John Olsen Studio Visit : Louise Fraser

Feb 20, 2017

John Olsen loves figs, wine and a good chinwag.

At 89, Australia’s premier living artist, which he cheekily owns as being a simple matter of outlasting the others, is a delightful lunch companion and a generous host.

In early February, six lucky Novocastrians were privileged to visit Olsen’s studio at his Southern Highlands home, thanks to the Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation, Newcastle Art Gallery and the thoughtfulness of the artist himself.


Image: The table packed with inspiration in John Olsen’s studio.

Robert, a solicitor, Kerry, an artist, Laurel, a carer, Gerda, a volunteer, Claire, a retired TAFE manager and teacher and I had all won a golden ticket in the Foundation’s raffle, and travelling in the bus down to John’s studio, it did feel like we were on our way to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

I was doubly lucky. I had won a ticket in the raffle and to the opening of the show John Olsen: City’s Son with a hastily written but heartfelt poem, via a competition on ABC Radio Newcastle, with the prize donated by the Foundation. I was thrilled simply to go to the gallery opening. Little did I suspect that I would be drawn as a raffle winner.

Led on this adventure by Gallery Manager, Lauretta Morton and NCC Cultural Director, Liz Burcham, and driven by council staffer Dwane, we chattered excitedly in anticipation of our visit and soon were past Sydney and approaching the Southern Highlands.

After a roadside stop where I bought fresh figs from a local grower, it was on to Olsen’s studio gallery where we were warmly met by our host and fellow artist and assistant Carlos Barrios who has worked with Olsen many years.

Olsen’s gallery is full of new works he is preparing for a show in Sydney, featuring landscapes of the Australian outback, rich in colours and whimsical animal movement. Blue skies and watercourses, earthy tones of bark or fur, and the classic yellows and oranges of Olsen’s bright outback sun abound. And he has been working in a variety of scale – from massive canvases that dominated the room to the ‘Mini Mouse’ size of about 60cm x 60cm. Paints, pencils, canvases, paper, ceramics and sculptures fill the room, as well as books on art, travel, food and literature. It is a light, airy room, warm, practical and personal, being adjacent to Olsen’s own bedroom for quick access to implements when inspiration strikes.

Olsen spoke of his love of the outback and how it inspires him, as well as his love of Newcastle, and determination to visit more often the city where he was born and still feels a strong connection. He told us of his disappointment at cutbacks to tertiary art courses and the importance of concentrating on one element when painting, lest a beginner artist becomes overwhelmed.

He graciously accepted my gift of figs and a handful of timber spatulas, and signed my copy of John Olsen: A Recipe for Art chatting about his favourite meals and apologising that he would not be cooking for us that day.

Instead we set off to the nearby Bendooley Estate, home to the Berkelouw Book Barn, where Olsen was greeted as a favourite regular. Wine and conversation flowed around the table as we enjoyed an informal, delightful meal. Olsen and Barrios both have works on display around Bendooley, and we all felt honoured to be in company with both artists, in a place where their work was celebrated in the interior design.

It was over all too soon. Our farewells to Olsen and Barrios were more affectionate than our greetings, probably because of the wine, but also because I think we had connected in our rambling and lively conversation. The bus trip home was more subdued than the journey south. Tired and pensive, we returned to the gallery, richer than when we left.

Contributed by Louise Fraser.