By Marcus Honesta.
“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”
We as a society are not very good at honouring either our creative innovators, nor our artistic visionaries; that is until they have passed on. I mused over this whilst reading an article in a Sunday Weekend Magazine. It was a story about Louise Olsen – a very successful, passionate and creative designer who established Dinosaur Designs. Whilst reading it, the penny dropped, she is the daughter of John Olsen who recently turned 90. He still works each day in his studio in the Southern Highlands, and is no doubt a living Australian National Treasure.
It was this serendipitous moment that got me thinking; when do we recognise greatness in out artistic community, and just what do we do to acknowledge their contribution to our living and working fraternity. Sadly I’m compelled to say not much, and not very often. It usually takes their death for us to realise how great they were in life; and I’m struck that this is not only a great waste but a loss that we can ill afford in a society that is desperately searching for inspiration and visionaries to provide hope for our future direction.
I must confess I first became aware of his work when I looked at the label of my favourite tipple. The “Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling” range carries a series of fabulous water coloured frogs on its labels, offering the imbiber the opportunity to allow their imagination to wander to a more whimsical and tranquil place.
John Olsen work is almost always instantly recognisable, dominated by long, wiggling lines and colourful splashes and dots, hang everywhere from Malcolm Turnbull’s office to the Sydney Opera House. In a career spanning more than 60 years, he’s had more than 50 solo exhibitions, has won the Archibald Prize for portraiture (in 2005) and twice won the Wynne Prize for landscape painting (in 1969 and 1985).
Yet Australia’s senior artist still wakes every morning with a new painting in his mind and walks freely to his studio to spend the day painting, standing up, the way he always has. In a recent interview he said:
“I’m not old, I’m just aged,”
“One great value in being aged is that it allows retrospective thinking. I can now look back at the changes in my lifetime through a mental telescope”.
“The thing that bothers me most about this new world of instant overloads of mass communication and accelerated pace of daily life is that people are losing their sense of personal dreaming. That sense of being intimately yourself is disappearing.”
“Everyone is now programmed to be so busy, they are forgetting to think deeply, so there’s no time to develop their imagination and find their individuality.”
“If you’re running all the time, never pausing to think deeply, it’s very dangerous.”
“It also worries me that despite all this instant information, it doesn’t seem to me that humankind is any wiser.”
Invited to play the oracle in a recent article he sits by a lake, with waterbirds gracefully swooping to ripple the surface, Olsen said: “We need to counteract life’s increasing speed.”
“The Greek philosopher Epicurus wisely said: ‘Take more time, cover less ground.’
“I’d like people to rediscover the valuable art of daydreaming. Just sit and look at something, an apple or a lake. The more you look and allow your thoughts to roll, the more a transformation takes place. It’s a meditative process and so rewarding.”
“But if you’re always in a hurry, you’ll never get beyond the superficial, you’ll never learn the exciting, original adventure of deep thinking.”
When he was a young artist travelling in Majorca and relishing the Mediterranean lifestyle, the poet Robert Graves warned Olsen: “You can paint pretty pictures all you like, but without metaphor, you have nothing.”
“I took that lesson aboard,” admits Olsen, “so I read poetry and books every day. I don’t speed-read, I read. It’s nourishment for my brain, and as I read I let my thoughts wander, and those meandering thoughts find their way into the pictures I paint. It’s always a journey on the canvas, and when I start, I don’t want to already know the ending.”
Asked what he’s learned about life that he wishes he’d known much earlier, Olsen replies: “Stay in your centre. Your life changes, but you don’t. Never lose your core.
“You must care for your individuality; don’t get swamped by others’ opinions, pressures, or unhappy people around you.
“As a creative person, you must always look for what is not commonplace, what strikes a chord in you. You feel an intuition about what’s essential. The vital point is that you must trust your own instincts.”
Olsen appreciates that many people would not stand the solitude of being an artist or a writer, working alone each day, self-starting every morning.
“It never gets any easier. I still wake with an idea in mind, but it’s ebb and flow.
“The important thing you learn with creativity is that the tide comes in and the tide goes out. There will be fallow periods when the work is not going well, so it’s best to put that painting aside, just turn its face to the wall.
“And often, months later when you look at it again, you can see possibilities in it that you couldn’t see when you were struggling with it previously.”
From the age of four, Olsen drew compulsively.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist; it’s the only way I feel fulfilled. I’m unhappy when I’m not being an artist.”
Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, says Olsen loves the flourish and passion of the brush as much as he loves his subject. His paintings always show real emotion and expression.
“John Olsen at 90 is still in full swing,” says Capon. “John is absolutely the glass half-full artist. His paintings make life a joy to behold. They simply burst with spirit. Never has nature copulated with such fun, fantasy and creativity than in Olsen’s paintings.”
Asked to describe the quintessential qualities we should celebrate on Australia Day, Olsen responds:
“We should remember it took so many brave, hard-working people to bring us here, thank you. And how lucky we are that we have a country that we do appreciate, because Australia has a lot to give.
“I love our laconic character and the larrikin streak that is an essential part, because it is unpredictable and profoundly felt. Above all, we should remind ourselves – never lose sight of a fair go. And remember the value of true friendship. Unless we love one another, we shall die.”
We obsess with fake news, and sordid affairs. We are daily confronted with natural and human tragedies that overwhelm our senses. We owe it to ourselves and our future generations to learn and impress on them the power of beauty and art as an expression of some of the greatness that mankind can manifest.
To this end we salute John Olsen, his Art and life’s work.