Tim Olsen: My mother's wise words taught me why we love art
The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Life 12 December 2020
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My maternal grandmother, Hazel, grew up in the NSW Hunter Valley. She was a countrywoman. Her father, James Marshall, was an amazing man. During a trip to England, he deemed that there must be a God after being moved by a performance of Handel’s Messiah, so became a Presbyterian minister.
It had a profound effect on my grandmother – she was very pious. But when my mum, Valerie, and my dad, John, were divorcing, she became my mother, in a way. I stayed with her in Sydney’s Mosman as a boy. I’d lie on her lap as we watched the ABC news. She’d give me a puff of her cigarette.
My parents met when they were both married. Mum was Dad’s student at the National Art School. He’d just returned from two years in Spain and was dressed like a matador. She fell madly in love with his mind.
Mum was well read in art and painted as passionately as my father did – she just didn’t have the ego. They had a strong intellectual relationship. His art never overshadowed hers, as she made a decision to prioritise my younger sister, Louise, and me. She didn’t seek success or public appraisal. For her, being an artist was personal.
I felt jealous when Louise was born, as I was knocked off the breast before my time. It was all about me and then it wasn’t. Louise is angelic but ambitious at the same time. I exhibit her work at my gallery, as she’s rediscovered her capacity to paint. She has a tremendous career as an artist beyond her company, Dinosaur Designs.
My first kiss was with Arkie Whiteley. We were at a party with our parents. I was 14 and she was about 11, going on 20. It was a proper French kiss and I was besotted. Arkie had grown up quickly, as she’d witnessed so many things in her childhood. She was beautiful and confident, but at the same time, vulnerable. Her early death [aged 37, from cancer] was so tragic.
Her mother, Wendy, and I have a very good relationship. We have both struggled with addiction, and we both understand how complex living an art life is, being a wife or child of an artist.
I met my first wife, Harriet France, at 29. She was an equestrian. We had a society wedding at Darling Point with a horse-drawn carriage to the reception. We were young and a bit silly. We drifted apart but remain good friends.
I became engaged to Dominique Ogilvie within a month of meeting her. I was in love and felt safe with her. She is the mother of my 16-year-old son, James. In the end, we agreed we were very different people, but maintain a strong relationship.
Margaret Olley was a great matriarch to me. She didn’t put up with any BS. At Dad’s A Salute to Sydney exhibition in 2007, outside my gallery, she told me to stop drinking. She said things that were painful to hear, but she cared and that was flattering.
Dad remarried twice. The first wife after Mum was jealous of his talent. The second just loved the money that came from it. None of them truly loved him like my mother did. Dad realises that now. They both used him.
Mum died from brain cancer at 78 in 2011. I am writing a book about her. We’ve got an incredible archive of her paintings. She was so attached to them, she thought it sacrilegious to sell. She was a beautiful colourist who had an intimate relationship with nature. We found this wonderful radio interview she did in 1965. She was so eloquent about art.
My mother is the greatest love of my life. She had composure and grace. She taught me more about dignity and integrity than anyone. I am like her in that I’m mindful of not being grandiose, and of being sensitive to others. She once said: “The greatest act of humility is to be interested in how other people think.” That’s why we love art. That’s why we read books.
I’d love to find a woman who had all the values she did. My mother had a poetry about her, a tremendous sensibility.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale December 13