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John Olsen at the Opera House

SOH Talks and Ideas Jan 19, 2016

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Living treasure John Olsen spoke at the Sydney Opera House about his largest commission, "My Salute to Five Bells" which is located in the Northern Foyer of the Concert Hall. The Australian artist spoke about his art making practice, love of cooking and why he'll never retire.

 

I can remember being at a Sunday party and the Chairman of the Dobell Foundation said to me "How would you like to do a mural in the Sydney Opera House.". I said: James, it's not Chrstmas yet, it's an overwhelming thought and I said, "Of course.". I was taken around the site and it was still very much in the manner of building and I selected this spot and I thought that if I'm going to do this, because it is in a major position that I should get in touch with Utzon, who by that time was in Denmark. So I wrote to him, and he said, "make it swing, west to east. Make it part of the harbour." And I thought "Yeah".

What was your inspiration for the painting?

I'm going through this poetry book, Australian poetry and I come across this Slessor  poem "Five Bells". It's a great poem, a very great poem, and it runs parrarell to what happened with the Opera House, these first lines: "Time that has moved by, little figit wheels, the wheels that do not move between the double and the single bells. There lies Jo who lies between five bells."

The time came, what colour? Now I'm thinking of what Utzen said, and the poem goes on: "Deep and dissolving feeries of light, of moonshine down, moonlight." And I wanted to get that particular colour that reminded me of those summer nights on Sydney Harbour and you're on a ferry and it's leaving a lovely wake. And it's just wonderful. It's such a wonderful way to fall in love. It's so good and you know, we have it in Sydney. It's part of us. The landscape is inside us. It's a wonderful thing. I mean aren't we lucky. I am in the landscape and the landscape is in me. And the still point of the turning world do not ask me where I've been. I only know that I've been there. Moonlight, Sydney Harbour.

Will you ever retire from painting?

Well two people have said that to me this morning. Are you still painting? Well what's breathing, because I am, but, one thing that I am able to recommend is this: work makes work. And if you have a passion to do anything, continue it because retirement is just the end and we must never forget that we are on a short holiday from eternity.

It was such a good thing to spend time on it (touching the mural).

Don't touch it!

I can I can do anything.

Someone will come along and say you are a vandal!

It will be a philistine. We're used to that.

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