Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Margaret Olley's New England connection

Painting: Margaret Olley, 'Eucharist Lilies' 1963

While I have always enjoyed Margaret Olley's art, I did not know that she had a New England connection until I found a 2006 interview with her on ABC North Coast from the Byron Bay Writers Festival.

An edited version of the interview follows. You can find out details of Margaret Olley's life here.

"Biographer Meg Stewart describes Margaret Olley as 'Australia's most-loved living artist', a statement that's reflected by the hoards of fans who pack into a Byron Bay Writers' Festival Marquee to hear her conversation with Stewart...

After Stewart's generous introduction .... Olley proceeds to steadily gather her captivated audience in the palm of her hand. Her slow, thoughtful, precise manner leaves her audience hanging on every word, and beautifully demonstrates her impeccable comic timing.

Along the way though, the audience is treated to a delightful trip down memory lane, as Olley was born in Lismore and lived on the Tweed River for a number of years during her youth.

"That was an idyllic childhood," reminisces Olley, "to live beside a river, with little islands in the river, and fishing and... I don't know, it was just fun. Nobody had any money and in the time of the depression, our father would make stilts or billy carts, and we made our own amusement."

Olley grew up in North Queensland and the Tweed area before going to school in Brisbane. It was at Brisbane's Somerville House that she met one of her early inspirations, her art teacher Caroline Barker, and started on her journey to becoming an artist. "My whole week at school was always looking forward to the art class," remembers Olley, "so when I came to Somerville House and found Caroline Barker, that was bliss.

"She has sparkling eyes and was so full of enthusiasm and encouragement, and I got so carried away I went to the Head Mistress one night - we had to see her every week - and I went and said, 'My mother has written and given me permission to drop French and take an extra art lesson.' So I knew then what I wanted, and she, silly woman, didn't even ask to see the letter."

After studying painting in Brisbane after school, Olley moved to Sydney to attend the East Sydney Technical College. "I just loved the East Sydney Tech," she enthuses. "You could work there day and night and never get enough of it... It was actually the first time I actually got to make friends."

Olley travelled extensively around the world, developing her style, but also experienced dark periods, struggling with alcohol, and recently, depression. She exhibited last year, but admitted that, "I hadn't been painting, I hadn't been showing for a few years, because I'd fallen into that black hole, a dreadful black depression, and I really wanted to kill myself and that is not a place to be in, believe you me. I never thought I'd get to that stage, but luckily there is help. When you're in a state of depression, you really are chemically out of balance... and you're not functioning, but there is help, and you can be helped chemically, so if anyone in this room has any problems, go and seek help."

It was when Olley was recovering from this bout of depression that she decided to embark on the biography with Stewart. "Slowly I picked up and started painting away. I must say, when I was in that black hole, my friend and gallery owner Phillip Bacon said to me one day, 'Oh look, I think you should be answering some of those letters that have come from the publishers. I think it's about time you started thinking about doing a memoir.' [Until then] I'd been just throwing them away... so I thought, why not?"

Olley selected Stewart after being impressed by the biographical work Stewart had already produced. For Stewart, the biography was an artistic challenge. "One of the most rewarding or challenging parts of this project was that, because the writing I'd done before, in book-form, had been pretty directly connected to the world of my parents, with my mother who was an artist and my father who was a writer, with the Margaret Olley book, I really had to plunge in and write about an art world that was wider than that.... But for me it was also quite special because it was my creative coming of age."

.. Since last year's (2005) exhibitions and the release of the biography, Olley has never been busier. "Last year, I've never done so much in my entire life," she says forcefully. "Imagine two exhibitions, and on the opening night of one exhibition, Barry Humphries opened Meg's book at the art gallery, and then I had about 20 people back for a buffet dinner. I must be going out of my mind!

"And then Random House said, 'The next morning, you'll start the interviews.' I said, 'I beg your pardon? You're dealing with somebody over 80. I may want to sleep in,'" she finishes with a cackle. "

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