Artist Profile: Carving out space with designer Leslie Olson

Photo courtesy Leslie Olson

Leslie Olson likes her space. In her art, she visualizes pictures and carves them out of negative space. In her free time, she rock climbs and boulders, literally hanging off into empty space. But, in every aspect of her life, her style is her own. 

“People tell me I have a very linear approach to things. I carve things out of negative space with a lot of lines. It’s my own thing. I try and think about why I go there, but I don’t have a good reason,” Olson says. 

For our annual “Kind-of-a-Big-Deal” issue this December, honoring various places around the state of Minnesota, Olson incorporated her signature style with familiar landmarks. She started the piece with two sketches: one a linear grid, the other a collection of freehand iconic forms inspired by Minnesota landmarks, natural features, and food culture. These forms are abstractly laid out according to the compass rose—the lighthouse and Sawtooth Mountains in the upper-right corner represent the North Shore, the fish and structure represent Sea Salt Eatery and the South Minneapolis area, and so on. Overlaying the two sketches, she cut away segments of the gridlines until the landmark shapes became part of the grid.

Olson was born and raised in the Twin Cities, growing up on the west side of town. From a very early age, her mother encouraged her to pursue her creative aptitude by taking art classes. She studied with an atelier-trained instructor for over 10 years, honing her skills in portraiture and realistic painting.

“I think I learned work ethic and craft through that, and an approach that is very detail-oriented to execution,” Olson says. 

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism and a French and retail merchandising minor, Olson didn’t know what to do. So, she decided to go back to school at Concordia University St. Paul, under the tutelage of John Dufresne, to study design. Olson spent the next three semesters learning to apply her art skills to design. She went on to become a key player in the Minneapolis graphic design and creative field as she began her design career at Studio MPLS.

A custom cribbage board design by Leslie Olson // Photo courtesy of Leslie Olson

Much of her work features themes from nature, and this is not a coincidence. When Olson isn’t spending her time designing, she spends it outside, traveling, doing yoga, hanging out with family and friends, and rock climbing. 

“Climbing is sort of similar to design, in a way—it is a lot of practice and a lot of work and problem solving, and reducing your anxiety while you are doing it,” Olson says. 

This is apparent in her work, with meticulous planning and technical skill shining through. It is also apparent in her process. Olson says that when working on a concept for a new piece, she does things in little bits to keep herself from overthinking the project. But once it comes to the actual execution, her flow takes over. 

“The thinking and executing together, it just takes so much energy. And you can’t pressure yourself to do it if it’s not going to happen at that moment, which is so hard. Being a designer is a day job, but if you don’t have a good idea for eight hours, it kind of sucks,” she says. 

Olson hopes to continue working in design and representing nature through her style. Her passion for photography, light, color, and composition naturally bleed into her work. 

“I just want people to have a feeling, to feel an emotion, and you don’t have to be some intellect to get it. You know when you eat really good food, and you think, ‘This pasta reminds me of my mom’s house growing up’? That is where I want people to be taken.”

Medium: Digital and graphite
Currently resides: Minneapolis, MN

2019 Kind-of-a-Big-Deal design by Leslie Olson

2019 Kind-of-a-Big-Deal design by Leslie Olson