Artist Rik Olson will oversee Sebastopol Center for the Arts Street Printing Festival

Sebastopol Center for the Arts will be hosting the fourth annual Art and Street Printing Festival this Sunday, July 14. Local master printer Rik Olson will oversee the street printing — via steamroller — as he has been every year since the festival’s inception.

The center’s visual arts director Catherine Devriese saw Olson in action five years ago at the Roadworks Steamroller Printing Festival in San Francisco and prevailed upon the artist to bring the event to Sebastopol.

“I’ve been doing the San Francisco Center for the Book steamroller event for 16 years,” Olson said. “Then Catherine Devriese came down to watch the event and she got all excited and said ‘We have to do this up in Sebastopol.’”

Olson, who lives in west county, was happy to oblige.

This year he held two printmaking workshops at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. The center will be printing the work of his students and other local artists who submitted their 12-inch square linoleum prints in time for the July 2 deadline.

In addition, every year Olson chooses four artists to do larger 18-inch by 24-inch works. He also makes one large print of his own each year for the festival. This is year Olson’s linoleum print is based on the Victorian poem “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear.

“That is one weird poem,” Olson mused, looking at the print. 

Before the event, Olson makes a single copy of each print in his workshop. The prints hang in the Sebastopol Center for the Arts gallery, and the public can choose which ones they’d like to buy. All proceeds go to Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

Olson oversees the actual printing process. He and his helpers lay several linoleum blocks on a board and then ink them. They carefully lay sheets of heavy paper over each linoleum block, covering the whole thing with several heavy blankets. Then Olson gives a signal to the steamroller, a small two-ton model provided by Von Renner Construction, which donates the equipment and the driver. The steamroller rolls slowly over the whole shebang, transferring the image to the paper.

Olson is an old hand at linoleum prints. He’s been making them since he was in high school.

“I used to do the program covers for the plays,” he said.

Olson, who grew up in Contra Costa County, got his bachelor’s of fine arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, specializing in illustration.

He was drafted in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, but was fortunate to serve his two-year stint in Germany, where he worked for the U.S. Army’s arts and crafts center.

“That saved my bacon mentally,” he said, “because I went from art school to being a soldier, and that was a real transition.”

After he left the army, Olson lived in Europe for several years before moving back to the states. Back home in the Bay Area, he threw himself into commercial art.

His interest in printing really took off in 1982 when he took a weeklong workshop on wood engraving with master printer and engraver Barry Moser, who became famous in the early ’80s for his work on a new edition of Alice in Wonderland.

Olson was so captivated by the medium that he purchased two old Vandercook presses — one with a 15-inch print bed and one with a 20-inch bed — which he has used ever since. 

Olson works primarily with linoleum blocks and wood. He does both wood cuts and wood engraving. For wood engraving, which is more delicate, he uses “a fine-grained hard wood — boxwood or maple are the blocks that I use,” he said. “Wood engraving is cross the grain; wood cuts are with the grain of the tree.”

He also does etching — which is done on metal sheets and for which he has a specialized press — as well as scratchboard.

With scratchboard, he said, “you have a surface that has white kaolin clay on it and then ink over the top and you scratch back through to the white. It was developed around the turn of the century as a poor man’s wood engraving.”

Though he’s 75, Olson is still exploring new media. He’s recently started experimenting with mezzotints, a 17th century method for producing a range of grays with without using lines or dot-based techniques, like cross hatching or stipple. 

“You take a rocker, a hand-held device with teeth on the bottom of the blade, and you rock it over the plate 52 different directions to create an even burr and then you go back in with scrapers and burnishers and pull your image out of the darkness. If you were to print that plate just after you rocked it, it would print as a nice rich velvety black, and when you burnish it back down to the metal you can create a whole realm of gray tones.

“I figured wood engraving wasn’t hard enough so I’d try something else,” he joked.

Olson has worked as a freelance artist all of his life. He has illustrated over 200 books and done packaging for Williams Sonoma and Whole Foods.

He also does artwork for advertising. West county readers are probably familiar with his full-page ads for Fine Tree Care, which run in the Sonoma Gazette. Olson said he does a new one every time he needs some tree work done.

“Right now, I’m doing a lot of wine labels,” he said, noting he’s created labels for Merry Edwards, Beringer and most recently for Sebastopol’s Horse & Plow.

“Advertising work provided the money so I could do the other stuff … and still does,” he said. “That’s my day job. My night job is my own artwork.”

But every job — commercial or otherwise — comes with challenges and problems, which he said he enjoys solving.

Olson said he’s never found a computer program that could deliver the same effect as hand-cut wood or linoleum.

“There’s not a program that imitates it that closely, though someone has probably come up with one by now. I just find it a hell of a lot easier just to grab a block and cut it,” he said.

Still, he depends on the computer to deliver the final product to his commercial clients. He always creates the artwork by hand, and then makes a high-resolution scan of the piece, separating it in Photoshop into its component layers.

“I’ve taught myself just enough Photoshop to be dangerous,” he said. “I know what I need to know for my purposes.”

But he prefers the old, tactile world of metal, wood and paper. Right now he’s on the lookout for an “iron hand press” from the early 19th century to add to the small collection of other vintage presses. 

“I’ll be happy to make room in my studio for it,” he said.

You can see Olson in action at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts fourth annual Arts and Street Printing Festival, which happens on Sunday, July 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Highlights will include live street printing using a two-ton pavement roller as the printing press, live music, food, beverages as well as creative activity booths. All proceeds benefit Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

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