Margaret Olley.
Margaret Olley.

The amazing life of Margaret Olley

Much-loved Lismore-born painter Margaret Olley has some words of warning for the current Government.

“Politicians should beware: they ignore the arts at their peril,” she tells me when I call to see how she is recovering from a recent bout of cancer.

“The silent majority of voters are interested in the arts, in many and various forms,” she says.

“Not just painting, but opera and dance and everything else.”

Nurture your arts community, adds Olley, and you'll have a healthier community.

Despite having just emerged from hospital, where she had major surgery for cancer, Olley, 87, sounds chirpy and alert on the phone from her home in Paddington, Sydney.

“It hadn't got into the lymph nodes, so I didn't need chemotherapy,” she confides.

In fact she's more interested in complaining about the weather than about the state of her health – clearly the weather affects her spirits and she's longing for a week of clear, bright weather.

“I don't like the rain. I know it's good for the farmers and they're all very pleased, but I don't like the dark, wet days. I like it when the sun comes out.”

That penchant for light and colour has long been reflected in her still life paintings and intimate interiors. Certainly her many drawings and watercolours of Paris and French coastal villages are celebrated for their intense awarenesss of light. But it was a trip to Magnetic Island and then Papua New Guinea in the 1950s that revealed Olley's consuming interest in colour and heralded her future direction as a still life painter.

Born in 1923 in Lismore and, later, moving with her family to Queensland, her early experiences like riding a pony to school helped to foster a sense of adventure and independence. Olley has always been her own woman, although her warm personality, capacity for friendship and individual style of dress has endeared her to many artists – she is known for her friendship with William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Jeffrey Smart. She has also has been a popular subject for portraits by Margaret Cilento, Drysdale and Donald Friend, as well as the renowned 1949 Archibald prize-winning portrait by Dobell.

Today, asked to reminisce about her childhood, she still has fond memories of Lismore, as well as a couple of suggestions for planners.

“We'd all go into (Lismore) and walk around the main shopping block; we'd meet everyone we knew there,” she recalls.

“My father used to say it was just scrub country then, after all the trees and the Bangalow palms had been cut down for the dairy farms.

“Now it's all camphor laurels! You should cut them down and make furniture out of them.

“But I like the way Lismore is going green now – with the big rainfall you have, there are all sorts of trees coming back, and I love to see the avocadoes and trees that bring in a crop.”

Olley's first solo exhibition was in 1948 at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney and the Morton Galleries, Brisbane, and she has held an astonishing number of exhibitions since then.

She's still painting every day, with several pictures on the go at the same time.

“I've got a few landscapes over at Barry Humphries' place,” she says. “I paint at home and on other peoples' balconies, concentrating on whichever painting I'm working on at the time. That's the only painting I'm ever interested in – the one I'm painting!”

Even at her advanced age, she remains passionate not only about the personal but about the political: she still campaigns in political circles for more arts funding.

She's disappointed that the money wasn't found to build the $4 million Margaret Olley Arts Centre in Lismore, and has little time for Labor governments, state or federal: “They haven't got an arts policy at all!” she says. “They're a lot of criminals!”

Next week she plans to go to the new Aboriginal art gallery in Canberra, and while there will try to bail up the Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, and ask when he is going to formulate an arts policy.

Her upcoming show in Sydney had to be postponed because of her recent hospitalisation yet while she's disappointed with the delay, she's philosophical about the intrusion of cancer and the ensuing surgery.

“I just have to be patient, and let things heal,” she says.

Olley is less patient about that scourge of modern arts - the politician.

“I do what I can to talk with the State arts minister (Virginia Judge) here,” she says. “But they've got no funds, to do the Lismore gallery or anything.

“We'll just have to wait until they're out of office. I believe things happen when they're meant to, at the right time and with the right people – but I feel as if I'm running out of time.”

A toast to Margaret Olley

“Today Margaret Olley lives in the wondrous, eccentric cacophony of her home in Paddington, gathering gypsy experiences of a lifetime into the language of the brush. Recent illness has restricted her movement of late, but she has used this as a blessing to concentrate on what she has always cared about most: making paintings, coalescing and composing the elements with which she has created her world.

Born in Lismore, raised in Queensland, she found a base in Newcastle, passing between Brisbane and Sydney, but finally settled in Sydney for most of her life. Meanwhile, she has travelled to many parts of the world – Europe, America, Asia – seeking those inspirations about the life of an artist she had dreamed of since childhood. With success and good fortune in the latter part of her career she has also become a benefactor to the arts – both visual and musical – of spectacular generosity and formidable willpower.

It is through her paintings of intimate still lifes and interiors that we can discover her essence; the language of Margaret Olley's soul. Beneath the apparent toughness of that willpower is a shy poet of the close-at-hand. Fruit, flowers, chairs, tables, lamps, cabinets, rugs, objets d'art and memorabilia of her countless travels form a cast of symbols representing her celebration of a connected universe.”

Barry Pearce, Head of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of NSW

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