Lindsay Olson: Tool kit

Lindsay Olson: Tool kit

Welcome to another edition of Tool kit, a series of articles where we take a look at some of the favourite tools used by professional textile artists.

Lindsay Olson is an artist and teacher at Columbia College Chicago. She is known for her unusual residencies including being named Fermi National Accelerator’s first Artist in Residence. Her love of science grew out of her work with Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the world’s largest wastewater treatment facility.  Her work has been featured in Scientific American and the Chicago Tribune.

She is an accomplished speaker and has presented at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the International High Energy Physics Conference, the Water Environment Federation’s International Conference, Fermilab, and numerous colleges and universities in the USA and Europe.

Lindsay uses her work to help others learn about the science and engineering that underpins modern culture.

In this edition, Lindsay Olson invites us to think outside the tool box. Rather than a sewing machine and scissors, Lindsay asks what else there is around that can inspire us to create. She reveals what gets her mind whirring and creative juices flowing.

Lindsay Olson, Illuminated Book Box I, 2015

Lindsay Olson, Illuminated Book Box I, 2015

Lindsay Olson: Creating textiles is a tool-intensive corner of the art world. The popularity of’s Took Kit series demonstrates our love affair with great tools: expensive machines, scissors with the proper heft and balance, pins that do not fight our efforts, the seductive shine of well mercerized, 100% cotton threads, a seam ripper that feels like and extension of our hands. With the proper tools, we can stitch, knit, weave and fabricate our vision unimpeded by imperfect tools.

What about the tools that nurture a creative life? Conceptual tools can be every bit as satisfying as concrete tools. These tools may lack the physicality of actual tools, but they enrich my studio practice intellectually and concretely.

Elements and Principles of design

Ours is a visual language and having command of the elements and principals of design is a powerful tool. Learning how to manipulate color, line, gray scale, shape, direction, texture, harmony and unity help transform ideas into concrete art that invites viewers to take a closer look.

By Saraottaviac, via Wikimedia Commons 

By Saraottaviac, via Wikimedia Commons

Oddly enough, one of the most potent places to study design principles is in advertising. Advertising companies spend vast amounts of money to seduce people into buying products. Our motivation as artists are different, but the objective is the same: how do we get our work noticed and deliver our message with potent visuals. The more expensive the publication, the more skillfully the images are wrought.

Paris Vogue
Architectural Digest

Another resource for studying design principles is art history. In addition to selecting a few stellar works from the masters to study in a museum, here are a few other ways to study art history and design.

The Khan Academy’s Art History section is one my favorite binge- watching sites.

The Art Institute of Chicago has a rich on line data base.

In addition to its excellent museum collection, anyone can select a print or drawing and make an appointment to see a work on paper in person. I spent an engaging afternoon pouring over a sketchbook by Gauguin that included a drawing by one of his children and a ‘honey do’ list. Here is a list of sketchbooks you can see.

If you live in the Midwest, you may want to join the Textile Society at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Metropolitan Museum of Art By Arad - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Metropolitan Museum of Art By Arad – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC has a rich presence on You Tube. My favorite series of videos is the Artist Project. You will want to stock your larder and tell your family you are unavailable for an indefinite period of time so you can watch these compelling videos. Take a look here.

Neo- Assyrian Stone Freeze roughly 721BC, Men pulling a river barge loaded with logs

Neo- Assyrian Stone Freeze roughly 721BC, Men pulling a river barge loaded with logs

While researching, a project related to the Inland Waterways, I searched for ancient inspiration at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

This museum is filled with artwork from some of the most ancient and powerful civilizations in human history.

Library Research

Libraries are the one reliable place where I can conveniently traverse the boundary between art and science with grace and ease. Libraries have many skilled staff members to assist with research. Getting lost in the stacks, one can stumble across a world of unexpected ideas.

Neighborhood libraries and librarians are rich allies. But traveling further afield to specialty libraries is an exciting adventure. Here are a few of my favorite libraries.

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library
The Field Museum Library
The Newberry Library

The Field Museum Library with materials I’m using to research tree root tips for a mycology project

The Field Museum Library with materials I’m using to research tree root tips for a mycology project

Medieval manuscripts, Newberry Library

Medieval manuscripts, Newberry Library

It might seem intimidating to approach a traditional research library, but in my experience, all librarians are dedicated to helping researchers of any background.

When I went to the Newberry Library for the first time, librarians went out of their way to assist me in researching medieval manuscripts that were the foundation of my work with the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Residency.

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Library
Sterling Morton Library
Fondation Martin Bodmer

The Foundation Martin Bodmer has a wonderful online archive but if you have a chance to visit Geneva, Switzerland, the library has a permanent exhibition about the history of books and a gallery of rotating book art exhibitions.

CMS Illuminated Book, CMSIII Work on paper. Photo by Reidar Hahn for Fermilab

CMS Illuminated Book, CMSIII Work on paper. Photo by Reidar Hahn for Fermilab

Audio Adventures

The less glamorous part of our job requires extended hours of rote activity in order to meet show deadlines. For times like these, I turn to a bouquet of podcasts that are interesting and entertaining. Here are a few of my favorites:

99% Invisible
Hidden Brain
Science Friday
Radio Lab
Kitchen Sisters
Babes of Science

Venture out of the studio

Working in the studio can be isolating. By packing up my curiosity and moving out into the world I have had the privilege of meeting some of the world’s most brilliant scientists and learning about what they do in their laboratories and workplaces. Here are a few highlights from my science based projects.

The Morgan

The Morgan

The Morgan, a sturdy tugboat, belongs to Kindra Lake Towing.

They and their skilled crew are responsible for moving large amounts of material along southern Lake Michigan. The image above marks the beginning of my Inland Shipping project.

Dr. Patrick Leacock, Collections Assistant and Adjunct Curator at the Field Museum is helping me learn about fungal and plant partners.

Dr. Patrick Leacock

Dr. Patrick Leacock

I have been working with Chicago area Mycologists learning about the relationship between fungi and their plant partners. I helped process soil samples from the Green Roof with Dr. Louise Egerton-Warburton and MS student Kaiyeu Zhou at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Lindsay Olson at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Lindsay Olson at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Dr. Don Lincoln senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is one member of a large team of researchers working with the CMS experiment in CERN. His team confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson particle in 2012. Don was my project partner for the Fermilab residency where I created work about high energy physics.

Dr. Don Lincoln

Dr. Don Lincoln

My project Manufactured River led me to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. They are the government agency charged with treating waste water in our area.

Lindsay Olson, Manufactured River: Vorticella, Wool, linen, cotton

Lindsay Olson, Manufactured River: Vorticella, Wool, linen, cotton

The picture below is of Chief Microbiologist Toni Glymph who taught me about the microbiology involved in the treatment process.

Lindsay Olson with Microbiologist Toni Glymph

Lindsay Olson with Microbiologist Toni Glymph

For more information about Lindsay’s projects visit:

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Sunday 08th, December 2019 / 21:21

About the author

View all articles by Daniel

4 comments on “Lindsay Olson: Tool kit”

  1. Violet says:

    Fascinating person, fascinating article. I’m getting excited already at the prospect of checking out some of these resources!
    Thanks again guys for your great work.

  2. Caralin says:

    Great resource suggestions!

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