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ART AND SOUL

Belle Magazine Oct/Nov 2007

Leta Keens


On a miserable night in June, it seems half the popultion of Sydney is at the opening of Tim Olsen's gallery in Sydney. It's hard to hear his father, artist John Olsen's speech above the din, and the place is so packed you wonder if the paintings will survive the crush. As for looking at art, this is not the time. "I didn't realise I had so so many friends." says Tim with a laugh a week later, surrounded by artworks in the calm light-filled space. "The word was out, this was the place to party."

The opening may not have been quite what he had in mind, but the move into the 1840's building, originally the horse-drawn tram station on Jersey Road, was cause for celebration on his part. "I've been looking at this building all my life," he says. "I remember driving through Paddington as a boy, when my father showed with Rudy Kumon just around the corner, and thinking how interesting it looked. " And to make sure it was the right place for him, Tim, who says "the spirit world makes itself known to me a lot", had a medium check it out. "She said there was an old bloke, Nick, out the back, whistling as he was shovelling hay, and he had been waiting for me."

Tim feels forces were on his side when he embarked on the renovation project - reconstruction the interior of the building almost from scratch took a record three months, "with no neighbour or council issues. Everyone embraced what it was going to become." The two-storey gallery, by directing architect Angus McDonald, has uninterrupted white walls and high ceilings, a central glass atrium that lets in plenty of natural light and white stringy-bark floors. It is in complete contrast to Tim's former gallery in Paddington Street, an intimate space which someone once described, both for its size and atmosphere, as "the corner shop of the art world."

"Hopefully, this will still retain the corner store atmosphere." says Tim, who worked for a number of commercial galleries in Sydney before going out on his own in the 90's. "But it's good for the artists to be in a bigger space - they're wondering now how they're going to paint for this gallery, but it will make them better artists."

With artist parents, it seemed inevitable that Tim and his sister Louise, co-founder of Dinosaur Designs, would end up where they are today. As Louise says, "There were always pencils and paints around the house when we were growing up, and seeing both parents paint encouraged us to participate more in it. Both of us have gone in our own direction in the art world, but have done it in a creative way." But Tim points out, "I went through a rebellious stage where I wanted to be a business man of some description." He did try to be an artist, "and while I was a good printer - some of my little etchings still come up for auction - I didn't have the temperament for it. I have the gregarious side of my father, but not the flipside of his capacity to be alone and to operate in solace."

The gregarious side of his father has given Tim his most enduring childhood memories: feeding 30 or 40 people with "trees of mussels we collected off the wharves at Watson's Bay - Dad's a great cook" : John Olsen turning up "to watch me play rugby with a beret and red scarf and a lovely pink shirt while the other fathers were gentrified in their tweed jackets and R.M. Williams boots - Dad would be up one end with all the mothers and have them eating out of the palm of his hand"; and heading off to bed when artists like John Passmore, Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend ("I didn't really know who they were") had come to dinner. "There would be the cacophony of passionate discussion. That was the most wonderful, secure thing. I felt the house was a treasure-trove of thought; the air was as colourful as the pictures on the walls."

One of Tim's first memories was of his father's studio in the living room "and me walking there as a three year old and treading on a palette of paint. dad tells the story of when I was about four attacking a painting of his at about five in the morning. He saw it, went into decline and had lunch and a couple of bottles of wine with Rudy [Kumon], thinking he obviously wasn't meant to work that day. He came back that night, looked at the painting and said to my mother, 'He's a genius, my God, that's brilliant. I think I can work with it.' Now that picture hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW."

And then, Tim says, "there's the smell of gum turpentine - that's something that's so much a part of the world I grew up in." It's still in the air at his gallery, where he looks for "a sense of drawing" in the work of emerging and established artists including David Bromley, Paul Davies and Murray Hilton, which hang on the walls. "It doesn't matter whether it's a painting or a sculpture or a photograph - I still need to feel a drawing in it," Tim says, adding that for reasons of "honesty and genuineness" he has to like the work of an artist before he can contemplate selling it. "There has to be beauty in it too. There can be fun, joy, melancholy or bleakness but beauty and metaphor are also things that I look for." According to his father, as well as his "natural affability, Tim has a very good eye. Unless you've got that as a dealer, you're pushing up against it."

With his belief that art is a good mixer, Tim can see the gallery becoming the focal point for "all sorts of sensory experiences - dinners, poetry readings. Or I could imagine a string quartet playing here." John Olsen approves of the space, and isn't adverse to using the shopkeeper analogy to describe it. "It brings things to life in the community," he says. "It's like having a marvellous resturant or a special delicatessen or a fruit shop that is really fantastic."

 

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