Olsen will debut Pollination on March 4 at her brother Tim’s Sydney gallery, comprising 17 large scale works that take inspiration from the artist’s observations of nature, and its regenerative power.
“You know the beauty of getting older is that I don’t mind what people think so much anymore,” she says from her office in Dinosaur Design’s Redfern studios. “There are people who are going to love it and there are people who are going to hate it, but I don’t mind because I’m just drawn to painting, for no other reason than I love it. It’s a passion and a life force.”
Olsen’s softer, more delicate aesthetics contrast with her father’s overarching interest in landscapes, Lake Eyre being a recurring subject, experimental mark-making and intense bursts of colour.
“I think I’ve got a certain sensibility from my mother,” Olsen says. “My mother [Valerie] was a very delicate painter. She used to do incredible studies of nature’s organisms and the insides of flowers in a very beautiful abstract way. She had a beautiful sensitive touch.”
Olsen worked on Belgian linen primed in rabbit skin glue in some cases opting for a neutral palette, with touches of raw umber and burnt sienna, in others experimenting with seedpod-shaped pourings.
“Sometimes I set up the pigment and paint and then working with space, poured many layers so you get these beautiful reactions; it’s playing with that idea of the law of chance. I love the elasticity and the beautiful oiliness and intensity of the pigment of paints: the touch, and the rub, and the mark-making, it gives me goosebumps, it moves my soul.”
Does she let her dad critique her work? “Yeah,” Olsen laughs. “He’s brutal.”
In John Olsen’s handwritten foreword to the exhibition catalogue, the 92-year-old artist praises his daughter’s “electric decisions” showing “nature blooming, nature blossoming” and takes the potential naysayers head-on: “Am I prejudiced? Yes, I am prejudiced but my eye cannot lie.”
Growing up Olsen cannot remember a time when art was not part of her life. “From the very moment I was born, I was at art school really because both my parents were passionate about it and it was intoxicating. In those days we had a little weatherboard house in Watson’s Bay and my dad was painting in the living room and my mother’s studio was in the front room of the cottage.”
As a toddler, Olsen recalls stealing into her dad’s studio at night, finding herself in trouble the next morning when he woke to find her and her brother’s handprints on his work.
That idyllic existence came to an end when her parent’s parted ways. She was 17. It was an emotional time, she recalls. She dropped out of school in Year 10, studying painting at Hornsby TAFE, then enrolled to study drawing and painting at the University of NSW where she met her partner, design becoming an outlet for her creativity.
Since the death of her father’s fourth wife, Katherine, four years ago from cancer, Olsen has established a studio in her father’s Bowral home. It’s a place of quietude overlooking a lake full from recent rains. Fires came within 20 kilometres of the property. While she was ready to evacuate, her still energetic father was certain they would be safe.
Father and daughter paint in studios at either end of the house, coming together for a glass of wine in the kitchen of an evening. They have gathered together a few like-minded artists and run the occasional life drawing class. “It’s become a real artist’s house now,” Olsen says. “He’s included my art on the walls.”
Linda Morris is an arts and books writer at The Sydney Morning Herald