Portrait of the piss artist as a young man
The Spectator 19 October 2020
Ross Fitzgerald_view full article online
Being the son of the revered John Olsen has often been intriguing, and sometimes difficult.
Olsen, 92, is arguably Australia’s greatest living artist, and is still painting. His son, Tim, 58, the author of this fine memoir, runs one of Australia’s leading art galleries in Woollahra, Sydney.
In Son of the Brush (a play on the laconic expression ‘son of a gun’), Tim Olsen brilliantly encapsulates the contours of what now seems to be his ultimately fortunate life – its triumphs, its failures, its tragedies and its joys – including the pleasures and pitfalls of having a hugely famous father.He recounts his early life with fondness and honesty. In the 1960s, before the family left for Europe, Tim was the small blonde-haired boy who often sat on the steps outside John’s local pub, grasping a large glass of cold pink lemonade. Inside he could see his dad, arm in arm with some of the most important painters Australia has produced, all toasting ‘Let’s us raise our glasses men ! We are the brothers of the brush.’
This is not a self-help book, but it does deal in detail with Tim overcoming his abuse of alcohol and other drugs and eventually emerging as a flawed but impressive personality after years of living under the shadow of his father. As a fellow traveller on the path of recovery, I found much to inspire between the covers of this engaging memoir.
Tim is no God-botherer, but he does recount the importance of discovering a sense of serenity and of spirituality, in the broadest sense. Thus, this deeply revealing book is ultimately about finding a new way of life, after almost losing it all in a self-destructive haze. It reveals much about the best and worst of his old life, especially with John.
After eventually stopping drinking and drugging over nine years ago, Tim Olsen has finally found an effective way to live, one day at a time. To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, widely used in meetings of Alcoholic’s Anonymous, he has been granted the ability to accept the things he cannot change, the courage to change the things he can and also the wisdom to know the difference.
Son of the Brush, which is dedicated to Tim’s son James and to his extremely talented mother Valerie, is also about the wider world of art and artists in Australia and overseas, and the inspirations and sacrifices of the creative life.
As this book makes clear, John Olsen had so much more going for him than sheer talent. Despite being a bon vivant, Tim’s father possessed huge drive and energy, a large ego, a literary appetite, an articulate verbal capacity, and that great plus, ‘studio discipline’ – all of which buttressed his art.
The struggles John Olsen endured in order to bring up a family and become a successful artist are counterpointed with Tim’s inner struggles against a false sense of entitlement, laziness and self-indulgence.
For years Tim convinced himself that his life’s purpose was to constantly please his father and seek his approval, thus undermining his own potential.
Convinced that his life could never be of any real value, Tim’s only recluse from this damaging charade became the bottle, coupled with his own self-delusion. As he puts it, ‘More of the bottle, more of the bullshit.’ As Tim writes of himself, he was ‘doing the dance of fools.’
Tim’s alcoholism meant that for decades he blamed everything and everyone else from stopping him from being able to do great things. He was caught up in an intense sense of self-loathing, in conjunction with the narcissistic notion that the world revolved around him. It was a toxic combination.
As Tim’s drinking increased, he became increasingly resentful and obese. When serious health issues confronted him, he was haunted by the deep fear that he was heading for an early grave. Despite all the fame surrounding his father and family, Tim felt terribly alone.
Eleven years ago, after attending the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, California, he came to realise that his only solution was to learn how to live without using alcohol and other drugs and to develop a new way of living. But it took almost two years for him to finally stop drinking and drugging.
These days, despite being estranged from his wife, he now cares lovingly for his 16-year-old son James, who seems to be his spitting image. In particular, Tim is proud to be ‘a non-practicing alcoholic’ – which is a term he was taught by a mentor, the artist Margaret Olley, who was 40 years sober when she died.
Sobriety and a subsequent spiritual awakening have enabled Tim to make sense of his life and thus be able, to his own surprise, to write this engrossing memoir. His humour, experiences and acute observations all come together to produce some fascinating revelations about the shenanigans of an upbringing, and a currently successful career, in the often surreal and treacherous art world.
Tim Olsen’s story about a son charting his own course in life is courageous and deeply moving, including as it does an illuminating account of his recovery from addiction, a journey I am pleased to be sharing with him.
For Tim it was great reward that, shortly before she died in October 2011, his mother Valerie said that while she didn’t care all that much about Tim’s successful gallery or his material gains, she was at peace knowing that he’d finally learnt how to like himself and that the great internal war he was having with himself was over.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 42 books, including THE DIZZYING HEIGHTS and a memoir, FIFTY YEARS SOBER: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY (Hybrid: Melbourne).