Inside the world of John Olsen

A Fairfax Media Australia Day promotion

JOHN Olsen designed his splendid en-suite studio so that, like the artist HenriMatisse, he could be wheeled from hisbed to create art until his last breath.

Yet Australia’s senior artist still wakesevery morning with a new painting in hismind and walks freely to his studio to spendthe day painting, standing up, the way healways has.

“I’m not old, I’m just aged,” Olsen says,beaming, as the sun glints on the lake whichlaps his studio and sprawling house in the NSW Southern Highlands.

John Olsen at home in the NSW Southern Highlands with his art work. Picture: Brendan Esposito.

“One great value in being aged is that itallows retrospective thinking. I can now lookback at the changes in my lifetime through amental telescope.

“The thing that bothers me most aboutthis new world of instant overloads of masscommunication and accelerated pace ofdaily life is that people are losing their senseof personal dreaming. That sense of beingintimately yourself is disappearing.

“Everyone is now programmed to be sobusy, they are forgetting to think deeply, sothere’s no time to develop their imaginationand find their individuality.

“If you’re running all the time, neverpausing to think deeply, it’s very dangerous.

Inside the world of John Olsen Childhood by the sea, John Olsen, 2015.

Where wattle pollen stains the doubting heart, John Olsen, 2014.

Lake Eyre, the desert sea, John Olsen, 2014.

Morning at lily pond, John Olsen, 2015

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“I’d like people to rediscover the valuableart of daydreaming. Just sit and look atsomething, an apple or a lake. The moreyou look and allow your thoughts to roll,the more a transformation takes place. It’s ameditative process and so rewarding.

“But if you’re always in a hurry, you’llnever get beyond the superficial, you’llnever learn the exciting, original adventureof deep thinking.”

When he was a young artist travelling inMajorca and relishing the Mediterraneanlifestyle, the poet Robert GraveswarnedOlsen: “You can paint pretty pictures allyou like, but without metaphor, you havenothing.”

“I took that lesson aboard,” admits Olsen,”so I read poetry and books every day. Idon’t speed-read, I read. It’s nourishmentfor my brain, and as I read I let my thoughtswander, and those meandering thoughtsfind their way into the pictures I paint. It’salways a journey on the canvas, and whenI start, I don’t want to already know theending.”

Asked what he’s learned about life that hewishes 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 alwayslook for what is not commonplace, whatstrikes a chord in you. You feel an intuitionabout what’s essential. The vital point is thatyou must trust your own instincts.”

Olsen appreciates that many peoplewould not stand the solitude of being anartist or a writer, working alone each day,self-starting every morning.

“It never gets any easier. I still wake withan 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 goesout. There will be fallow periods when thework is not going well, so it’s best to put thatpainting aside, just turn its face to the wall.

“And often, months later when you lookat it again, you can see possibilities in it thatyou couldn’t see when you were strugglingwith 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 unhappywhen I’m not being an artist.”

Edmund Capon, former director of the ArtGallery of NSW, says Olsen loves the flourishand passion of the brush as much as heloves his subject. His paintings always showreal emotion and expression.

“John Olsen at 88 is still in full swing,” saysCapon. “John is absolutely the glass half-full artist. His paintings make life a joy tobehold. They simply burst with spirit. Neverhas nature copulated with such fun, fantasyand creativity than in Olsen’s paintings.”

From the studio, Olsen leads me to hiskitchen, where he concocts a salad nicoise,effervescently describing his love of coloursand the shapes of ingredients, then reminisces about carousing with fellow artistsafter long lonely weeks spent in studios.

We eat outside beneath willow trees, andOlsen exclaims how he loves dappled light,dappled anything.

For the thousandth time he begins reciting, word perfect, Gerard Manley Hopkins’Pied Beauty:

‘Glory be to god for dappled things …’

Asked to describe the quintessential qualities we should celebrate on AustraliaDay, Olsen responds:

“We should remember it took so manybrave, hard-working people to bring ushere, thank you. And how lucky we are thatwe have a country that we do appreciate,because Australia has a lot to give.

“I love our laconic character and thelarrikin streak that is an essential part,because it is unpredictable and profoundlyfelt. Above all, we should remind ourselves– never lose sight of a fair go. And rememberthe value of true friendship. Unless we loveone another, we shall die.”

He adds: “We should also clap our handsthat, at last, we have a prime minister andhis wife who are not afraid to admit that theyenjoy art. It’s been a long drought.”

Where wattle pollen stains the doubting heart

“I love painting wattle, it’s ajoyous explosion of colour. Yellowis such a magical, optimistic,sunny colour.

“[French artist] Bonnard lovedyellow. A friend was watchingBonnard painting his final picture,and commented: ‘I think there’stoo much yellow in it.’ Bonnardreplied: ‘Yes, and I’m going to giveit more yellow, and more yellow.’

“This work is inspired by thepoem Terra Australis, written bymy friend the late James McAuley.

It’s his introspective journey intothe Australian landscape, andhas evocative lines … ‘The wattle scatters the pollen on the doubtingheart…’

“I’ve painted the Riverina countryjust outside Canberra, wherethe Murrumbidgee River windsits way around. Wattle is such awonderful contrast against thatlovely dry-biscuit ochre landscape.

“The dark brown central heartis a symbolic large seed pod, andhoney birds are hovering around it,feasting on wattle blossoms.

“There are multiple meaningsin the doubting heart and seedpod metaphor. It can be that inmoments of intense self-doubt,seeing glorious wattle blossomcan reaffirm our faith in ourselves;remind us of that eternaloptimism, that nature rejuvenatesitself and continues the cycle oflife – and so can we.”

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