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Carolyn Olbum’s Sculptural Haiku Inspired by Nature
Sunday, February 26, 2023


Four feet of snow creeps up to the windows of Carolyn Olbum’s home, which looks out onto the Bald Mountain ski area and the pine-forested mountain slopes towering over Fox Creek and Adams Gulch.

The deep snow hides the branches, seedpods and rotting roots that Olbum carefully curates on her walks through the woods surrounding Sun Valley. But the magic of creating abstract pieces out of those natural forms continues in the expansive studio in her home.

There, Olbum sticks twisted branches in pots of pebbles. She wraps those branches in braided rope and vines, adds pods where inspiration seizes her and occasionally arranges empty bird’s nests in the crevices.

Wen done, she covers them in a plaster or wax that she carefully melts in a tin backpacking cup. Then it’s off to a foundry in Enterprise, Ore., where the organic parts are burned out of the cast and the negative spaces filled with molten bronze, resulting in sculptural pieces that are elegant in their simplicity.

“My joy is in making it—sculptural haiku,” said Olbum. “Once I take the branch or seed pod out of its original context and let it stand on its own, it becomes something different.”

Olbum’s pieces, which include wall hangings and candleholders made of twisted bronze vines, have received nationwide acclaim.

Now 85, she has long been represented by Gail Severn Gallery, 400 First Ave. N., in Ketchum, where she currently has a solo exhibition titled “Here and Now: Regeneration.” She also has had exhibitions in such places as Pittsburg, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Amsterdam.

Gail Severn, who owns Gail Severn Gallery, fears this may be her last solo exhibition as arthritis has made it increasingly difficult for Olbum to create her sculptures.

“I’ve had a long run. I can’t complain, and I can still create up here,” she said, pointing a swollen finger to her temple. “I see works and create them in my mind.”

That said, Olbum says her current show is as strong as any she’s ever had. And she still has a few pieces that have yet to make their way back from the foundry, as well as a few works-in-progress in her studio.

A native of Pittsburgh, she was introduced to sculpting at Chatham College when she took a course in clay.

“I was a very young mother in my 20s when I went back to college. I took my little son David, who now lives here, to the studio, and he was playing with the same mud as I,” said Olbum, who got a B.A. in sculpture.

Initially, Olbum created large mosaic murals for office buildings and residences, alongside clay sculpture inspired by wallpaper excavated from demolished structures in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where her Russian and Romanian grandparents had settled. She created another clay series inspired by broken sidewalks in response to the political turmoil in the Middle East.

But eventually it was her fascination with the nature she saw during walks near the family cabin in Ligonier, Pa., and strolls through a botanical garden near her Pittsburgh home that laid the groundwork for her life’s work.

“I see things in a microscopic way,” she said. “I love the form of a limb, the line of a grape vine and I build off of that. I started collecting leaves and limbs as I walked along--I get distracted very easily. And I went into bronze because I can’t make these things in clay to stand on their own.”

One of her favorite pieces is a 27-by-27-inch bronze titled IX that she created out of a chunky root of a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, a shrub characterized by twisted, gnarled, contorted, spiraling branches.

“I saw it and told my husband Bing, ‘We have to get this to Sun Valley,’ ” said Olbum, whose family found Sun Valley during a ski vacation 45 years ago.  “He rolled his eyes but we got it here and I kept working on it—putting things on it, taking things away.”

Olbum spends hours thinking about a piece, even sketching it, before she ever sets her hand to it.

“I look at the shape of something, and it tells me what to do,” she said.

Olbum said it’s easy to begin winding down, knowing that there are many fine young artists out there.

“I’d tell them: If you’re going to put yourself out here be prepared to be rejected because you will be rejected,” she said. “Learn from that rejection but keep believing in yourself. If you lose that, you’ve lost your art.”

Olbum said she chose the title “Here and Now” for her exhibition based on her favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.

“She said, ‘Yesterday’s history. Tomorrow’s a mystery. Today’s a gift. That’s why it is called the present.’ That’s how I feel about this work.”

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