POWELL — Gary Olson has rocks in his shop, rocks in the yard and an entire storage unit full of rocks across town. He swears he knows every single rock in his collection of tens of thousands.
“If I’ve seen it, I usually remember it,” said the former two-term president of the Shoshone Rock Club.
Thing is, Olson has never seen a rock. He’s been blind since shortly after birth and is one of the only lapidarists (artists who form stone, minerals and gemstones into decorative items) in the country. He trained the only other visually impaired lapidarists in the country; a former client of his. Olson spent his career as a state outreach consultant for the visually impaired.
There’s a blind lapidarist in England as well, he said. Otherwise, it’s just him.
Olson wasn’t born blind, but like many babies born prematurely in the 50s, he was placed in an incubator at birth and the level of oxygen killed his retinas. He suffers from retrolental fibroplasia, a condition discovered by Dr. Arnall Patz, a Johns Hopkins University physician, who died in 2010.
“It had become standard practice to put babies in incubators and crank up the oxygen,” Patz said in a Baltimore Sun 2004 interview.
He could hardly blame the doctors who used the treatment “because it turned struggling babies from blue to pink,” he said. But, later Patz discovered too much oxygen caused blood vessels in the back of the eye to constrict. In a doomed attempt to compensate, the eye sprouted twisted vessels that would eventually bleed and destroy the retina, Patz discovered.
In 1956, Patz was awarded the Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award for his research, which was previously thought to be unscientific and possibly dangerous. He did the research on his own to prove his theory correct.
Helen Keller handed him his trophy for the award and he was later given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Olson was born in 1953, just missing Patz’s advancements.
Blindness has never bothered Olson. “It’s frightening for a person to think about becoming blind because they don’t know how they’d manage without their sight. But for me, since I’ve never seen, I don’t miss what I never had,” he said while inspecting a box of new finds.
He “sees” each rock by touch. He turns the rocks over and over in his calloused hands, running his fingers over each bump, ridge or fracture. He gets excited to check out each specimen, a broad smile accompanying his inspections for weight, shape and characteristics. Then he hands the rock to his second set of eyes — those of the love of his life, his wife of 45 years, Ilene.
His constant companion inspects the rocks, reciting colors, cracks and inclusions. He demonstrated his craft for her on one of their first dates. She doesn’t work rocks, but her decades of exposure to Gary’s love of rocks has been a master’s class in lapidary arts.
They met during a tour of the Wyoming State Capitol. Ilene was just 14, but while they were supposed to be exploring the dome, Ilene only had eyes for Gary. “He stood out head and shoulders above everybody else.”
On her 16th birthday, Gary serenaded her with a song he wrote — inspired by their friendship over the previous two years. Outside of the rock hounding universe, Olson is better known locally for his sweet songs and mastery of the guitar.
They were at a youth camp for the blind, Ilene reminisced. Her father, Kent Jensen, was an outreach consultant for Vision Outreach Services, the same state agency Gary would eventually lead, and she had tagged along. “He starts playing this song and the first words are “my song for angel” and all of a sudden everybody looked at me.”
Yet, they didn’t start dating until Gary’s 21st birthday on July 5. Three months later he proposed.
Ilene has always known she was the second love of his life. Gary was introduced to rock hounding at an early age. When he was 8 a family friend let him pick some polished stones from samples he had tumbled and kept in cigar boxes. He loved the smooth feel of the rocks and soon had saved enough to buy his own tumbler.
His attention quickly turned to obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock. Even before working the mostly black rocks, they were already somewhat smooth. Gary could feel the potential for the ultimate smoothness. After hours of cutting and grinding, the stones become perfectly smooth, without undercuts or fractures.
“It polishes just like glass,” he said. “The rough rocks really aren’t too appealing to me.”
Recently he met another rock hound with a fondness for obsidian. Dan Dalton, of Powell, uses the slabs of translucent rock to make flint-knapped knives. He was looking for someone with a large rock saw to cut some slabs of obsidian from the Glass Buttes of Oregon, between Burns and Bend. While cutting the material Olson said he’d love to “see” the rivers of obsidian, so Dalton arranged a trip.
The two became fast friends on the long drive and still travel together to local hounding haunts. “He’s always ready to go,” Dalton said.
They laugh like kids in a candy store while going through the tons of rock in Olson’s collection. Although of little actual value — obsidian is one of the most common rocks on earth — their collections are almost intoxicating to the lapidarist. Dalton often brings the scraps from his knife making for Olson to tumble and the two devise plans on how best to cut new stones.
Olson makes cabochons, a gemstone or rock which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted, like a diamond. The finished products are used to make jewelry. Sunday he was shaping a small piece of jade from British Columbia. With a money clip in one hand and the stone in the other, he sized the stone to fit exactly in the clip’s silver mount. It’s a messy process, but that may be the point.
From sitting in the dirt, preferring to dig for rocks rather than pick from what is available on the surface, to cutting on huge rotary saws with diamond-encrusted blades and polishing on whirling grinders — the process stimulates Olson’s senses. Interestingly, if done right, by the time he finishes a cabochon it’s hard for him to tell from what type of rock it has been made.
As a retirement gift, the couple’s five children (Carl, Mark, Julie, Alan and Dan) presented Olson with a new saw. None of the kids took up the craft. Nor has any of their 16 grandchildren. There is one nephew, Robert, who has been studying with Olson, but the family recently moved to Omaha for a new job with Union Pacific.
The members of the Shoshone Rock Club, which has been meeting once a month for the past 70 years until the pandemic hit in March, is one of the few venues where Olson can finally talk rocks nonstop. He’s done many demonstrations for the club, the state rock show and is a favorite at both the Powell club and the Cody club, the Cody 59ers. “He is amazing. He doesn’t have to see to create beautiful cabochons,” said Dorine Strom, president of the Shoshone Rock Club.
“People need to know that no matter what’s going on with you, you can do what you set your mind to do.”
And there is no better time than now to get out and look for rocks, she said. “Talk about being obsessed; I’ve never rock-hounded so much in my life since [needing to practice social distancing],” the librarian said.