Biblical reading, picture by picture

Peter Olsen's life changed in 1974 with a book.

He read a striking, surreal description of a muscular angel in the Book of Revelation — robed with the sun, standing on land and sea, haloed with a rainbow, shouting a divine message. He got a vivid mental picture of the being and had to paint it.

Since then, the Fort Lauderdale artist has produced more than a thousand paintings, inks and collages about the joys, hopes and horrors of Revelation. He recently finished pictures of all 404 verses in the book illustrating Earth's last days — just in time for those who think the Maya calendar predicts the world's end this year (though he says he didn't plan it that way).

"I went 'Wow,' and I started reading the Bible and doing research," says Olsen, who turns 72 in March. "When people look at my work, I want them to have a visual insight into the Bible."

His pictures, from letter- to wall-sized, depict multicolored angels, ashen demons, nightmarish beasts, stretched and contorted humans, bizarre plant-animals. In some pictures, the Earth cracks and the very light itself shatters. In others, Christ appears, nearly obscured in his own blinding corona.

Olsen shows his "Visions of the Apocalypse" at churches, museums and occasional talk shows around South Florida and elsewhere. He sells copies of his work in different sizes through his website, peterolsenart.com. And he conducts tours of his art in his vault in Oakland Park by appointment.

He calls it "narrative art," a blend of styles including classical, surrealism, iconography, even cartoons. His Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are filmy and impressionistic. His picture "Coming in the Clouds" shows the desert, barren tree and limp watch of a Dali picture. Look closely at his more complex canvases, and you may spot Freud, Stalin, Shakespeare, Bugs Bunny or Betty Boop.

But holy writ comes first for him. He says he attends worship at a variety of South Florida churches.

"Revelation has 12,000 words, and I've researched them all," Olsen says. "Even if it's 'up' or 'down,' 'and' or 'but,' 'fire,' 'blood,' 'mountain' or 'people.' I check every word for the context until I have a good feeling for how it will be painted."

Olsen didn't mean to go this far on one project. He was happy in the '70s doing pictures of planets and aliens. Then a woman walked into his studio with "The Late Great Planet Earth," an interpretation of Revelation. From the first painting, Olsen didn't turn back. He went on to paint the Four Horsemen, then the Seven Churches of Asia. His "Visions" grew to 24 pictures, then 48, then 72. After that, he added 100 collages. And about six years ago, he bowed to requests for smaller pictures, one for each verse.

"Theologians and teachers like to go verse by verse," he says. "Now they can do it with the art."

Focusing on the end times is extremely unusual for an artist, in the view of William Harkins at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale. He says most medieval and Renaissance art was "faith-based" but dealt mostly with Jesus and the saints. Most modern artists have neglected religious themes, he says.

"Olsen's art sounds like the tradition of medieval painting," says Harkins, editor of publications at the museum. "When most people couldn't read, art was how stories were told and lessons were learned."

For guidance and inspiration, Olsen reads not only the Bible but a host of other books — on details as exacting as the look of a menorah. He has also spoken with the likes of Tim LaHaye, author of the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series of novels, and Jerry Newcombe of Fort Lauderdale's Truth in Action Ministries. Newcombe used one of Olsen's pictures in "Coming Again," his 1999 book on various beliefs surrounding Christ's return.

"I'm a big fan of Peter, although his style is not everybody's cup of tea," says Newcombe, who also has an Olsen picture at home. "He's helped to bring the Book of Revelation to life. And he doesn't take sides — he just gives an artistic interpretation — so he's been able to talk to a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds."

For artistic influences, Olsen names everyone from Michelangelo and Albrecht Durer to Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell. He says he has taught art throughout Broward County, at Bethany, St. Anthony, Westminster and Gateway Christian Academy. And he teaches at his studio in Oakland Park, one class for children and teens, another for adults.

What's it like to live with someone so fixed on one topic? Samantha Olsen, his wife of 32 years, has nothing but praise.

"How many people do you know who are so convicted to do something?" she says. "From the time I met him, I was impressed with his dedication and knowledge. I believe he was destined to do this."

She has developed a slide show and a PowerPoint presentation of his work. Their son David, 27, a producer, plans to put some of the images on T-shirts, and is composing a piece for background music for the slide show, which Olsen plans to use in presentations of his work.

Olsen says he's been offered $10,000 to $400,000 for individual canvases, and once was offered $11 million for the whole set. He refused, with his wife's approval.

"We're blessed with a family and a home," she says. "We're not rich financially, but we are in the ways that count."

Although his project is winding down, Olsen says he feels no relief or triumph. "I'm too alive to think about feathers in my cap. I'm moving on to the next project."