Clifford Emil Olson, 84, muralist painted city's walls for 50 years

August 23, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Clifford Emil Olson, a retired Baltimore sign painter and muralist whose canvas for nearly 50 years was the brick walls of city buildings, died of pneumonia Friday at his Hamilton home. He was 84.

Born and raised in Nebraska, Mr. Olson was a self-taught artist. He began hopping freight trains after leaving his hometown of Columbus in 1932, and for the next six years honed his skills traveling from town to town throughout the West, painting signs for small businesses.

He came to Baltimore during World War II as a Coast Guard boatswain's mate. While stationed at Curtis Bay, he met and married Eileen T. Natale in 1944.

Mr. Olson established C. Olson Sign Service in 1947 and from scaffolding high above city streets began painting jumbo wall-sized advertisements for auto dealerships, products, clothing, department stores, beverages and restaurants. He also produced signs for the Baltimore Zoo and the old Enchanted Forest theme park.

Motorists traveling north along the Jones Falls Expressway can catch a glimpse of what may be his most enduring work. The sign - painted in black, blue and white - shows a woman in a slinky Veronica Lake-type negligee and hair curlers, sleeping on an International Bedding Co. Cloud Mattress floating above a darkened cityscape.

Painted in the early 1950s on the wall of a Guilford Avenue factory - now a condominium - the sign reads: "Enjoy Relaxed Sleep."

Until a new parking garage got in the way, Mr. Olson's "Welcome to Little Italy" sign at Pratt and President streets greeted visitors to the city neighborhood and its restaurants.

Other examples of his handiwork include signs for A.D. Anderson - now Anderson Automotive Group Inc. - featuring founder A.D. Anderson in a black double-breasted suit and sporting a spiffy bow tie. The painting measured 10 feet by 15 feet.

"Dad always liked painting big," said his daughter Colleen Olson-Bauman of Hamilton.

"As A.D. Anderson's buildings were torn down and they moved, he painted that sign over and over again," said Mr. Olson's son, Clifford "Ole" Olson Jr., a furniture maker who lives in Fullerton. "I think his favorite sign was the one in Little Italy. So many people recognized it and complimented him on it through the years."

Until the building was demolished to make way for the Harbor Court Hotel, Mr. Olson climbed to the roof of the old Light Street plant for McCormick & Co. and painted the jumbo spice tins nestled atop a water tank.

Mr. Olson would make a sketch of a proposed sign for a customer, then create a watercolor rendering with tempera paints on a 10-inch-by-18-inch board. Finally he would make a layout that he would transfer to whatever surface he was painting. All of the lettering was done by hand and, if the weather cooperated, he completed most jobs within a week.

His working uniform was a pair of paint-spotted overalls, cap, jean jacket and hat. He was seldom without his trademark El Producto Blunt cigar, which he kept clenched in his jaw.

After his wife died in 1962, Mr. Olson not only raised his children but often had them on the scaffold wielding a brush alongside of him.

"He wasn't afraid of heights and never wore a safety line because he said it got in the way. I was a teenager when I was up there and the only advice he gave to me was, `Just hold on to the brush,'" his son said.

The only thing he really had to contend with were the pigeons that gathered to watch him work, his son said. "And if it had snowed, he'd shovel it off the scaffold and go right to work. Nothing really bothered him."

Mr. Olson's repertoire also included signs on store windows and interior murals - including some for S. M. Christhilf & Son Inc., a former heavy equipment dealer in Timonium, now displayed in the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

He often interjected a bit of whimsy into his signs by including a caricature of himself and his dog Pete.

Mr. Olson was 76 when a stroke ended his career nearly a decade ago. But he continued to draw, producing thousands of cartoons and humorous illustrations.

"He never cared about the money, he just wanted to paint signs," his son said.

Services are private.

Surviving, in addition to his son and daughter, are another daughter, Kathy Serio of Baltimore; a brother, Virg Olson of Louisville, Colo.; two sisters, Ruth Babka of Columbus, Neb., and Betty Vlasak of Auburn, Wash.; and two granddaughters.

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