JOHN OIsen has been getting up early this week in a Newcastle he finds thrillingly unfamiliar, sketching and painting like a man who’s running out of time.
One of Australia’s most treasured artists, 89, is visiting from the NSW Southern Highlands to donate five sketches and a sculpture, Frog, to the Newcastle Art Gallery. Two blocks away is the address in Dawson Street, Cooks Hill, where he was born. A small crowd somehow appears each time he stops by – the black beret is a giveaway.
“It’s a reaffirmation, it’s a sense of place. It’s where I scribbled in my mum’s cookbook,” Mr Olsen said.
“It’s where my father remarked, ‘I’m concerned that John might burst his brains’.”
The gallery’s six new Olsens swell its collection to 43, including King Sun & the Hunter, the centerpiece of last summer’s exhibition “John Olsen: the City’s Son”.
Whether or not it’s something residual from his early childhood in 1930s Newcastle, Olsen is pulled to the “strong brown god” of the Hunter River and the harbour it opens out to, and the way it all looks from his room in the Crowne Plaza.
“One has been painting gumtrees, but I’d think the harbour is much more interesting. The movement of cranes and shapes intersecting; it’s exciting,” he said.
“When the river gets to the harbour there’s this explosion of energy with vessels waiting outside.”
Mugging for the camera with his bronze Frog – “the kissing is over,” he declared, finally – Olson stood beneath The sea sun of 5 bells, his mural installed in the gallery’s ceiling.
His approach to painting it in 1964, as to all of his work: “I don’t know what it’s going to look like. It’s terrific”.
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