Elizabeth Olds was born December 10, 1896, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Fred Allen
Olds and Harriet (Trussell) Olds. As a girl she had an interest in drawing; she
participated in competitive swimming and horseback riding. After studies at the
University of Minnesota (1916-1918) and the Minneapolis School of Arts (1918-1921),
she attended the Art Students' League in New York as a scholarship student, where
she studied under George Luks and other Social Realists. She would accompany Luks
New York's Lower East Side and other ethnic neighborhoods where the two would
the immigrant culture. Olds soon became Luks' assistant. Through Luks' friend
Root, she spent some time with James Agee and Alexander Woollcott.
In 1925 Olds traveled to Paris. There she produced numerous crayon and watercolor
sketches and drawings; she also performed as a trick bareback rider with the
Fratellini Brothers' Cirque d'Hiver. The next year she became the first woman
a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to continue her studies in Europe until
After returning to the United States, Olds stayed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and
Tamworth, New Hampshire, where, although initially sheltered from the Great
Depression, she observed the misery others endured. Her response resulted in the
development of a new style with a focus on workers as subject matter.
In 1932 Olds accepted a commission to produce a series of portraits of the prominent
Samuel Rees family in Omaha, Nebraska. Although she was a proficient portrait
artist, she quickly found the work boring. Samuel Rees, aware of her frustration,
encouraged her to visit the Rees Printing Company where she could learn lithography
from the printer. Olds learned the entire process and soon was creating lithographs.
In 1934 during her stay in Omaha, Olds went to the Swift and Company slaughterhouse
and asked permission to sketch the men working in the plant. She was allowed to
her sketchpad to the killing floor and her sketches resulted in The Stockyard Series, a set of lithographs that received
critical acclaim in New York.
Olds returned to New York in 1935 and worked for the Federal Art Project's graphic
division. She continued creating lithographs depicting people struggling with
hardships of the Depression. She joined the Artists Union, the Artists Congress,
the Graphic Division of the Works Projects Administration's Federal Art Project
(FAP). In 1939, she participated in the FAP’s silkscreen unit as it worked to
develop serigraphy as a fine art medium. Committed to the idea that art should
democratic and available to all people, Olds found silkscreen to be a medium suited
for this purpose. In 1936 and 1937 Olds also did political illustrations for The New Masses.
After World War II, Olds accepted assignments as an illustrator-reporter for The New Republic and Fortune. She provided illustrations for articles on labor issues and in
1954 she traveled to Florida and New Orleans to gather information for an article
the Lykes Bros. Industry for Fortune. She also wrote
and illustrated children's books. Four of these were chosen as Junior Literary
In 1949 Olds began to spend summers on Long Island Sound, where she spent time
observing the shore birds, which became the subjects of numerous watercolors and
wood block prints. She visited Mexico and Guatemala in 1951 and made studies of
people, animals, and boats.
In the 1950s, Olds began to work with multi-media collages, combining her silk
screens and wood cuts with scraps of paper. She was also an artist in residence
two artists' colonies: Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs, New York, and McDowell, in
Peterborough, New Hampshire. Olds moved to Florida in 1971. She died March 4,