Regarded as Australia’s greatest living artist, Newcastle-born John Olsen is eager to leave his mark on the city. ROSEMARIE MILSOM meets the delightful raconteur.
The eager travellers gathering on a bold blue Saturday morning at Newcastle Airport with their carry-on luggage, folded newspapers and cups of takeaway coffee are unaware of the master in their midst. With his signature black beret angled just so, and his walking stick resting against his right leg, artist John Olsen perches on a seat and, in the unlikely setting, recites poet Gerard Manly Hopkins's Pied Beauty. "Glory be to God for dappled things/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow," he begins, his green-grey eyes watery and vibrant. ". . . Fresh-firecoal chestnut falls; finches' wings/Landscapes plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough/And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim/All things counter, original, spare, strange/Whatever is fickle, freckled . . ."
We have been discussing the inspiration for the Newcastle-born artist's 1964 ceiling mural The sea sun of 5 bells, which was commissioned by his friend, respected arts patron Ann Lewis, for her Rose Bay home and bequeathed last year to Newcastle Art Gallery. "It's [the poem] lovely and skittish and you'll find a lot of fickled freckledness in the work," he smiles, relishing the playful alliteration.
The mural is busy; black, brown, blue and orange collide. Olsen is surprised by its "magnificent" condition.
"It's been well looked after and it's very fresh; it's as good as the day it was painted."
We discuss the differences between photography and art in evoking memory. "Art's memory is scaled in more of a human sense," he suggests. "Art is empathetic. As an artist, when I make a mark, I am the mark. When you are looking at the mural, it's very graphically explained; there is a person behind it, and this is how he felt.
"Braauuumph! Like that," he adds, dramatically swooshing upwards with his right hand, mimicking a brushstroke. "Soomp!"
"Somehow," he continues, "because of the life we live, this kind of much speedier life, space is entirely different. Albeit with cars, albeit with aeroplanes, albeit with rockets to Mars; all of this has had a kind of unconscious impact. We want where the action is. Inside the mural is that kind of, well, I suppose I could say, a transcription of the way we live."
Olsen is returning to the Southern Highlands property he shares with his fourth wife, Katherine, after a whistlestop visit with his art dealer son Tim, to attend the unveiling of the mural as part of Almanac, a Museum of Contemporary Art travelling exhibition featuring works donated by the late Ann Lewis to the MCA, Newcastle Art Gallery and Moree Plains Gallery. Having had knee replacement surgery on both legs as well as heart surgery, the 84-year-old, who has long enjoyed absorbing Australia's sprawling landscape from above, finds flying more convenient.
Since the 1970s, the prolific artist has travelled to Lake Eyre and much of his work, which is organic and teeming with life, has been shaped by the vitality of our wilderness areas and "the viewpoints of frog and eagle". "Australia is such a vast, unruly landscape," he says, "but it explains itself; how rivers are formed, the construction of the land, the ebb and flow. Aborigines got that, but they were more involved with sacred sites and their work is a kind of map of one sacred site to another, or identifying with the dream spirits. I don't look at that. I can see in the landscape an animus kind of thing, a vitality. You see there's an exciting thing about Australia - it's still waiting to be discovered!"
Olsen is delightful company; genteel, thoughtful, witty and spirited. When Tim offers to buy me a coffee and I decline - I am not a coffee drinker - Olsen quips, "Get her a cognac!" I laugh. "He's not joking," offers Tim, grinning.
"You think I'm joking?" counters Olsen cheekily, who requests sparkling water with "bubbles like champagne".
Despite leaving Newcastle for Bondi as a six-year-old when his father was transferred by his employer, the Coo-ee Clothing Company, Olsen has maintained links to the city and has vivid memories of his early years in Cooks Hill. He recalls neighbours in Dawson Street rushing into the open to watch aviator Charles Kingsford Smith fly over the city in the Southern Cross.
"This was an incredible thing," he says. "The word was that he was going to fly over Newcastle at half past 10 and everybody was out in the street, hundreds of people in Cooks Hill. We could see this speck in the sky come nearer," he continues, mimicking the sound of the plane. "Aaaaarrh. It was quite low and everyone looked up and then went inside."
He believes Newcastle has a strong sense of community bound by "that large, brown god called the Hunter River". He plans to return in the next 12 months to create a series of figurative watercolours and drawings that he wants to donate to Newcastle Art Gallery. Like good friend and fellow artist Margaret Olley who died last July, the march of time - "I'm old wine!" - has prompted Olsen to contemplate his legacy. He and Tim are putting their heads together. "We're hoping to use John's history here as a means of enhancing Newcastle's cultural identity," says Tim. "Of course we need a wonderfully generous philanthropist, but we'll also contribute.
"What we'd love to do, and it's been my life's dream, is somehow establish an Olsen museum in the same way there's a Picasso museum in Paris and there's a Miro museum in Barcelona; put together enough major works so that it helps Newcastle become a destination."
For now, though, there is a large mural to complete. Olsen leans in conspiratorially. "It's hard to tell you this," he half whispers and suppresses a giggle, "but my enemy is the taxation office, like the rest of Australia. We're just about to start a huge commission for the foyer of the new taxation office in Melbourne." He pauses. "It's called Reconciliation." Laughter all round.
And beyond the next little while? The former Catholic, who says he can no longer identify with a doctrine, is a self-described agnostic. "I love the sacred," he says. "I'm only an agnostic by circumstance," he adds with a wide grin. "That [doctrine] is fine for other people because it does offer them a kind of palliative; it's a kind of reassurance and they utterly believe it, or else they're too frightened not to.
"I can identify with this mystery of life itself, but keep in touch."
And with that, Olsen follows his son through the security barrier.
Almanac is on display at Newcastle Art Gallery until November 11.
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