There are few “dramatic” documentaries out there brave enough to forsake violence for reflection, to bypass sorrow for the opportunity to explore an open heart. Shelter Island is every bit as rare and unique a film as its subject: the thoughtful, creative and endlessly hardworking Harald Olson.
Director Michael Canzoniero first met Olson through a man named Jimmy Olinkiewicz. Canzoniero had been visiting family in 2010 on Shelter Island, a small island in Suffolk County off the coast of New York State, when he heard of a rather unusual sight at a local gas station. The station’s owner, Olinkiewicz, has the rare pleasure of running a gas station that also functions as an art gallery, filled with works by none other than “outsider” artist Harald Olson.
Olinkiewicz has whole rooms filled with Olson’s work and displays it all proudly. Here canvases and gas pumps alike are coated with paint, brought to life by creativity of the mind and determination of the human soul.
Indeed, there’s something organic about Olson that the camera is drawn to immediately. One can tell that his mind is always working. He doesn’t have much, but he has a bike to get around town and collects discarded materials from the local dump, where there seems to be an endless supply of paint and brushes and boards. His style is obviously avant-garde, and yet he does a great deal of experimentation within the medium, following the paint wherever it takes him. Working as long as 15 hours on a painting without interruption, he is constantly moving, smoking cigars or lifting weights when not painting.
When a friend and fellow artist gets Olson a showing in Manhattan, Olinkiewicz and Olson pack up his pieces and transport them to the gallery in New York. The only thing more captivating to those who examine Olson’s paintings are the ones fortunate enough to meet Olson himself and watch the man talk about art in his own way. He discusses how his work is meant to be interpreted differently by everyone, that each person is encouraged to see whatever they want in the work. He is talkative yet focused, humbled yet impassioned. He is the sort of individual who can carry a story, and he indeed he carries this one.
Olinkiewicz is another unique facet to this multi-layered, multi-textured narrative. In addition to the gas station/art gallery business, he is a contractor and sells antiques online. He comes across as a good natured man, opinionated and vocal but not off-putting in any way, and he has genuine interest in Olson’s well-being. Olson doesn’t have much, most or all of his supplies are salvaged, and Olinkiewicz often worries about Olson perhaps being too good to others without always looking after himself. This concern is mirrored in Olinkiewicz’s fears for his own son, whose autism sometimes makes it difficult for him to form genuine connections with new people. Olinkiewicz likes to believe that if a unique and original man like Olson can be happy, then so can his own child.
Shelter Island takes an interesting approach to the documentary form, existing wholly in the present. All interviews are conducted as conversations on site and in the moment. Canzoniero does not dwell on old images or text, unless of course one counts the peek at Olinkiewicz’s antiques. This sense of the immediate is also reflected in Olson’s painting, which thrives on existing and molding itself through the present. Creation is an ever-evolving process for Olson. The work he begins to do is never the work he ends up with, and he believes there is no right way to do it. He simply follows his instincts, which are remarkably sharp, given that he’s had no formal training as an artist.
While poetic and moving, the style of the film is not particularly striking. At times the shift between color and black and white footage seems more like a film school experiment than anything else, but the pace is even and instincts towards storytelling hit all the right marks. Shawn Bell (cinematographer) and Ari Feldman (editor) do solid work. Composer and sound designer Aaron Drake stands out as succeeding at the film’s greatest technical strength. Overall Shelter Island is a film with a lot of heart, and that heart beats soundly enough for any other imperfections to be generally overlooked.
The DVD is a single disc that includes two primary special features, a short video made by Olinkiewicz’s son on his life and autism, which has gained some note through online channels. There’s also a painting montage which showcases Olson’s work.
Shelter Island is the sort of film that can take audiences who know nothing about art or care nothing for it and make them feel something. It brings a relatable ability to a stereotypically highbrow medium. It tells a genuine story with a genuine interest, and through such honesty cannot help but light up the hearts of those it touches.