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How art helped John Olsen through heartbreak

The Daily Telegraph 9 March 2017

Elizabeth Fortescue

ARTISTS often talk about their studios as locations of solitude and retreat. But John Olsen's beautiful Southern Highlands workspace took on an even deeper dimension late last year.

Olsen was completing two final paintings for his seven-decade retrospective exhibition that opens tomorrow at the Art Gallery of NSW.

"It's the studio that really saved me," Olsen says. "Meaning this, that it became more than a studio - it became a chapel."

Olsen's wife Katharine died of cancer just before Christ­mas. But in the three months preceding that she had returned from hospital to their beautiful rural home, where her beloved horses grazed in the fields and Silver the great dane was constant company.

During that precious time with Katharine, Olsen found solace by working in the studio that adjoins the couple's house.

"It was a kind of retreat because in the other section of the house my darling was slowly dying," Olsen says.

"Very strange, really. Which kind of demonstrates that we can determine so much of our lives but we can't determine all of it. There are hidden things."

Olsen says something "curious" happened in the studio while Katharine was still alive and he was completing the final two paintings for the retrospective.

"Somehow it became very important that I remain optimistic about life and so consequently that's what happened."

A strong sense of ­ongoing life certainly emanates from the two paintings. They are Sydney Harbour and You Beaut Country: Crawling Landscape.

Olsen also produced a suite of paintings that his son, Tim Olsen, will exhibit in his Woollahra gallery from March 15.

Working frantically during a ­gut-wrenching personal episode must have been a massive effort for an 89-year-old, albeit one with seemingly boundless energy. According to author Darleen Bungey's 2014 biography of Olsen, Katharine was dignified, patient, reserved and efficient. She was Olsen's fourth wife, whom he married in 1989.

Despite his personal heartache during and after Katharine's illness, Olsen was professional and accommodating towards gallery staff who were mounting his retrospective, says co-curator Deborah Edwards of the AGNSW.

"It seems quite clear that his work has been his way through this terrible situation," Edwards says.

"From our perspective we have seen a man who has been enthusiastic about the show and extremely generous with his time."

The retrospective, John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, features paintings, ceramics, tapestries and works on paper from collections all over Australia.

Born in Newcastle, Olsen has long had a reputation as one of Australia's finest painters.

"For me, work is like breathing," Olsen says. "I'm an artist like a dog is a dog."

Olsen is drawing prolifically at the moment.

"He thinks a lot of it is about Katharine," Edwards says.

With Katharine so recently in his sight, that is hardly surprising.

* John Olsen: The You Beaut Country, Art Gallery of NSW; from tomorrow until June 12, $16 adult, $14 concession, $12 member, $40 family, $8 child aged five to 17, free for children under five, artgallerynsw.gov.au

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