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Meg Olsen Meg Olsen

Shaping lives, building careers

The scene: an Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) classroom. Throughout the excited chatter, tiny fingers and fists work the dull gray clay, rolling it into a ball, pounding it flat, cutting it into squares, then joining the squares to make a box.

These are special boxes, born from the imagination of each boy and girl, under the watchful eye of visual artist Meg Olsen.

And when those boxes — or clay animals, or bowls, or other gems from the creative soul of a child — are finished, Olsen ties that same creative process to the wonders of discovery in a host of other subjects.

For IPS teachers, Olsen's class can be a portal: students can use their newfound artistic mindset to understand other lessons in math or science or history.

For programs like the Young Audiences (YA) and VSA arts of Indiana that utilize Olsen and other artists, the classes demonstrate the power of imagination and its vital role in education.

But for Olsen (BA 1997, Herron School of Art & Design), it's more. Much more. Each class is another opportunity to share with youngsters the joy of art and creativity. And it's a reminder of a time in her life when the wonder of learning escaped "a disinterested student" with no clear path to follow in life, one who escaped the classroom to draw the pictures so clear in her mind; a time when neither art nor science was clear.

Struggled with studies

The New Jersey native, who moved with her family to Carmel when she was 4 years old, enjoyed elementary school, but by middle school, her interest in academics was flagging.

"I'm a visual person. That's the way I process things," Olsen says. "I loved reading literature, but math and science? Not so much."

Linda Adele Goodine, who was Olsen's mentor as well as photography teacher at Herron, says Olsen's story isn't unusual. Goodine herself struggled with the current form of schooling.

"I know a lot of people who thought I was slow because of the way I interacted with the world," Goodine says. "I think Meg faced the same thing — in fact, a lot of our students at Herron do. Their academic difficulties came on standardized tests. But Meg has always excelled in classroom work and independent study."

Olsen credits her time at Herron with rekindling her interest in school. "I took an art history class, and for the first time, history became interesting," she says. "I found myself wanting to learn more about all kinds of things."

Goodine played a big role in the turnaround. "Linda always wanted to know what you thought about whatever the subject was — she always wanted to make things about her students," says Olsen.

After graduating from IUPUI, Olsen was ready to explore the world. She moved to Colorado in 1997, then to Los Angeles in 1998.

"I thought I was going to go on this great adventure when I went out west," Olsen recalls. Life worked out differently. "I worked at an online brokerage firm, and was making good money and had good benefits. But I just hated it!"

Olsen returned to Indy in 2002 because she "felt like I had a community back here. I don't make anywhere near the paycheck, but I'm so much happier." Just how much happier hit home a short while after she got back home, when she noticed her reflection in a window, smiling. "I don't think anybody in California realized I could smile," she sighs.

Back to the arts

Olsen plunged back into the arts world, tackling photo projects whenever possible, and making ends meet through temporary jobs like bartending. One of her photo endeavors recently was featured in a onewoman show in the Murphy Arts Center in Fountain Square, one of the city's artistic hot spots.

"I had a friend who was stationed in Bosnia, and I wanted to do something for him," Olsen says. She and some friends did some World War II-style pinup photos as cards. The idea went over so well that it went on for years, evolving into a calendar.

"The more we got into the project, the more I had to do," says Olsen, who says she got her photographic initiation as a child with a "point-and-click" camera on a family trip to Kings Island. "The pinups were a good lesson for me; I learned how to direct a photo shoot, which I'd never done."

She also added her name to the roster of working artists for YA and VSA (formerly Very Special Arts) programs. Young Audiences is a national organization geared to expose students to the arts, particularly those who might not otherwise get that exposure at an early age, while VSA makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities.

Though her chosen field is photography, Olsen joined both organizations as a clay artist traveling from school to school teaching kids how to work with clay and use their imagination.

"Art turns concepts into reality for kids, especially young kids," Olsen says. She tries to use her projects "as a visual aid to reinforce the teachers' other lessons. My biggest goal is for the kids to have fun, and to want to work with clay again. If that happens, it's a good class."

To JoEllen Florio Rossebo, the president and CEO of Young Audiences, Olsen's efforts exemplify YA's mission. "Our programs are designed to be interactive and to open up new worlds to children who might otherwise not get that exposure at such an early age," she says. "Art connects to math, to science, to all fields of learning," Rossebo adds. "It opens and stimulates the mind, and enhances the desire to learn."

Olsen finds herself energized by her work with her budding artists. "Preschool kids are a lot of fun," she laughs. "They're always excited, always full of imagination. The end product is not what's important to them. With older kids, the finished product is important," she adds. "They want to make theirs look just like the teacher's."

Building a dream

Olsen may spend time with school kids teaching them to shape their clay into objects of art, but increasingly, she finds herself shaping a creation of her own: the idea of launching a charter school designed for students just like her: visual learners who struggled in a world of standardized tests.

"I want to start a charter school for middle school students," Olsen says. "I know there are a lot of students who need a school that understands there are different ways to learn. I know the arts can inspire the desire to learn, because it happened to me!"

The irony — a woman who once only wanted out of school now volunteering to start a school of her own — isn't lost on the slender Carmel High School graduate.

"Sometimes, I have a hard time believing it myself," she laughs. "It's a scary idea — I don't really know how I'd do it — but it's exciting, too."

Goodine believes her former pupil can pull it off.

"Meg has always had this amazing ability to see things in other people, in their work," says the teacher. "Meg has always been both sensitive and inquisitive; those qualities could help her run a school like she envisions."

Goodine finds Olsen's idea of a school using the arts as a foundation for other disciplines an intriguing one.

"Art forces us to think critically, as does literature," says the Herron professor. "As soon as people become curious, they become more aware of other things in life. What is art but a way to spark curiosity, creativity or the desire to find meaning in our lives?"

It's notions like those that Olsen says she "channels from Linda" when she's up in front of a class.

"Linda was a mentor to me, cared about me," Olsen says. "That meant so much to me. Because of her, I try to take an interest in my students, even when I'm only with them a short time."

That closeness was forged even more deeply, Goodine recalls, when she was talking one day with Olsen about a pivotal moment in the budding artist's life. Ironically, it came in a place that honors death: a cemetery. The teacher recalls that Meg, then 21, talked about "being struck by how her shadow fell across her mother's grave" while she was grieving.

"I remember her telling me that she realized that that image captured her sense of loss," Goodine says. "She realized that with her camera, she could convey that emotion, that pain, to others who also have experienced loss. Those expressions are the essence of art."

To the veteran Herron instructor, it's that kind of understanding, passion and artistic spirit that Olsen has to offer her students, whether through YA or VSA, or through an as-yet-unlaunched charter school.

"Teaching is a lot more important than I ever dreamed," Olsen says. "I really enjoy seeing the difference I can make in students' lives. This feels right to me."