“You can see the down line, and then there’s the up line,” said 59-year-old Steve Olson, in his cluttered art studio off Melrose in Hollywood. Clad in black boots, black sweat pants, and black T-shirt, his long gray-black hair poking out in all directions, he pointed at one of his recent paintings. “These are like slashes,” he said, running his finger along a vibrant orange brush stroke. “And these”—he pointed to another—“are like roundhouses.”
The theme was The Line, which is to say that after decades of surfing, skating, and snowboarding, the line across the wave, or around the empty pool, or down the steep, powdery hill is in fact a signature, a thumb print, a singular personality on full display. Which is to say that Olson’s paintings are inseparable from the rest of his life’s work on the board.
I first came across Olson in the pages of Action Now, in 1980. In a profile that highlighted his surfing and skating, he was extraordinarily stylish—in the action shots, and in the portrait, where he wore leopard skin and leather. For the next decade I’d see a lot of him in the skate mags. He rode vert, but he also did slalom and bombed hills. And he always looked great.
We became friends in the late nineties. He was a single dad raising his ollie-popping young son, Alex, in Malibu. We’d go for surfs, go to parties, talk punk rock, NYC, Dogtown. Alex would go on to become a skateboarding superstar. Steve would be inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame in 2014. But it was his recent posts on Instagram that tied it all together for me: Olson is a Southern California son. Having grown up in the OC, he’s maximized the great resource that is surfing, skating, and snowboarding all within a few hours of each other. His lifestyle could only happen here.
“I was a surfer, then skateboarding came in, and skate parks—lines in the pool, lines through the snake run. Endless lines. I just hooked to the line. And I think the reason I hooked to the line has a lot to do with skiing, because I started skiing when I was about two or three. And I just kept skiing, but not really racing, but kind of running gates, and there’s always the fall line through the gates. Then freestyle skiing. There was a fall line, definitely, through the moguls.”
Olson is solidly built, grizzled, and square-jawed. His voice is deep and gentle in a late-night radio sort of way. He’s a charming man. In fact if he were at a party with, say, Brad Pitt, James Franco, and Ryan Gosling, there’s a good chance the girls would all be crowded around Olson. I’ve always likened his demeanor to Jack Nicholson in the first half of The Shining, before the axe comes out. I’ve seen him bang the lip hard and vertical at Zeroes, and come in and light up a cigarette, and the whole thing took on a seamlessness, as if the lip bang and the smoking were part of the same ride.
“I saw Tony Alva riding when there was that riff between Dogtown and San Diego, the down-southers, in the mid-seventies” he told me. “Tony had great lines. He was at a whole different level, which was amazing to see, but he also had the influences of Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and Joe Namath. Jay Adams had great lines. I’ve become more aware of the line recently in my art-making.”
Olson showed me more paintings with surf/skate/snow-ish lines. He said that when he’s in the groove he throws his body into it; the brush strokes are physical. He described a recent heli-snowboarding trip on which he and friends were charging down steep powder. None of them had been down this mountain before. There was a big, wave-like bank.
“I was like, ‘Who’s going? No one?’ And I went up, and I hit a frontside slash and got so barreled and deeply engulfed by the powder, and the spray was like 10-feet high, and I came out, and then my next was a bottom turn and I hit again, another one, and the same thing. I was just like, ‘Wow, that was the most amazing feeling!’ To have the knowledge to be able to pick a cool line and commit to that line—the payoff was really outstanding.”
He pulled out another painting. Olson is a goofy foot. Red and yellow lines did hard frontside slashes. A pleasing light blue did a skittish backside floater.
“You can tell I’m stretching, and I’m looking, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this might need to go this way. Oh, this doesn’t work. This line kind of interferes with the flow of it all.’ There’s so many lines in painting, and every kind of art. The line of a circle, the line of a square, the line of a triangle. Is it perfect? Is there such thing as perfect? Is there a perfect line? No. There’s plenty of really, really fantastic lines.”