Art From the Heartland

Photos by Olson-Larsen Galleries

Walking into the Olson-Larsen Galleries is like walking into a piece of history. This Midwest-centric gallery has been a staple in Historic Valley Junction in West Des Moines, Iowa, for nearly 40 years.  It opened in 1979 and has hosted exhibitions by Midwest artists ever since. Jan Shotwell originally opened the gallery in Valley Junction in 1970. Current Olson-Larsen owner, Susan Watts, describes Shotwell as being “a champion of local artists, a legend.” At the time, it was called Jan’s Gallery and she started the tradition of showing artists from all over the Midwest.

Marlene Olson and Ann Larsen followed Jan Shotwell’s legacy, purchasing the gallery in 1979. Even with the name change and multiple owners, the gallery has always focused on the beauty and talent of the Midwest. “It was one of the first galleries that represented local artists,” Watts says. The work and gallery as a whole has evolved a lot over the years, but has never lost its appreciation for the heartland.

“I think most people don’t think of the Midwest as an art haven, but it is,” says Watts. “There are incredibly talented people here, so I think it’s important to highlight that talent as much as possible.” Since the gallery’s launch, it has represented and showcased over 60 artists from all over the heartland. “People from the Midwest—this is a bit of a generalization—but they are pretty proud of where they are from,” says Watts..

“It was one of the first galleries that represented local artists.” -Susan Watts

Watts is not an artist, but she graduated with an art history degree and has been in the gallery business for over 15 years. Before owning the gallery, she worked under Marlene Olson at the gallery.

The crisp white walls are a background for artists to show off their work, and being located in Historic Valley Junction has its perks. “It’s a really supportive neighborhood,” says Watts. The business owners use each other’s businesses to enhance the community and support each other. People come from far and wide to visit this neighborhood to see the eclectic shops, cafes, and this gallery.

“I think most people don’t think of the Midwest as an art haven but it is. There are incredibly talented people here so I think it’s important to highlight that talent as much as possible.” —Susan Watts

Alyss Vernon, the gallery manager, is also a photographer. Vernon says she is originally from New Mexico, but after graduating with her masters in fine arts from the University of Iowa, she moved to Des Moines.

As the gallery manager, Vernon does just about everything. Her favorite part of her job is working directly with the artists. Most of the artists they discover contact the gallery directly through email and social media. Vernon is responsible for communicating with them and collecting samples of their work to consider for show in the gallery. “I do everything down to cleaning the toilet,” she says.

Ellen Wagener’s piece, No Ordinary Moment, captures the realistic beauty of the heartland.

The current exhibit is called “Of The Earth.” It features the combined work of two artists, John Beckelman and Ellen Wagener. According to the Olson-Larsen website, the artists have different styles, but work together to create a cohesive exhibition. Beckelman’s work is much more abstract, whereas Wagener’s is more realistic. Beckelman takes pieces of rock and clay and creates ceramic statues. Wagener paints landscapes that capture qualities of the Midwest from sunsets over a prairie to clouds floating over a field.  Both artists find their inspiration from the Midwest, and they use their surroundings to create their art. The Olson-Larsen website also describes Beckelman’s work as “evoking character and qualities of his surroundings,” whereas Wagener’s pieces demonstrate the color and life behind Midwestern landscapes.

The gallery might have had multiple owners in the past 40 years, but it has never lost its love for the Midwest. Even though it’s four decades old, it’s like the gallery just opened its doors. As the gallery continues to grow and further develop with new artists and exhibitions, it remains true to its Midwest background.

The gallery is open 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. through 4 p.m. on Saturday.