Sitting in a busy coffee shop nestled below Coventry Village in Cleveland Heights, Melissa Olson is tall and bright-eyed with blonde hair that falls past her shoulders. Even three months after returning to Ohio, she is in essence everything the Beach Boys meant when they said they wish they all could be California girls. Because that’s how we perceive the sun-streaked coastlines personified. And we’ve become so accustomed to the American tales of our own coordinates on the map that sometimes we have to leave first to learn how to truly tell them.
Melissa Olson was in the middle of what would be a three year stint in Fresno, California when a friend passed her a copy of Alternative Press Magazine and, pointing at a picture of the beloved Kent four-piece Annabel, asked if she’d ever heard of this band. Her first reaction was, “How do you know them?” Her second was, “I took that photo.”
“On the west coast, our DIY culture and music scene is something they admire beyond anything. There aren’t any basements,” she says, “There are way more house shows in Kent and Akron than there ever will be in Fresno. And they get so jealous of the Midwest for that.”
Maybe it’s these unpolished parts of our everyday lives we can take for granted that make the Wadsworth-born artist and musician’s Anywhere, California photography project her most relevant to date; an overcast collection of archaic pay phones in front of thrift stores, rusted pipes in the back alleys of factories. “I thought it was an interesting way to go about disproving the general perception of California,” she says, “I wanted to show it can look like Pittsburgh. It can look like Nebraska.”
3,000 miles away, Olson’s photos and stories from California capture the heart of the unglamorized scenes we undervalue living in the Midwest. They’re the types of raw imagery we should probably cling to with pride and preserve but usually make us feel the need to defend our region as always on the brink of an underdog come-up.
“There needs to be people whose whole goal is to maintain what’s there. And I don’t think that’s lazy and I don’t think that it’s easy either. Maintaining places like the Grog Shop,” she motions to the venue down the street, “I think that says a lot about a community, that they have things with staying power.”
Still, she spent the last hour over dinner with her mother being told that from a young age travel was in her blood. “You like change, you thrive on it,” her mom would say. Living in California inspired Olson to pick her guitar back up and to create some of her best artwork but she’s not ready to stop moving.
“There are a lot of people in Akron and in Cleveland who are doing a lot of amazing work. I feel lucky that this is where I came from. And I feel lucky that’s the kind of legacy attached with saying I’m from this part of the country as a designer and a photographer.”