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Olson explores universal connections in her portraiture

November 1st, 2022

Julia Olson, "Morocco"

The exhibition currently in Bethel College’s Regier Art Gallery reflects a winding road through different parts of the world and different expressions of one person’s art.

Julia Olson’s exhibit “Hidden Conversations through Portraiture” will be in the gallery through Nov. 18, with the artist reception on Nov. 17 at the gallery in Luyken Fine Arts Center.

Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 2-4 p.m.

Olson began drawing “faces that made sense” at age 2. She pursued an art education, studying illustration with an emphasis on fashion.

As Julie Johnson, she went on to a successful, three-decade career as an award-winning, internationally recognized fashion illustrator.

In 2018, Olson decided to pursue an MFA, which she earned from the Plymouth University (UK) Transart Institute for Creative Research.

She says this brought her closer to her “real desire to make art and record the beauty of people [I] experienced around the world.”

Olson has traveled, lived and taught in a variety of cultures, including Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Italy, Morocco and Greece, which were catalysts to explore a deeper connection to others through portraiture: “the lute player in Santorini; the Bedouins in a small northern Saudi Arabian village; the art students in Tetouan, Morocco; the escaramuza, women horseback riders in Mexico.”

The universal connection Olson explores in her portraits contain an invisible conversation of mutual respect, acknowledging each person’s beauty and uniqueness. 

Olson currently lives in Savannah, Ga., but is mulling a move back to Mexico with her husband and two dogs.

“I’m really pleased that Julia will be joining us on campus to share her experiences with students,” said Rachel Epp Buller, professor of visual arts and design and Regier Gallery coordinator.

“She’s lived and taught in many different parts of the world, and painting and drawing have been tools for her to connect with people across cultures.

“With her background in fashion illustration, she’s able to communicate a great deal with an economy of line, and I think she’ll offer students a different perspective on their own work.”

Olson will be doing a workshop with Drawing students while on campus, and during the artist reception on Nov. 17, from 6-8 p.m., she will be drawing live portraits in the gallery. The public is invited. 

Olson’s visit is supported by the Bethel College Women’s Association’s Carolyn Schultz Lectureship Endowment Fund.

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel ranks at #14 in the Washington Monthly list of “Best Bachelor’s Colleges,” and #24 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of “Best Regional Colleges Midwest,” both for 2022-23. Bethel is the only Kansas college or university to be named a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center. For more information, see

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.