Valerie Strong Olsen
A Rare Sensibility
National Art School, Darlinghurst
6 - 27 November 2021
Rayner Hoff Project Space
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 11am–5pm
National Art School website
A catalogue is available here
Video tour: Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen
Exhibited at the National Art School November 2021
Valerie Strong (1933–2011) grew up in Sydney and Papua New Guinea. After leaving school she studied as a millinery designer, learning her first lessons about colour and form, and saved enough money to attend East Sydney Technical College, now the National Art School, from which she graduated in 1961. While there she studied with John Passmore and John Olsen, who on his return from Spain briefly took over the abstraction class from Passmore. She recalled of her time at art school:
“I feel this was the beginning of my life, as I just found people there that I could really talk to, who understood what I was saying and I could understand them. Somehow I felt I’d been searching for this all my life, and now I feel very glad that I didn’t take up music, as I think that art was the real thing, and it has given me so much more.”
Strong and John Olsen were married in 1962 and together they founded and taught at the Bakery Art School in Paddington from 1967–69. She usually signed her works ‘Strong’ and continued to teach and to practice art throughout her life although she rarely exhibited or sold her work. This is her first solo show.
The works in this exhibition, most never seen before in public, are chiefly from the collection of Strong’s son and daughter, Sydney gallerist and author Tim Olsen and Louise Olsen, a practicing artist herself and co-founder and Creative Director of Dinosaur Designs. Dating from the late 1950s to 2004, the works cross many mediums including oil and gouache on board and canvas, watercolours, prints and drawings, including two life drawings from the NAS Collection.
EXHIBITION DATES: Saturday 6 – Saturday 27 November 2021
EXHIBITION LOCATION: Rayner Hoff Project Space
OPENING HOURS: Monday–Saturday, 11am–5pm
CURATORS: Tim and Louise Olsen
Valerie Froggett graduated in Painting in 1961 from NAS (then East Sydney Technical College), where two of her most influential teachers were John Passmore and Godfrey Mellor. She met John Olsen in 1960 when he taught at East Sydney Tech briefly. They married in 1962 and in 1967 founded The Bakery Art School in Paddington in an old bakery building where they both taught classes.
Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen: A rare sensibility, showing in the Rayner Hoff Project Space from 6–27 November, accompanies John Olsen: Goya’s Dog showing in the NAS Gallery from 29 October – 27 November, 2021. Valerie and John’s children Louise and Tim have curated this exhibition and share memories of their mother.
Mum met Dad after he had just returned from Spain around 1960. She was one of the great painters of her generation who gave her life to her family. Mum was devoid of ego; she painted purely out of her love of art and the creative process.
Mum was John Passmore’s favourite student. She was steeped in the techniques of his obsession with Cézanne, and Godfrey Miller’s idea of tonal palettes. With an incredible sensibility for contemplation in art, she would never make a mark unless she felt it first. A lot of her work relates to an Eastern sensibility in art, particularly the Chinese masters. Some relates to pop art, but the best of her work goes back to Zen Buddhism.
She was a serious artist, working every day, no ‘Sunday painter’. Mum always had a studio and she and Dad would engage in lengthy conversations concerning art, poetry and literature, all of which propagated their creative output. It was a deep intellectual and emotional connection.
From my humorous point of view, she was an art dealer’s nightmare because she would never part with any of her work. People would be offering her ridiculous prices for paintings, but she developed such an intimate connection to her work that parting with it would be losing something of herself. She would rather gift a painting to a friend who she felt loved it for its integrity, than sell a work. She thought of art and money as vulgar.
‘Leave the money part to your father,’ she used to say.
Mum was an incredible teacher. She taught at Hornsby Tech for many years, and at other TAFEs: Seaforth, Meadowbank, as well as having a private group of women she would teach, taking them out to the outskirts of Sydney to work amongst the bush, en plein air. Her classes were always booked out. She would spend hours preparing, going through her vast library of art books, pulling out relevant images and references. She put an enormous amount of scholarship into her teaching.
Her art is mind-boggling, underrated; she is, without doubt, an undiscovered artist. Like Clarice Beckett, Mum’s devotion to her art and her family is very much the same story. The core of her work is very idiosyncratic, and you can see how she was highly influenced by Fairweather, Cézanne, Bonnard and Derain, as well as her teachers.
My father was so gregarious; he was the bon vivant, the crowd pleaser, the famous one. My mother kept Louise and I very grounded and would say, ‘The important thing is to have integrity and learn how to work from the centre of yourself, and not be external.’ While Dad was dancing off into the landscape, it was Mum who held it all together. She was such a strong person in her quietude.
Mum and Dad maintained a close friendship, there was never any acrimony. I miss her love and her wisdom. She was so incredibly selfless and unpretentious, elegant, demure and refined.
From the words I recall her saying, today I still sense her deeper counsel.
Mum, like so many mothers, gave up everything to look after Tim and I, but she still kept painting and drawing in her studio, one of those quiet achievers. She had a wonderful studio in the front room when we lived at Watsons Bay, with beautiful morning light streaming in through the windows where she would work as soon as we had left for school.
It was so difficult for women artists of that generation. We women artists are taken far more seriously now. In Mum’s time, they weren’t and they were silenced in many ways. They were brought up to look after the man and raise a family. On the other hand, many women still had a calling to follow their passions and interests, and for Mum that was art, in every aspect: painting, drawing, poetry and literature.
Mum was always working and thinking about her work. Even when she was juggling us kids, she was in the studio at any moment she could be, diligently and quietly working. Her sketchpad and pencil were her constant companion.
She was a very different sort of artist to my father, so very considered and refined. Dad is considered too but in a different way, a contrasting sensibility. Mum was fascinated by colour. She would spend months developing a colour or a background to a picture. She was very delicate in the way she worked, stroke by stroke, developing each palette. She knew the only way to get that exact tone was by painting many layers to achieve it.
Sometimes it would take her months to perfect.
One of her favourite teachers, Godfrey Miller was also always searching for the unique, special colour. One day, he bounced into class and cried, ‘I’ve found the colour! I was showering this morning and I found the exact colour I’ve been searching for, it’s that clear amber of Pears soap!’
Mum felt that each work led to the next. That is why I would like to keep the collection together because all the pictures speak to one another – she needed to keep those threads going in her body of work.
Mum also did a lot of teaching which supported her financially because she was not interested or ambitious about selling her work. Painting pictures was not about financial remuneration, it was pure love.
People talk about The Bakery Art School as being John’s school, but it was Valerie’s art school too. I remember as a kid, I went to both my parents’ classes. There was no childcare at that time so we would often be there, drawing life models, sketching, painting, whatever the class was doing.
Mum and Dad would try to get the class to break away from a more traditional approach. They would use techniques like: look at the model once, then draw; draw with lipstick; paint the model upside down; or just draw the model, but don’t look at the paper. So you are drawing on the feeling of what you are seeing.
I can remember so clearly, Dad holding up one of my drawings to the class, saying, ‘Look at Louise’s work, she’s so uninhibited.’ I was only six years old then and so proud. It was because I had the uninhibited eyes and energy of a child: I was going with the feel of the model, rather than trying to document the arm, the leg, the head …
Mum was a very hands-on teacher, giving each student time, intuitive to their individual needs. Each student would go away with a personal insight that related directly to their own work. She opened visual doors to people’s understanding of their own work. I remember she would prepare for days for her classes.
Ben Quilty said to me, ‘The reason I got so interested in art was because my mum went to one of your mum’s classes in Hornsby. She loved the classes so much and was so passionate about them, it got me interested in art too and inspired my own art career.’
Mum was a very poetic speaker, with a lovely integrity and deep values that she would share about the qualities of paint and the poetry of painting itself.
Mum opened our eyes to artists like Morandi, William Scott and Victor Pasmore, with her incredible knowledge and vocabulary of artists from the 1950s to the ’70s. I will never forget when Scottish painter Alan Davie visited us at Dural and how much he loved her work. He immediately understood and perceived the sensitivity of her paintings. What he said when viewing one of her paintings was the genesis for this exhibition’s title:
‘Oh Valerie, you have a rare sensibility’, a comment echoed so often by our father.
Mum was the rock of the family in so many ways. She made us feel safe; she always had our backs and was there for us, even as we became adults.
I hope people will come away from this exhibition feeling that sense of poetry and beautiful sense of touch she had. Her love for the natural world, especially the native flora, embodied her work. When we lived in the bush, she would place small stones and rocks around the native orchids so no one would tread on them – they were so tiny you could miss them.
I can still see her going out into the bush with a magnifying glass and her sketch book. She was transfixed by the intricacy and detail of her surroundings.
One thing that has always stayed with me are her values, her love of nature and her sense of the value of nature and of human beings.
Her vision is the most wonderful gift she has left us.