Olavi Toivo Sihvonen
PVT in 603rd Engineer Camouflage Bn : Co C
Born 1921 in NY
County of residence at enlistment: New London County, CT
Other residence(s): Taos, NM
United States Army, European Theatre of Operations
Occupation before the war: farm hands, general farms
College education before the war: Art Students League 3 years
College education after the war: Black Mountain College
Oli Sihvonen was born on January 31, 1921 in Brooklyn, NY. He was the second of four children; his parents had both been born in Finland. When his father lost his job as a carpenter and maintenance worker in the Depression, the family acquired a poultry farm in Voluntown, CT and they relocated. Oli attended the Norwich Art School (now known as Norwich University College of the Arts) in Connecticut from 1933-1938, and then, after winning a scholarship, studied at the Art Students League in NYC for the next three years. He worked on the poultry farm while attending school.
Oli enlisted in the Army on August 26, 1942 and his art skills brought him into the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, where he served in Europe with the unit.
In a 1944 letter to his wife, fellow Ghost Army soldier Arthur Singer reported on some of the artists in the 603rd: "I've seen a lot of work that Contreras, Sihvonen, and Boccia have done--they are three of the best artists in the place and do amazingly sensitive work."
His sister Mirian also served in the Army in World War II as a nurse.
After the war he used the GI Bill to attend Black Mountain College in NC, where he studied with a number of well-known artists including Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller. There he met tapestry weaver Joan Potter Couch whom he married in Tom Greene, TX on June 27, 1946. They would go on to have two daughters.
His sisters Miriam and Eine also attended Black Mountain.
After graduating from Black Mountain, he continued his GI Bill studies at Louis Ribak's Taos Valley Art School from 1949-1950. After a year painting murals in Mexico, he taught at a number of institutions including his alma mater The Norwich Art School, Georgetown Day School and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Washington DC, Willimantic State Teachers College (CT), the University of Vermont, and Cooper Union and Hunter College in New York City.
In 1956 he relocated to Taos, NM where he painted large canvases and diptychs and also taught at the University of New Mexico and the University of Denver. While in Taos he was considered part of a group of modern artists known as the "Taos Moderns."
His wife, Joan, had taught with him at Georgetown Day School and also at Miss Hewitt's in New York City. In Taos she began to weave tapestries using homespun wools from the area which she dyed herself. According to her biography, "she recalled that although she drew on her Black Mountain studies, the weavings were more closely related to Navajo weaving and to the light and landscape of the Southwest."
Oli and Joan returned to New York in 1967 where he continued to paint and exhibit regularly, and received much critical, if not financial, success. He and Joan separated about this time and she moved with her younger children to Stockbridge, MA where she met her second husband David Loveless. (Shen then became known professionally as Joan Potter Loveless.)
A 1977 exhibit at the Roswell (NM) Museum described Oli's paintings as not about any place as "a place," but that they possessed "certain qualities of clarity, openness, brightness, and sharpness of contrast in the light of the Southwest."
Much of his work has been described as consisting of large, hard-edged abstractions. During his lifetime he showed his work in over 30 major exhibits, many of them in New Mexico, and since his death his work has been the subject of at least 10 exhibits, including exhibits in Vienna, Madrid, and Berlin.
His paintings are held in numerous public and private collections including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, the Whitney and MOMA Museums in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Worcester (MA) Art Museum.
He died in 1991, and is buried at Pendleton Hill Cemetery in North Stonington, CT.
A Note About His Daughter
Oli's daughter, Jennifer Sihvonen, who has lived in Taos since she was a baby, is a nationally known silver artist, whose work is in numerous public and private collections and who has received many awards for her work.
1921 birth record
1941 father's naturalization record
1942 enlistment record
1944 (November 29) letter from Arthur Singer to his wife; GALP Archives
1946 marriage record
1966 article in the Taos News (NM) re his career
1977 article in the Taos News (NM) about an exhibit of his work in Roswell
1991 Find a Grave record
1991 VA death record
1991 obituary in The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA)
Wikipedia article re his life and work