Margaret Olley: Woven into consciousness


John Honeywill, offers his personal reflections on Margaret Olley’s work and how her spirit has shaped his practice.

I met Margaret Olley once. In 2009 she came to her old school — Somerville House, where I taught art for many years — to be honoured for her contribution to Australian culture. Like most Australians, I knew Olley through her paintings, the portraits, her biography and the photographs of her home. She had been woven into my consciousness for many decades, though I did not know her personally.

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John Honeywill at Open Studio
Open Studio at the Queensland Art Gallery

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I finished teaching in December 2017 to focus on my painting, and four days later I began a residency at the Tweed Regional Gallery. I was invited to respond to the objects in the Margaret Olley Art Centre and made six paintings for the group exhibition ‘A Painter’s House’, held in conjunction with three other artists (Monica Rohan, Lewis Miller and Guy Maestri) who had done similar, earlier residencies. The initial impression of clutter in the re-creation of Olley’s Duxford St home quickly changed into an appreciation of a richly lived-in space as I spent time in the rooms, selecting and handling objects, becoming increasingly aware of the personal nature of these bowls, jugs and bottles and the stories they held. Her paintings included so many of these objects.

John Honeywill, Australia b.1952 / Jug and artichoke flower 2018 / Oil on linen / 92 x 71cm / Collection: Tweed Regional Gallery / Image courtesy: The artist and Philip Bacon Galleries / © John Honeywill
Margaret Olley, Australia 1923-2011 / Hawkesbury wildflowers and pears c.1973 / Oil on board / 101.5 x 76cm / Purchased with the assistance of the Members Acquisition Fund 2011 / Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / © Estate of Margaret Olley

I felt a sense of responsibility as I used Olley’s objects in my own work, reinterpreting them and their conversations with each other. I have been very fortunate to have had this access, as it has enabled a positive shift in my paintings. My deepest gratitude is for being able to spend time there, because each visit back into Margaret Olley’s rooms became more emotionally touching — a combination of happiness and gentle intimacy that gave me a sense of the private world of this uncompromising, wonderful artist.

John Honeywill, Artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation member

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‘A Generous Life’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) 15 June – 13 October 2019 examined the legacy and influence of much-loved Australian artist Margaret Olley, who spent a formative part of her career in Brisbane. A charismatic character, whose life was immersed in art, she exerted a lasting impact on many artists as a mentor, friend and muse.

Feature image detail: Margaret Olley Hawkesbury wildflowers and pears c.1973
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