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‘At last she is being heard’: Valerie Strong, matriarch of the Olsen family, has first solo exhibition

Sydney Morning Herald 16 October 2021

Linda Morris

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Valerie Strong was a student at East Sydney Technical College when John Olsen was briefly a teacher. The man who is now one of Australia’s most famous living artists praised Strong’s marks on paper: “I should have done that. I wish I’d done that line.”

That first interaction led to a passionate marriage, two children, divorce and the beginnings of a living artistic dynasty that has, for the most part, revolved around the glittering orb that is the career of Olsen, the Archibald Prize-winning painter.

A new exhibition, however, finally puts the focus on the unsung work of Strong, who died in 2011. It will be held at the National Art School, her alma mater, and is curated by her children, Tim and Louise, who knew her best.


“Dad has a lot to thank her for and at last she is being heard,” son Tim Olsen says.

Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen: A Rare Sensibility brings together 80 works held by her children, at the National Art School (NAS), formerly East Sydney Technical College, and will run virtually concurrently with John Olsen: Goya’s Dog.

With works dating from 1959 to 2004, A Rare Sensibility includes watercolours, prints and drawings, and several life drawings from NAS’s collection, most of which have never been seen before.


Painting, along with drawing, poetry and literature, came from a deeply personal place and Strong was neither interested nor ambitious to sell her work. A decade after her death from a brain tumour, A Rare Sensibility will be her first-ever solo exhibition.

“She was an art dealer’s nightmare,” Tim says. “All these people were begging her to sell her works and she said, ‘No, if I sold them, it would be like selling a part of my soul’.”

Valerie and John Olsen opened the Bakery Art School at Paddington in 1967 but had different artistic sensibilities.

“I remember her love and passion for painting, her observation and her attention to detail,” Louise says. “She could take up to six weeks developing the right colour and tone in her watercolours. I love her more abstract works where she really works with the relationship between the landscape and the forms of plants.”

Born in Sydney on New Year’s Day in 1933, Strong lived in Papua New Guinea with her family until the age of eight. Discouraged from taking up art by her parents, Strong studied millinery design, before self-funding an art diploma, graduating in 1961. A favourite student of abstract impressionist artist John Passmore, she too, was influenced by the likes of Paul Cezanne and Pierre Bonnard.


John Olsen remembers his former wife as a sensitive person with an endearing love of the Australian bush. “She cherished it and had a great love of bush orchids. Whenever she found them, she would put a little fence around them so nobody would tread on them. She did lovely, sensitive paintings, of this kind of thing. So different from myself, Nolan or Fred Williams who had more of an overview of landscape. Her own vision looked to the ground, to Mother Earth.”

Tim says his mother had a quiet dedication to her practice, the core of which he describes as idiosyncratic.

“She never stopped [painting]. That’s all I remember her doing apart from making my bed when I was too young to do it myself,” he says.

His father was “the gregarious one, the Spanish flamenco dancer - he was the conductor with the paintbrush”.

“The way he works is with so much bravado, and you see that in the large gestural ways he tries to assert himself on the landscape whereas my mother was more interested in investigating the landscape and getting inside the inner workings of nature and the unseen spiritual aspects.”

Tim says his parent’s relationship was a “romance of destiny”. “One of my clearest memories as a child was waking up in the middle of the night and hearing down the corridor from my parent’s bedroom them still conversing in bed,” he says. “I remember the context of their conversations being about art and creativity and literature. It was one of the most lovely things to have parents who had an intellectual connection.“

Even after the couple parted, Strong would send Olsen books on topics of mutual interest, the son having to soothe the ruffled feathers of his father’s new partners.

Strong continued to paint, signing or initialling her works Valerie Strong or Valerie Marshall Strong, from her mother’s line. She went on to teach at TAFE colleges, influencing a new generation of artists.

Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty once told Louise: “The reason I got so interested in art was because my mum went to one of your mum’s classes in Hornsby.”

Both Olsen children hope that the exhibition they have curated will draw attention to their mother’s contribution to Sydney’s cultural life.

“We feel she made a contribution; she had a wonderful, sensitivity and way of looking at Australian native and landscapes. She captured that uniquely Australian light, colour and tone,” Louise says.

Tim says his mother’s intimacy with the landscape was “something so special that puts her in a category of her own”. “There are very few great Australian women landscape painters who have been able to achieve that sensibility.”

Who knows, says Louise, “maybe if she had been living in a different time when women were more valued as artists more people would know her work. If you look at the female artists at the time, how many are well known today? It’s a fraction of the number of male artists we know.”

To assist in documenting Valerie Strong’s art practice, owners of original works are asked to contact

Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen – A rare sensibility, November 6-27, and John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, October 29-November 27, are showing at the National Art School, Darlinghurst.

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