern China, but for the past 4 years, I have stayed mostly in Shanghai.  This much travel allows me to look at the U.S. in ways I had never appreciated before.  Moreover, it has made me appreciate what our founding fathers accomplished.  Currently, I am in the middle of a book on John Adams.

When you are creating miniatures like Disneyland Main Street or Disneyland attractions like the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean, how do you begin such a detailed, accurate scale rendition of objects that are so complicated and full of detail?

On every project, I try to understand the emotion of the subject.  Without this they are just pictures and models, and most competent technicians can do this.  Getting close to the emotional purity of a subject is where the challenge and struggle is.  So, step one is the assessment.  It took me 9 months to begin to absorb the Disneyland Main Street USA magic.  It is a complex project as it needs to hold the magic in full daylight as well as at night.  You can easily hit one and miss the other.  You also can't start until you are certain of the concept you are going after.  Every decision you make after this must support the concept.

The list of detail that this will include for a project like Disneyland Main Street [add image of Main Street Miniature and link to photo in gallery] in miniature is enormous.  This has been a 7-year project and any wrong decision made in year one will affect you along the entire way.  For instance, selecting the wrong landscape color palette could make for an ugly Grand Finale.  You could pick landscape colors that overpower the buildings.

What is it like dealing with the marketing people, those who will eventually purchase and sell your creations?

Along the way, a marketing person might judge everything from a specific piece they see and request that you make everything brighter so you can sell more.  Because of this, dealing with such large and powerful companies can be hard and you will need to stand your ground.  This will take a lot of energy.  Once you have made the decision on what specifically to include, you can begin the model.  Complex models today can run well over $35,000 to $125,000 and it will be expensive to make changes later.  Once the model is cast, then coloration begins.  If the model is carved wrong, it will take more effort to paint the model and make it right.  As you paint the first model, you will see if you have carved the work deep enough for miniaturization.  For example, if the brick lines have been cut too deep on a model, it will cause the shadows to be darker and make the piece look out of scale.

Why do you make such frequent trips to China?

My trips to China are to make certain that I can first-hand inspect the progress.  If I have executed wrong, I will have to call my wife and extend the trip until the problem is solved.  After this, Travis Tokuyama (our Operations Manager) and I will personally deliver every 1st master sample to Disney for approval.  If they approve, we will go on to production.  If not, we go back and make changes.

What is the most bothersome question that you have been asked by collectors or at shows?

In my career, the saddest questions from collectors revolve around production.  Production is probably the least understood and under-appreciated step in the process.  People will stand and look at the final "Haunted Mansion" model, for example, and ask, "Is this painted by hand or mass produced?"  I think this question is asked because of the lack of exposure to art in our culture due to the cutback of art in the public schools.

It takes years to develop the skills to produce the hand eye coordination to do this kind of complex product.  The human body does not naturally work at this accuracy repeatedly over and over.  Just try hitting a golf ball to the same spot over an 8-hour day, or sit and thread a needle for 8 hours straight and track your variances as you get tired, sick or hungry.  This is what makes it art and it is just as difficult to train a painter in Germany, England, Ireland, the US or China.  I know, because I have been to studios in all of these countries.  The Human Touch = Art.  Consequently, we travel to China and do a 100 percent inspection before shipping so that no mistakes are made to interfere with the final magic we are reaching for.

Do you ever wish you had done something differently or are you satisfied with the final pieces?

Yes, all the time.  This is one reason why my work continually changes and hopefully improves.

How do you decide that it is "right" or "done"?

When I see the magic.

If you could relive your life, would you choose your present career path or would you like to try something different?

I would live it exactly the same.  This life I have lived has been extraordinary and a continual Journey of Learning.

What words of wisdom would you like to share with those who read this interview?

First, find what you are passionate about and pursue it.

Second, know that the joy is in the process.  No matter what happens along the way in your life, if you enjoy the process you can have great joy everyday.

Third, this is not a dress rehearsal!  When my father passed away it impacted me from that day on.  As a little boy I was angry, and at that time, 1955, no one spoke to me about our family's great loss.  Over time I worked it out and decided that this is it, live each day as it will be your last.  It has allowed me to live my life fully, leave bad situations, take more risks and live without regret.  By losing his life, my father taught me the value of life and I am grateful to him everyday for it.

Fourth, watch what you put in your mind - Garbage in, Garbage out!

What have been the biggest obstacles or challenges you have encountered related to your career as an artist?

In the year 2001, economic and world events nearly bankrupted us and I went into substantial debt.  Because I felt I had strong opportunities, I refused to go bankrupt.  I sold off my large home, moved back to my first home and at this point have paid off 80 percent of the debt.  Even with the debt, we built the 1/220th scale Disneyland Main Street USA, launched Disney World's Main Street, plus 3 new lines that I will be launching in 2007.  Of course, it has been difficult some days, but I have continued to live in the process of the passion for my work, have loved being back in our smaller home and expect to retire all my debt by 2008.  I would say I operate on a level of happiness the majority of the time + 90 %.  It's not about the money.  Money is a tool to get where one needs to go to meet their goal.  I feel that artistically I am performing at a peak level in my career and I continue to look forward to new levels of growth.

Some 25 years ago, I was traveling heavily doing personal appearances in gift shops around the US and into Canada.  After the shows, it was natural to have dinner or drinks with the shop owners and salesmen.  After 3 years of this, I became concerned that at this rate I would be dead within 5 years.  As I mentioned earlier, I did 450 shows for Goebel accounts from 1979 to 1994.  So, I decided to stop the dinner and drinks and catch an evening or night flight out of town and go on to the next city.  So now, I had breakfast with the salesman instead, and I ended up with an extra morning before my shows.  This time gradually evolved into short but meaningful visits to art museums and historical sites worldwide.  In these 25 years, I continue to visit and revisit these special places.  One of my favorites is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which I have visited at least 15 times and, from California, that is a high amount.

This, more than any one thing, has changed me.  Looking at the world's most spectacular art on a continual basis has educated my eye for art to a level I could never have reached.  It has made me realize how much I have yet to learn and has given me hope that I will continue to grow as an artist.  It has kept my ego in check as I have now, for over 25 years, stood before the great masters of world art.  It has helped me to solve difficult problems and evolve in new ways I never would have thought.  My home library is filled with over 700 handpicked books from the world's great museums.  Some are in Chinese, German and French.  How different a path my life might have taken had I continued to do the show dinner circuit?  Over these years this lifestyle choice has now influenced what books I read, and the movies and TV programs I watch as well.  I took this long example so I wouldn't miss making this important point.

Watch what you put in your mind:

Garbage in Garbage Out!  Good in Good Out!

Bob's Art Gallery

- 6 April 2007


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Last Updated:
6 April 2007

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