Obituary: Wayne Olson

Written by Jennifer Dunning. Posted in Volume 37, Issue 13 - March 25, 2017

November 21, 1952 – March 4, 2017

Wayne Olson was proof not only that you can go home again, but that home may have become an unexpectedly welcoming place. Wayne, who died on March 4 at the age of 64, was a longtime resident of Rivercross with his partner, Joseph (Deek) di Salvo. He seldom left the apartment as he worked on his bold, strangely haunting, digital art. It was only in the last two years or so, after Joe’s death in 2015, that Wayne ventured out into the worlds of Roosevelt Island and beyond.

He discovered, with a childlike delight, that people liked him. They chatted with him in Rivercross elevators, calling him by his name. And all who came to know him discovered one of those rare humans with a gift for friendship. He acquired a crowd of “new best friends,” as he put it, and they did become best friends. A woman who came by one day to help with housework was startled when this gentle stranger assured her that, since she lived in Queens, she should know that she would always be welcome to stay over with him in the event of a snowstorm.

Wayne grew up on a horse farm in Colorado and discovered art at the University of Arizona, where he received his bachelor’s and graduate degrees. First he made jewelry, which he sold to customers including Lucille Ball.

His choice of a career in art was a blow to his parents, who had planned on Wayne becoming a psychologist like the nice neighbor down the road. But their son went on to create worlds filled with potent imagery, featuring familiar elements of everyday life and culture turned quietly on their heads. Collaborating at times with partner Joe, a writer, Wayne let his imagination run riot in cool, sly, and elegantly formal works.

Wayne was a professor of photography at New York University and a visiting professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

He was a curator at MoMA PS1 in New York City and executive director of the Hudson Valley Institute for Art and Photographic Resources. He was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Wayne was not one to take himself too seriously and delighted in telling the story of a long-ago exhibit of his work at a prestigious Paris gallery. For months he had collected the bodies of dead birds, which he fixed into an installation and covered with wax. The show opened on a hot summer day, however, and the wax melted despite his best efforts to keep it intact. But to his great surprise and amusement, the critics seized on the mess as proof of his genius.

Wayne’s self-deprecating humor drew everyone to him, as did his great sweetness and a courteousness that convinced many that he must have grown up in the South. Wayne loved animals and talked with anguish of the cruelty of horse-racing. To him, the significance of the “Trump Wall” was the sad fact that it would shut off animal migration paths. Kat21, his beloved cat, got him through the worst days following his partner’s death.

Wayne cherished his newly acquired friends at the Rivercross aquatic exercise class. He had funny observations to make of his new sauna-room buddies. Nurses at Lenox Hill Hospital, who seemed to spend a great deal of time hanging out in his room during a brief stay there, sent him home with an autographed bedpan, a prized possession. His new dentist quickly became a fond friend who came to a surprise birthday party given for him by Margaret Tsu and her daughter Maggie Messer, Rivercross neighbors who had cared for him unstintingly during the illnesses and dark times.

You did not have to be physically present or even have met Wayne to become a dear friend. His close relationship with Toni Dunlap, the California-based jazz singer, grew over long daily phone conversations. Wayne had “met” her in Renderosity, an online digital-art community, and loved her clear, smoky voice. He recorded two discs for a Rivercross friend, insisting that the two must get to know each other.

Another daily phone friend was Tammy Schacher-Tytla, an upstate photographer whom Wayne met at a gallery. “Wayne was my chosen brother,” Tammy said with a burst of affectionate laughter. “Other than my husband, he was my best male friend.”

Wayne is survived by his mother, Florence, of Denver, and devoted friends who also include Luigy Cornejo, his computer fixer, and Kat21, who now needs a loving home.

Wayne will be celebrated on Sunday, May 26, from 3-5 p.m. at Paul Calendrillo New York, 507 Main Street, on Roosevelt Island. His work is on exhibit at the gallery in Miniatures, a group show that closes on April 1.

Tags: People Jennifer Dunning

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