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Who knew wrestling could inspire fine art? Tim Olson, that’s who. Read about the Dubuque artist’s stained-glass portraits below. Photo: Christine Happ Olson

Writer: Michael Morain

Tim Olson’s stained-glass portraits of Denise Long, Dan Gable and other notable Iowans take cues from the Gothic-style windows he helped restore at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubuque. Photo: Tim Olson

In a stained-glass studio in Dubuque, the artist Tim Olson is assembling a new body of work — arms, legs, mustache and all. The puzzle pieces in a recent project formed a glowing Gothic portrait of Dan Gable, Iowa’s patron saint of wrestling.

The idea came from a fan’s suggestion that Olson initially brushed off. “I thought it was such a weird idea because when I was growing up, [Gable] was like Iowa royalty,” he said.

But after taking on the project, the artist created another portrait of Denise Long, the Union-Whitten High School basketball star who became the first woman drafted by the NBA. Then he set to work on portraits of the fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, who grew up in Des Moines, and Cheryl Browne Hollingsworth, who was a student at Luther College when she was crowned Miss Iowa in 1970 and became the first Black contestant in the Miss America pageant.

All four stained-glass portraits will be on display in an exhibition Olson is tentatively calling “The Hall of Notable Iowans and Other Midwestern Curiosities,” a big solo show scheduled for May 9 through Sept. 15, 2024, at the Sioux City Art Center.

Most of Olson’s portrait subjects are more ordinary than Olympian, but he’s not one to dismiss a weird idea. In another recent series, the 2022 Iowa Artist Fellow painted modern-day

Iowans in the formal style of the Northern Renaissance, led by Flemish artists like Pieter Bruegel and Jan van Eyck. In Olson’s folk-art take, sullen 4-H kids appear in arched panels like the authors of the four Gospels. The Nativity plays out in a trailer-park triptych.

He appreciates the contrast between fine art and pop culture, like the “funny, sad and slightly creepy” artwork in a book he discovered years ago, called “Thrift Store Paintings.” He likes a good mashup — and the actual process of mashing things up. Is it “Cartoon-Expressionism? Naïve-Academic? Picturesque-Messiness?” he wondered. “Maybe all of the above.”

Tim Olson originally dismissed a suggestion to render Dan Gable in stained glass, but the idea grew on him. Photo: Christine Happ Olson

Olson grew up in Marathon, near Storm Lake, and graduated from Laurens-Marathon in a class of 60. He studied photography and painting at Bemidji State University, the University of Iowa and Loras College in Dubuque before jumping into a 20-year career as a photo-studio printer in Los Angeles and Chicago.

When he and his wife, Christine, decided to leave suburban Chicago, they chose Dubuque, where he had studied and she had often visited for her work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “She took to it right away,” Olson said. “It took me a few years to get a feel for the place.”

But the more he learned about Iowa’s oldest city, the more he saw it as a place for artistic inspiration. His painting studio is upstairs at the Key City Creative Center, in what was once the haymow of an old livery.

Several years ago, he was drawn to some old photos in one of his wife’s history books, “Dubuque on the Mississippi,” by William Wilkie, and

eventually teamed up with Dubuque historian Mike Gibson to exhibit and publish an extensive photo collection of local shops, factories and offices from 1912. The project, “A City at Work,” won an award from the State Historical Society of Iowa and inspired Olson to photograph a similar series a century later, in 2012. (Coincidentally, Olson was born halfway in between, in 1962.)

“A City at Work” led to other photography projects, including a 110- foot panoramic portrait of 600 people at DubuqueFest and a series of portraits and interviews in the neighborhood around St. Mary’s Church (now Steeple Square). It was a restoration project at that church where Olson learned the stained-glass skills for his latest series. “In the windows we were working on, the faces were all done very delicately,” he said. “But when you look at real Gothic windows, they’re done in a more primitive way, kind of a Humpty Dumpty style that I really like.”

After he finished his Gable portrait, people assumed the artist knew all about wrestling. He said one Dubuque man told him, “Oh, you need to do Hulk Hogan. And there’s a guy who used to be a professional wrestler who works over at Wendy’s.”

So there’s no shortage of inspiration.

As Olson put it, “I always have more ideas than I could ever finish.”

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