THE Melbourne Cup is not only the race that stops a nation, it can even persuade a giant of Australian art to put down his brushes for a few minutes.
On the first Tuesday of November 2006, I arrived at John Olsen's estate in southern NSW to interview him. I had been directed to his studio. I expected to find him at work on a painting.
After all, he was incessantly creating something. A brush was rarely out of his hand. To my surprise, Olsen was not working but lying on a day bed, watching television.
He told me to come and sit on the bed, because the race was about to start.
So there I sat on John Olsen's day bed, watching an iconic Australian event with an iconic Australian artist.
Not that I was really watching the horse race. I was observing Olsen. His face was ignited by that grin and those twinkling eyes of his. I reckon he could have come into the world with that look on his face, when he was born in Newcastle in 1928.
Even as he aged, Olsen never lost that look of a little boy who had just managed to grab another biscuit with nobody noticing. His was a face of cheekiness, and of delight and wonder at what every moment offered. He consumed life with the same joy and gusto as he did paella, a dish he learnt to cook while living and working in Spain in the late 1950s.
Olsen was a life force who transferred what was in him into his art. As a result, the art was as colourful, as ebullient, and as life affirming as the man who created it.
But the brushes have been put down for the final time, and the light has dimmed. John Olsen has died. He was aged 95.
"We've lost one of the greatest Australian artists," says Nick Mitzevich, Director of the National Gallery of Australia and a former director of Newcastle Art Gallery.
"That sounds like a big call, but he's an artist who gave us a unique vision of the Australian landscape, and that's why that title is warranted."
Olsen's Australian landscapes are often large, and they teem with life. His paintings dance across the canvas, radiating energy like the noonday sun over his beloved Lake Eyre.
Mr Mitzevich points out Olsen's gift to the viewer was not just in the look of a work, but in how the artist encouraged you to feel.
"He wanted us to feel the heat, he wanted us to feel the energy of a place," Mr Mitzevich says. "He really wanted us to feel that moment he was trying to capture."
He's been all around the world, he's nationally and internationally revered, but for him Newcastle was still home.- Director of Newcastle Art Gallery, Lauretta Morton.
The sunniness of his work is a world away from the grey days of desperation that marked Olsen's earliest years growing up in Cooks Hill during the Great Depression, when people did what they could to survive.
"They were very bad years," he told me in 2016, when I interviewed him for the catalogue of a major exhibition in his hometown, John Olsen: The City's Son, at Newcastle Art Gallery.
"Whilst my father had a job [with a clothing company in Hunter Street], there'd be scarcely a day where some man didn't come and ask to do some gardening or chop some wood."
He recalled hearing from his family home in Dawson Street the sounds of an industrial city at work.
"I can remember clearly the shunting coal trains, 'ch-ch-ch!'," he said.
While he left Newcastle as a seven-year-old, when the family moved to Sydney, the city never left Olsen and his art. Newcastle and the river that feeds its busy harbour would wend their way out of Olsen's memories and onto the canvas, including in a monumental painting in the city art gallery's collection, King Sun & the Hunter.
That painting is one of 43 Olsen works in the gallery's collection. Yet Olsen's connection to Newcastle isn't gauged just by his art.
"He was such a proud Novocastrian, being born just around the corner from the gallery," says Director of Newcastle Art Gallery, Lauretta Morton.
"He's been all around the world, he's nationally and internationally revered, but for him Newcastle was still home."
Ms Morton says Olsen would regularly visit Newcastle and, from his hotel room, would sketch life on the harbour. He would read the shipping movements notice in the Newcastle Herald to work out when to look out his window for potential subjects.
"He used to sneakily say to me he was thinking about moving up here when he retired," she said, adding that Olsen would have never retired.
Ms Morton, who spoke with the artist often, including about the gallery's redevelopment, admits she hasn't come to terms with his death.
"We've lost a true icon but also someone who had just a joy of life," she says.
According to Tom Gleghorn, another Hunter-raised artist who pushed the boundaries of painting in post-war Australia, Olsen changed the way people saw their own country.
"He had a singular and unique vision of the Australian landscape," Gleghorn says. "He approached it from a very personal angle.
"I think he opened a lot of people's eyes to the content of the landscape. He captured the innate beauty of the land itself. He had a deeper understanding of the visual detail of the Australian landscape."
Gleghorn had known Olsen since they were young painters finding their way in Sydney. While Olsen grew as an artist, one characteristic of the man didn't change, according to Gleghorn.
"A larrikin, always a larrikin," chuckles Gleghorn. "Typical Newcastle larrikin."
Although Olsen recalled how in the eyes of at least one person, he had changed.
"I was accused many years ago by a Novocastrian that I was not acting like a Novocastrian," he said in 2016. I asked Olsen what that meant. "That's what I asked," the artist replied, before recounting what he was told. "Well, you're not as tough as you used to be!"
For one thing, Olsen didn't dress in a manner that reflected the industrial city of his childhood.
"No one wore a beret and a turtleneck sweater like John could," says Mr Mitzevich.
Olsen's art has been awarded the Archibald, Sulman, and Wynne prizes. As well as hanging in galleries around the country, his work is on display in the Sydney Opera House, with the epic mural, Salute to Five Bells.
Mr Mitzevich says that as well as being an extraordinary artist, Olsen did so much to help art flourish in Australia, joining gallery boards and councils and offering advice, including to him.
"He encouraged me to be fearless, to follow my instincts, and to do my utmost to promote art in Australia," Mr Mitzevich says. "In one of the last conversations we had, he said to me, 'Dear boy, it's best to stand at the edge of a cliff, because that's where you get the best view'.
"The reason his work is so powerful is that people see the energy he was trying to create.
"They see he was full of exuberance, energy and life. And that's a great energy pill to take in this world we live in today."
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