Margaret Olley at Lismore Regional Art Gallery in 2006.
Margaret Olley at Lismore Regional Art Gallery in 2006.

Council row blocked Olley's vision

IT IS a telling irony that Margaret Olley’s only two works at the overcrowded Lismore Regional Gallery hang above a stairwell without lighting.

The Lismore-born national treasure, who died at her Paddington home on Tuesday, had pledged a million dollars and a new body of work to the controversial gallery that was to be named in her honour.

After months of debate in council and the community, lobby groups concerned about the state of roads and other infrastructure succeeded in scuttling the project despite it having the unqualified support of Lismore’s mayor, Jenny Dowell and Page MP Janelle Saffin, and despite the fact that half the required $8 million had been sourced from outside Lismore.

Yesterday members of the public were making a pilgrimage of sorts to the gallery in honour of our previously “greatest living artist”.

A sombre gallery director, Brett Adlington, spent the day contemplating such things, and mourning the loss of Australia’s last great modernist painter.

“It is sad in that regard but we’ve been lucky here in Lismore to have seen some great shows of hers when she’s kindly graced us with her presence,” he said.

“She was 88, and had been in ill-health for some time, but it was great she was around to see the portrait of her win the last Archibald.

“I first heard she’d passed away yesterday, and obviously there’s a great sadness that we’ve lost our greatest living artist, but also somebody who helped Lismore in many regards and was a great supporter in trying to get the new gallery going.

“Margaret is fondly remembered by a lot of people in a lot of communities and she certainly touched a lot of people’s hearts.

“She travelled and had a bit of a nomadic lifestyle as a youngster and had connections with a lot of regional areas from Townsville down to Sydney and everywhere in between it seems.

“She had a wonderful sense of warmth and empathy and people really responded to that and I think they got that by seeing her work – she had a great love for life and optimism and people really responded to that and I guess that’s the great legacy she’s left us – that great body of work.”

What impresses Mr Adlington most, and many other commentators, is that she was working right up to her death.

“She was mainly known for her still lifes – she’d placed them throughout her house and worked constantly in various rooms painting – her still lifes reflected her own life in how she placed them,” he said.

“Her work certainly responded to how she lived and that’s what people have cottoned onto.

“She had pledged to make some artworks for the new gallery, but that was dependent on it going ahead so again, it’s just a bit of a waiting game at this stage.

“We have a permanent display here which can be viewed and I was just looking at the program for next year thinking of something else we could do.”

 

MARGARET OLLEY

  • Birth name: Margaret Hannah Olley
  • Born: 24 June 1923, Lismore, NSW
  • Died: 26 July 2011 aged 88, Paddington, NSW
  • Nationality: Australian
  • Field Painting Training: East Sydney Technical College
  • Awards: Mosman Art Prize (1947)


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