From West Africa to the Venice Boardwalk to the world of fine art, Olympio moves to the rhythm of his own American Dream
By Christina Campodonico
When Olympio makes art he’s not just painting a canvas, he’s dancing to a composition in his head.
“When I paint,” he says, “I have this music going on, and I move to it. That’s why I can’t listen to music when I’m painting. … I already have a natural groove going.”
Painting to this internal song, he’ll pour buckets of paint onto the canvas, squirt colors straight from the bottle and slide across the canvas like an ice dancer, using the blade of his scraper like the blade of an ice skate. Often he’ll pour the paints in a circular motion, creating a giant “O” at the center of the canvas.
Does it stand for “Olympio?” I ask.
“It’s not a signature,” says the mononymous artist. “I paint with my feelings.”
Perhaps the “O” is an abstract eye — like a dazzling oculus, it sucks you into Olympio’s world, an abstract vortex of paint and swirls.
It was the eyes of one painting that initially drew the attention of Santa Monica-based film producer, media entrepreneur and art collector Caspar von Winterfeldt. He stumbled upon Olympio’s paintings almost five years ago, while bicycling along the Venice Boardwalk. The works weren’t your typical boardwalk fare.
“What first got me to stop: the bold expression of the eyes,” says von Winterfeldt, who became enamored with the large, saucer-like eyes of three figures in Olympio’s painting called “The Ring Leader.” “There’s something about the eyes that then wants to make you stop and take a look at the picture in general, and that’s where I think he really connects with the audience.”
Von Winterfeldt was so taken with the painting that he rushed back home to pick up some dough.
“It was all pretty much a cash transaction down on the beach,” he says with a laugh. “When I first bought the painting off the boardwalk, I said to him, ‘You know why I’m buying this, right?’ And he looks at me and goes, ‘No, why?’ I said, ‘Because you’re going to be my retirement.’”
Von Winterfeldt’s foresight may prove right. Olympio made his Art Basel Miami debut this past December and was named a director’s pick by Red Dot Miami. His paintings are retailing in the $6,000 range on the online art marketplace Artsy, and this weekend he exhibits works at two more art fairs —downtown’s Superfine! LA and Art Palm Springs. He’ll also be featured in the show “Immigration Celebration,” opening at West Hollywood’s Laurent Proneur Gallery on Feb. 23.
The exhibitions are big steps in the 39-year-old’s art career and a world away from where he grew up in Lomé, Togo, West Africa. The second-youngest of eight siblings, Kodjovi Olympio (who now just goes by his last name), tells me his mother was a businesswoman and avid gardener, his father an entrepreneur who built houses.
Olympio has been creating art since childhood, using spare bits from his father’s building materials to make cement sculptures, draw and paint. But he didn’t have a ton of artistic influences around him, he says, aside from his mom who had a way with plants and flowers.
“You don’t grow up seeing art being a job,” he says, “or people making money doing art. We don’t have any museums. I didn’t know any galleries back then. … No art school. … I didn’t know any artists.”
His parents didn’t know what to make of their son’s creative tendencies, but they supported him nonetheless — until “I started to grow dreadlocks,” he says.
“In my family, you’re supposed to be all in a suit, go to school, be very educated,” says Olympio, who comes from a prominent extended family in Togo. “And all of a sudden, I am the guy who doesn’t honor the family and everything. … I’m like this ‘gangster’ or ‘druggie.’ It wasn’t acceptable.”
Nonetheless, Olympio continued to pursue his craft. A happenstance meeting with a French couple led to shows in Paris. Eventually, he won a visa to the U.S. and in 2003 landed in Minnesota, where he began washing dishes to support himself.
“Washing dishes was the best thing for me because then people leave me alone, and I can just think, dream about my art,” he says.
While thinking of his art, he began dreaming of California, too. With his girlfriend, he moved into a one-bedroom apartment here in LA and started showing work along Venice Beach in 2014.
“People would tell me, ‘You are better than being on a beach,’” says Olympio. “I was like, ‘You know, just wait, this is the place. Your art can be seen anywhere, even on garbage. You just need the right person to see it.’ … If they can see, they’ll see. It won’t matter whether it’s in a gutter or on the beach or in the garbage.”
Olympio no longer shows his work along the boardwalk, but he’s thankful for the opportunity it gave him to showcase his art.
“Maybe someday in the future I’ll go back and set up,” he says, “just for good memories.”
Olympio’s work is on display through Sunday (Feb. 17), at Superfine LA! (superfine.world) and at Art Palm Springs (art-palmsprings.com) through Monday (Feb. 18) and from Feb. 23 to March 30 at Laurent Proneur Gallery in West Hollywood. Follow @olympio_art on Instagram or visit olympioart.com.