At first, Friesen and Nielsen had no idea that Odysseus would span 18 panels, or that their collaboration would even be successful. They worked together and independently gathering images, writing, and drawing. It soon became clear that this project was not to be a literal retelling of the Odyssey, nor a historically accurate retelling of World War I. What was decided was the materials and media that would be used, and a rough outline of the first six panels.
Originally, 6 panels were prepared and were thought to be the extent of the project. By the end of the first night the panels were almost done and it was clear that they would not be enough. This both surprised and pleased the artists, so another 6 panels were prepared and subsequently an additional 6 before the project would be completed.
The initial work was done in Nielsen’s art studio at work after hours. Together, the artists created a gestural abstraction on 6 panels. They would circle the 16 feet worth of panels holding cans of paint in one hand and brushes in the other, ensuring the wood grain would be visible. They likened the background to a military style camouflage mixed with action orientated marks that would create movement and a sense of unease, that unified the individual panels to one another. The palette was decidedly sparse, with patches of bright colours.
Once dry, the panels were moved to easels. The two artists agreed on what part of the narrative each of the six panels would represent, and go to work. Only a few planning drawings were ever completed and they built the narrative out of single sketches and drawings from their heads. The composition was being found as they worked together, neither having ever collaborated before, everything was new.
“At first I think we were both a little apprehensive about the idea of letting someone else make half the decisions. Dave’s been painting for decades and I’ve been drawing since the womb” said Friesen. “Who starts? Who finishes? Who composes? and in the end the answer was always, both.”
“You have to let go of your ego, and essentially say yes to everything” said Nielsen. “I had been calling the shots in my own work for nearly twenty years, so it was not easy. I was so ready to be a risk-taker, my personal work was feeling stalled. I needed an energy boost. That first session, I did not want to give myself over completely. I did not want it to be a Craig Friesen painting, where I helped - and I am sure Craig didn’t want to do a David Nielsen painting.”
“Often people from curators to the general public ask us, who does what? The truth is we do everything together. There is no panel which is uniquely my work, or uniquely Craig’s work. We work on all panels simultaneously. There is movement and communication.”
“For most panels, the compositions were up in the air. I was used to collaging my sketches and developing compositions on the fly, but Dave wasn't”, recalls Friesen. “He took to it almost immediately and by the end of the first night we knew we had something”.
“What eventually happened is that we began to meet in the middle, so the work became uniquely ours. I would start in on a panel that interested me in particular, and Craig would do the same. Once I had painted enough, I would move over to the next panel, and Craig would do the same. I would ask him to add something to a panel I was working on, or he would simply have something to react to. It was effortless, easy and fast. So many times, creative people work in a vacuum. But this was immediately rewarding because Craig would encourage me, and vice-versa.
The collaboration was working. Nielsen likens the collaboration to playing in a music group, “I’ve always played in various bands throughout my life. My favorite part of playing in bands was always the camaraderie of practicing, and not the shows. At a band practice, there was no pressure, and you were supported by your friends / bandmates. You usually did you best, most creative things when the audience was not around. For me, being on a stage was more of a game of survival. Painting with Craig was different. You were hanging around with a friend, doing a highly creative task, and making great work - just like at a band practice. Very synergistic. Only the work completed was what the audience would see. They would always got the your best you both could offer. I often describe Craig and I as The Black Keys with paint.”
Eventually, all 18 panels had been started. Nielsen and Friesen, moved the operation to Nielsen’s studio, where all of the panels would be laid out and worked on simultaneously. Discussions began to arise regarding text for the panels. Text was something that was prevalent in Friesen’s work, and never attempted by Nielsen. Discussions began while the panels were under way around what panels would benefit from text, what would be said, and if all panels should have text.
It was decided that text was a necessity. It was also determined that none of Odysseus’ panels would ever allude to Homer, nor would it mention World War I directly. The text was to be general and never have direct reference to the place and time, but would refer only to the situation. The panel’s title would be Greek, making the only literary allusion to the Odyssey. This is evident in the “Return to Ithaca”, “The Trojan Horse” “Penelope” “The Scylla”.
There are also elements from art history incorporated into some panels. For example panel 10 The Sirens, contains many elements from Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Panel 17, Return to Ithaca shows an element of Millet’s Angelus Domini. Each panel is one third of a 4’x8’ sheet of spruce plywood, and prepared by Friesen. All of the paint was mis-tints or paint samplers from hardware stores.