Popular Christian artist credits his hometown of Iona for jump-starting his successful art career
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IONA — Greg Olsen is best known for his religious paintings, but many in eastern Idaho may not know that his art career began years ago when he painted grocery store signs for his hometown of Iona.
Olsen was born in Idaho Falls in 1958 and lived in Iona until he went to college. His first paid art gig as a teenager was when he was asked to paint two 4×8 sheets of plywood signs for a grocery store on Yellowstone Highway near Iona Road. His parents let him paint the signs in his room because it was winter and the garage was too cold. As he was painting, he accidentally knocked over a TV tray and spilled black and bright orange enamel paint all over his bedroom carpet.
Olsen looks back fondly at those early days of his career and says they helped him become who he is today.
“You don’t think of necessarily a little place like Iona being a cultural arts center, but there were actually a lot of people in Iona who were influential in pointing me in that direction,” Olsen said.
Some of those impactful people were women who taught him and other children summer art classes at an Iona Art Guild, along with middle school and high school teachers who helped shape him as a teenager.
Every year Bob Whitney, his Bonneville High School art teacher, took his class on an art tour. Students boarded a school bus to Utah and visited different university art departments and studios of professional artists.
“That was impressive to me as a kid growing up on a farm to see there are actually people who feed their family drawing and painting pictures,” Olsen said.
Whitney remembers Olsen as one of the kindest, most spiritual young men he’d ever met who was a natural at drawing.
“He picked everything up so quickly that I tried to teach,” Whitney said. “Often, when I would give an assignment, he would do four different options of the same assignment because he wanted to see how many different ways he could look at it.”
After high school, Olsen attended Utah State University where he studied art. Instead of graduating, he started flunking classes, in part because during his second year at USU he met his now-wife, Sydnie.
“The whole program there, unless you wanted to teach, was geared towards getting a good portfolio, then getting out of there,” Olsen said. “I had a halfway decent portfolio.”
The couple got married and Olsen landed a job as an in-house artist in Salt Lake City. After almost two years, in his early-20s, he took a leap of faith after his friend, Mike Johnston, asked him what he would do if he could do anything he wanted.
“I’d quit my job and paint what I wanted instead of everything that someone else wanted me to do,” he remembers answering.
That conversation sparked something in Olsen and he decided to start painting full-time.
The Johnston family hosted an art show in their home for Olsen for him to sell artwork he had completed in college. It wasn’t very successful but a few weeks later, someone who attended the show offered him a job doing commission work. He did that for about a decade until he got an art publisher – Mill Pond Press.
One day, someone at the publishing company was looking through Olsen’s old work and saw a painting he had done of Jesus Christ feeding sparrows. They created prints of the image and it sold out.
“Then they started publishing some of the scriptural subject matters (paintings),” Olsen said.
Since then, Olsen’s career has flourished and this boy from small-town eastern Idaho has paintings on display all over the world.
Olsen knows most people refer to him as a Christian artist, but he said that was never his intention. Regardless, he hopes his paintings inspire positivity, are uplifting and a reminder to think about what’s most important in life.
“I believe that my experience in little Iona was the best preparation I could have,” Olsen said. “With social media and all that stuff, the world doesn’t seem always real. But that’s what I loved about where I grew up – it was so real and all-around good people. It will always have a huge effect upon me.”