Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen: A rare sensibility

‘A rare sensibility’ is the first solo exhibition of Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen’s work. Curated by Tim and Louise Olsen, in loving memory of their mother a decade after her passing, this exhibition aims to give Valerie the recognition she deserves as one of Australia’s unsung, yet remarkable female artists.

The exhibition is on at the Rayner Hoff Project Space in the historical grounds of Sydney’s National Art School in Darlinghurst, until 27 November.

Valerie, mid-1970s. Photograph: Robert Raymond

‘A rare sensibility’ beautifully presents a lifetime of Valerie’s work with almost 80 paintings and drawings drawn from Tim and Louise’s treasured collection of their mother’s artworks, as well as a few on loan from private collections, including Winter Shadows (1963). Winter Shadows was a last-minute addition to the hang after the painting was brought to auction and purchased by a private collector in the lead up to the opening of the exhibition. Without the synchronicity of this timely exchange coming to the attention of researcher and designer Kylie Norton, who assisted with the curation of the show with Tim and Louise, the whereabouts of this particular work would have remained unknown to the family, at least for now. Valerie rarely sold her work preferring to keep her paintings together as part of one and other, and gifted only a small few to friends during her lifetime.

It is said that Valerie had no desire for fame, thus she flew quietly under the radar and only ever exhibited a couple of works in group shows. She had no interest in the limelight bestowed on other artists of her time but instead delighted in sharing the development of her artistic endeavours with her role as a mother, as wife to her (ex) husband, artist John Olsen, and as an art teacher.

Valerie reflected the delicate beauty of the natural world in her surreal and abstract paintings, drawings and prints, which illustrate the landscapes and gardens, shorelines and ponds, she encountered. She also enjoyed creating still life compositions from objects she found while out walking.

‘Mum had an amazing aesthetic eye,’ says Louise. ‘Through her eyes, you would see the simple beauty of the everyday, the subtle tones of colour in a leaf, the texture of a feather.’

Valerie Strong, Afternoon Yarramalong, 1963, oil on board, 90.2 x 120.5cm

Never shy of the outcomes of experimentation, Valerie articulated her vision and connection to nature in brilliant executions of colour, light and shadow and with her intuitive yet carefully considered brushwork and mark making rendered in oils, mixed media and watercolours on canvas, board and paper. Her varied painting style and techniques are evident as you cast your eye from one artwork to the next around the gallery walls.

In a 1965 interview with Hazel de Berg, a photographer and documenter of Australian oral histories, Valerie expressed how painting filled her with joy.

Valerie said, ‘I find my whole relationship with life is heightened when I paint, that when I’m around those I love, I am so much more exhilarated with their presence, that they have so much meaning to me.’

For Valerie, the art of painting was a meditative practice that resonated deeply with the intrinsic sense of quietude that so gently framed her character and enveloped her as she moved through the world. “I remember her spiritual side, how she would meditate and was such a calm and gentle person. I admire her lovely temperament, how she related to life in general and was so kind and understanding of others—something I have tried to emulate myself,” says Camille Olsen-Ormandy, Valerie’s granddaughter.

Valerie Strong, Pond in Half Light, 1982, watercolour on paper, 30 x 32cm

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue documenting each of the works in the exhibition as well as family photographs and portraits of the artist. Personal insights from Valerie’s family and friends reflect on cherished memories from her lifetime while her own voice resonates throughout the book with collected quotes.

‘Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen: A rare sensibility’ is running in parallel with the ‘John Olsen: Goya’s Dog’ exhibition in the NAS Gallery, and ‘Kaye Schumack: Drawing Sydney’ in The Drawing Gallery.

All are on view until 27 November and make a superb mini art trail through National Art School’s exhibition spaces.