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music notes

Rosanne recording “Night Walk” with Jed Myers. To listen, click below.

Circa age 10.  I flunked choir. Meaning that I tried out for choir in grade school and did not get in. I still remember how embarrassed I felt, and how sad. I loved to sing! But when I failed to get into the choir, I shut down my voice for a long, long time.

Fast forward the years. In my fifth decade I went to a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird at Seattle’s Intiman Theater. One of the actors played the harmonica from high in the rafters, its minor-key voice drifting down over the audience. It moved me deeply. It occurred to me that the harmonica might be a way to “sing” without the shame of singing poorly. After the play, the actor gave me the name of his harmonica teacher––Grant Dermody in Seattle.

So I began to study with Grant, first by learning how to blow single notes. In time, I could play melodies. But more importantly, I learned about music, about how chord combinations create blues, folk and rock and roll.

Then I bought a guitar.

Even though I had studied piano as a kid, the guitar was a mystery to me. I remember learning the E chord by carefully placing my fingers in a specific shape on the strings. Wow! Then the A-minor. Wow!! I loved the vibration of the guitar against my body. I took lessons, practicing every day, hungry for more. Eventually I learned to play the chords to songs of others. I learned to strum, hammer on, pull off, and pick individual notes. And finally, after about two years, I began to incorporate my own lyrics and melodies that have long lived inside of me.

Most of my songs come while I am walking alone in a “no-mind” space. Somehow the rhythm of my feet makes music come alive. Out of nowhere pops a phrase or refrain. If I have any rule about the creative process (for anything) is this: capture it in the moment. Thus, no song fragment goes without writing it down or singing it into my phone, even if it arrives in the middle of the night. Over time, the song becomes massaged, honed, refined. I have come to love the state of uncertainty of the creative process, a time when everything is possible.

And then, the singing of the songs. OMG!

Writing songs is one thing. Singing out loud is another (note: singing lessons is the topic of a future essay). But singing out loud in public for the first time is one of the most nerve-wracking things I have ever done. It was at a poetry/music open-mic gathering in Seattle. I was terrified––but I was determined to sing “Dirty Laundry Blues,” one of the first songs I ever wrote. Nerves tore at my voice. My pitch was off-pitch. But people in the small venue applauded with gusto, probably out of kindness. I can’t say it was pretty but I kept going back. The jitters have quelled over the years as I have performed at many open mics and other small venues alone and with my band mates.  I have been carried along by gracious audiences, by my vocal coach, teachers, advisors, by my song-writing groups, workshops and the support of amazing musician friends.

Finally, after writing more than 100 songs, I gathered with my musician friends to begin recording with a professional audio engineer. These eleven songs are songs I have shepherded thorough months of practice, massaging each word, each syllable, each pause, not to mention melody and meaning. The process took more than three years. With help from experienced musicians who played guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, cello, mandolin, violin, I learned about communicating my musical ideas, daring to speak my mind, sometimes barely knowing my mind. And now (drum roll, please!), I have a CD that I am releasing to the world on October 13, 2018. It’s called Love in Your Country. I am excited for this moment in my life and filled with gratitude for the opportunity. I hope you will join me in the celebration!

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After teaching a workshop this past weekend, here is a synopsis my approach still life photography.

It’s not easy, but begin.

First, there is the subject. What is it that draws you, the photographer, to it? What is it that you want to say? What does IT want to say? And how to facilitate that? What will the background be? And what about surface on which the subject is placed? Is it scuffed like an old shoe? A soft patina? Rusted metal? Peeling paint?

And where does the light come from? Not the front, please—so flat and boring. From the side, perhaps, which allows the form of the subject to become more textured and interesting. And what kind of light? Natural? Strobe? Tungsten? A combination? What makes the piece come alive for the camera?

And then, what about the story? A well-told story has some tension that draws us in. It doesn’t give away too much, but still there can’t be too little. Details, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, lead us into the image. At some point, through composition, light and placement of the subject, it starts to come alive.

More decisions: How high the camera? Overhead or straight on? Or in-between? What can we remove from the “stage” that will make the story stronger? Or add? Who is the unseen person who inhabits this space? Feel the story, inhabit the story and then it begins to evolve.

Fire the editor! The one who is constantly telling you that you can’t do it, that you’ve done it before. That your ideas are boring. Fire the editor! Become a child. Ask “why?” or “why not?” or say “I wonder what would happen if . . .” and then try it. Disappear in it. Time stops and there is only “now.” Eventually a story will begin to emerge. It may take an hour, a day, a week. You might be surprised, even delighted, as if you can’t believe that you brought this to life.

Last week, when students filed into my classroom on the first day of a five-day workshop at Santa Fe Workshops, we embarked on a deep journey together. Yes, ABCs of Beautiful Light may sound technical. Everyone gains a newfound sensitivity to light and new technical skills, but the goal is really to deepen our experience of photographing and our connection to the subject, whether a person, a landscape or a still life. To learn about the myriad possibilities of light is to acquire tools that help us create memorable images. Students learned about catch lights, light patterns, fill, strobes, and mixing daylight with strobes. I know they will never be the same as they gaze into someone’s eyes over coffee and notice the source of light reflecting in the eyes.

It requires both courage and curiosity to attend a class as an adult. But these photographers came with their whole beings from around the US. And the results are something to behold. Some had never photographed people before, most had never worked with light to understand the “why” of it. At the core, photographers are storytellers, and my students told some beautiful stories with their cameras and their hearts. Please take a look at their work from this past week! I am so proud of their accomplishments.

A special thanks to Kevin Zansler, studio manager and Celene Bridgford, studio assistant (plus the other SFW staff) who helped make everything run flawlessly.

love & poetry


Here is an essay by my friend, poet Spencer Reece, who is an Episcopal priest, currently living in Madrid. He worked at an orphanage in Honduras, the “murder capital of the world,” teaching poetry to girls who were residents of Our Little Roses, an orphanage.  Writing poetry was a daring venture, against all odds. What difference can poetry possibly make in our lives? Much less the lives of abandoned girls in a Third World country? Please read this beautiful story.

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Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson.


September 10, 2001 was a perfect day. The sky was turquoise. The air, a soft touch on the skin as we disembarked from the ferry that took me and my photography crew from Puerto Rico to the nearby island of Culebra where I took this photo. We were on a mission to create images that showcased the beauty of Puerto Rico.

We had just spent days scouting everything from rain forests to mountains to islands. We drove through little towns, up winding roads, into the rain forest, to the edge of cliffs overlooking vast valleys. In San Juan, we scouted streets built hundreds of years ago, streets that drew tourists from cruise ships to a country rich in history.

 Little did we know what would happen the next day, September 11. When it did, I was photographing a little boy on the streets of Old San Juan. He was wearing white shorts and a white shirt, playing with a soccer ball. The sky was clear. The art director was on her phone to her husband who was telling here about the twin towers in New York City.


Suddenly, everything changed. We were no longer creating a world of idealized images but we were involved in a real-life world of trying to call our families, worried about what was going on at home. Cell service was disrupted. Planes were canceled. There was an eerie quiet in the air. We were isolated in paradise with no way to get home.


In took four days of worry and waiting on hold on the phone to the airlines. Finally, unable to reach anyone, we packed up all 13 cases of equipment and went to the airport to wait. Seven hours later we were on the first plane to Miami. Six hours after that we were on the first plane to Seattle. The tourism department of Puerto Rico used the above image to create a full page ad in the New York Times to send its support to the people of the United States. It was such a tender and heart-breaking time, when we all felt so vulnerable. A show of support meant so much. In fact, it seemed as if the whole world responded with compassion.


Now Puerto Rico is in trouble. So is Mexico. And so are many of the Caribbean Islands. But Puerto Rico’s situation is especially dire with no water and no power for the foreseeable future. Unlike us, their situation is not solvable by catching an airplane home to safety. Many hospitals are closed and those that are open are running out of fuel for their generators. There is danger of a health crisis in the hot weather with standing water, eye masks is perfect to protect the skin, fallen trees and destroyed homes.


The wonderful thing about traveling to other countries is that when we make connections to the people and the land in those places, we can better visualize what is happening. And it can compel us to offer our help, no matter how small. If you want to help, please find the charity of your choice for Puerto Rico, for Mexico, for St. Martin . . .

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A few months ago I sat between my mother and father on their couch in the basement of their home in Minot, North Dakota, my home town. My mom is almost 90. Dad will be 92 in a week. They wanted me to look at things I might like to keep from their lives, our lives together, after they pass away.

At this point, I have most things that I need, including multiple sets of dishes, furniture, cookware and books. There is one thing, however, that I want to hold on to, and that’s a sense of my family’s history. On our laps lay a photo album of my parents’ wedding. As we paged through it together, the bittersweet feeling of the circle of life brought tears to my eyes. We admired my slender father, my mother in her satin gown made by my grandmother, the perfect youth of two dear people who are now almost 69 years into that marriage.

From there we delved into the family albums. In the photos of me, it’s almost a history of hair: hippie years with long blond hair, then the frizzy stage, when I got married, then my pixie red stage. There, in the photos, was a life lived with my parents, grandparents, cousins, sisters, gathering together for holidays and birthdays. As we turned the pages, things long forgotten rose to the surface. Without these photographs, many of these memories would have faded into oblivion. I am grateful to my mother for her role as the family archivist.

Even though, as a photographer, I have archived tens of thousands of photographs, mostly of others, the photos in our family albums help me remember, as nothing else could, where I came from and who I am.

Documenting lives with photography has been on-going since the mid-1800s, when the medium was invented. In those early days, families posed for the unblinking eye of large studio cameras, their heads held in place by metal frames, sitting motionless as the image burned slowly onto film. Ever wonder why those people looked so serious?

Later, with box cameras, 35mm cameras and faster film, people seemed to blossom into life. These days, with our phone cameras, we are capable of recording every moment of life as it happens. But–with the sheer volume of images and how to manage them, what will become of the history of our lives as technology changes. How will we pass our histories to the children, to help them know who they are?

Over the years I have had clients who get this. They create a photographic legacy of their lives to pass on to their kids. But even if professional photography is not your choice, please think about creating a family album of your most important photos so you can sit with your kids one day, as I did with my parents, and share a history of life together.

About the photo “Memory”: When I drive by the endless fields in North Dakota, I often wonder about what has passed before. This is my exploration of that: a current photo of a ripe barley field in North Dakota overlaid with a photograph that includes my paternal grandmother (left) and grandfather, taken in the 1940s..

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Oh sweet spring. Walking through the neighborhood, the scent of flowers fills the air. Jasmine! I lean down to inhale. And then the lilacs. They are pink, light purple, dark purple and the most wondrous: purple with white edges on each tiny flower. When I bury my face in them, the scent carries me to a memory lost in the folds of time. I am five or six. My dad has taken me to work with him on the railroad and I am sitting on the lap of the engineer in the massive engine at the front of the train. I remember his dark coveralls, dials and levers, and the oily smell of the car. The engineer reaches into his pocket to pull out a tiny bottle of perfume. Lilac! Had he known I was coming? I inhale the lilac scent. It fills the world of coal and oil with incomprehensible beauty. And it still does.

Springtime is a time of begging flowers from neighbors so I can photograph them. I always return the favor with a print, though it’s almost impossible to repay the pleasure.

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sister teresa

sister teresa in 2014

More than 35 years ago my friend Carolyn Kortge and I embarked on a feature story about the Carmel of Maria Regina, a cloistered community of nuns who live on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon. Several years earlier, as a graduate student, I had approached the nuns about doing a photo essay, but they decided that it was not the time and sent me on my way to explore another religious community. But this time around, in 1983, they agreed. After getting special dispensation from the archbishop in Portland, Carolyn and I were given unprecedented access to the lives of the nuns to do a unique story for The Register-Guard, where we both worked, she as a writer and I as a photographer.

Through multiple trips to their compound, we experienced their prayer time, meals, packaging of altar breads, feeding pets, making gifts for their annual sale, and a wedding-like ceremony of a novice becoming full-fledged nun. We found humor and humility as they worked, prayed and cared for each other.

A bulletin board in one of the hallways reminded them, with neatly attached Post-it notes, of people who had requested prayers for themselves, their friends or relatives. One of their jobs is to pray for all of us who cannot seem to do it ourselves. Carolyn and I learned that the cloistered life is not an easy one. We became life-long friends.

Over the years, the 12 nuns have diminished in number to about seven, with just the occasional addition of a nun-in-training. They continue to work hard all day long, praying, cooking, doing laundry, taking turns in the role of nurse for each other as they grow old. This past week they lost one of their own, Sister Teresa, who was a Carmelite nun for 40 years. She was the one who tended to the blueberries, the accounting ledgers, the email. She also created gold-tinged paintings that belong in a Bible or a museum of 12th-century art.

Her life was made difficult by rheumatoid arthritis and a heart that could barely keep up with her zest for living. Until, finally, it didn’t. Last Thursday all of the sisters (except one who is bedridden) left the cloister to gather around Sr. Teresa as she passed away after a sudden trip to the emergency department at one of the local hospitals. Her absence will leave a gaping hole in the lives of those who have known her for so many decades and also for those who didn’t even know she was saying a prayer for them.

This weekend, as I traveled by train to Vancouver, B.C. with my husband, I read a book called When Breath Becomes Air. It was written by a young doctor, Paul Kalanithi, who was in his final training as a neurosurgeon in California when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and he needed Home Care Assistance. He was also a wonderful writer. The book was written as he was going through the painful disease and ravages of chemo.

There is a place in the book in which he discusses how dying informs life. The question is: if we knew we were dying, would we live differently? And how would that be?

I like to wonder out loud about these things every so often because I think it helps us, or me, at least, live more consciously. Maybe it’s my upbringing. Maybe my years of working with sick people as a nuclear medical technologist before I became a photographer. Maybe the many times I photographed people in various stages of health over my career.

I ask myself if I am doing what I could, should, ought to be doing in my life as a friend, spouse, teacher, musician, artist. Have I told you lately that I love you? Have I been adventurous, creative, kind enough, brave enough? Have I stopped to play with the cat, watch the leaves unfurl, say thank you?

Just today, a long-time friend died of cancer after a very brief illness. I was supposed to photograph him and his wife at their home next week. I wish we could have had that time. Meanwhile, today I signed up for an art workshop that I have long wanted to take. And I am working on an album of songs, something I have dreamed of. If I knew I were dying next week, would I live differently? I think the only thing I would change is that I would reach out to everyone I love to tell them that I love them. Again.


About the image:  This image, called “Into the Clouds,” is part of my “Rapture” Series. It was created with an antique dress that once belonged to an elderly neighbor and which I bought at her moving sale as she prepared to move to an assisted care facility. She made it by hand to wear dancing on her first trip to New York City as a young woman. The dress was carefully floated in water outdoors to look as if it is passing through the sky or from one dimension to the next. It will be in the Artist Trust Auction in February. You can see more from this series on my website.


peonies_bookWhile preparing a talk to deliver to the university art students in my hometown of Minot, ND, I re-read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a thought-provoking take on why making art is hard.

Here is a quote from the beginning of the book: “Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Oh, yeah!

Pressfield writes that Resistance (the devil with the capital R) can arise in response to anything that might be good for us: making art, music, writing, dieting, any act of bettering our lives spiritually, educationally or otherwise. Resistance can take many forms, some as deceptive as deciding to clean the kitchen cabinets instead of working on our stuff.

I am not immune to Resistance. But I have found ways to work around it. One factor is responsibility to others. In my work as an artist, I have often been involved with a group (there have been several over the years) that meets monthly to discuss new work. We give ourselves an assignment and then meet to discuss. The combination of the assignment and responsibility to others forces me to overcome my critical internal dialog about not being good enough, not having enough new ideas, not having a clue about what to do. At some point in the month, I do the work. Oh, it can be sooo hard!

When I finish a piece, I feel wonderfully alive. Even if the work is not as good as I imagined or doesn’t quite convey the sentiment I had in mind, I did it! It is something out of nothing! And sometimes, to my amazement, it turns out better than I ever hoped; maybe it even leads to bigger projects, such as a book or an exhibit. But the best part is overcoming the gravitational pull of Resistance! Forget the kitchen cabinets. They can wait!

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