There was once an Australian painter from the hills of northern NSW named Margaret Olley, who had a keen talent. She liked to scribble her ideas on cigarette packets and work amidst clutter. Her home, which was also her studio, was replete with paint, brushes and odd objects, found on chairs, tables and in bowls and baskets.
She would create scenes and leave them. Food would rot, flowers withered, and she would rebuff her friends for attempting to tidy up. She despised having nothing to look at and a cluttered space helped her increasingly frail body move about.
Of course I never met Margaret Olley, who lived to become Australia’s most famous still-life and interior painter. She died in 2011, aged 88. However just two days ago I paid a visit to her gallery, the Margaret Olley Art Centre at the Tweed Regional Gallery in Murwillumbah, which tells us more about its artist than most.
It was the wish of this eccentric and spirited painter that her home/studio in Paddington, Sydney, be relocated to the gallery, the area in which she grew up. And so it was. Her living room, kitchen, dining room and main painting room, which was once an old hat factory she had renovated, were moved. As was what she called her “yellow room”, which she said was “an essential part of my life and work. It was my sanctuary. It had an ideal quality of intimacy.”
However it’s the 75,000 objects that were brought in and meticulously placed, just as they once were, that tell us more about this artist. It was a fastidious undertaking, one which pained builders who fixed her original doors and windows – which were frail, battered and smoke-stained – and spawned debate over whether or not her cigarette ash should be included.
In fact, cigarette butts were placed just as they were found, the orange light Olley preferred to work in was replicated and objects such as armless mannequins and a bowl of eyeballs were transported, complete with veils of dust. The whole effect is something like a snug Gypsy’s hideout – a warm, cosy, yet harum-scarum looking abode. Items such as mouldy chocolates and three dead rats were, however, disposed of at her Paddington home.
I admit to feeling a little dirty gazing through the windows, upon the personal belongings most dear to a woman I had never known. Seeing the chair where she liked to work, paint tubes strewn across the kitchen and flowers languished on the dresser felt almost like I was peering into the underwear draw of somebody’s grandmother.
The front lawn of the gallery – behind which are views of rolling green hills, the Tweed River and the tilted peak of Mount Warning – is marked playfully with the letters O-L-L-E-Y-W-O-O-D. Clearly this was a show, and when I reminded myself this was something Olley wanted, I felt a little more relaxed.
One of the volunteer staff, Bob Dagworthy, who had met Margaret Olley on several occasions, told me she was a blunt woman with a good sense of humour and a twinkle in her eye. She also had a big heart and was an ardent supporter of young artists and art galleries of all sizes.
I wasn’t allowed to take any photos of her paintings, some of which I greatly admired. You’ll just have to go and see for yourself.
The gallery is located at 2 Mistral Road (corner of Tweed Valley Way) Murwillumbah, NSW. Entry is free.