Mar­garet Ol­ley’s stu­dio is re­born

Vis­i­tors can sam­ple Mar­garet Ol­ley’s chaotic Syd­ney workspace, which has been packed up and moved to a gallery in north­ern NSW, writes Joyce Mor­gan

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IMAG­INE the brief: erect a new build­ing, in­stall cracked, peel­ing win­dow frames and at­tach ceil­ing cor­nices sea­soned by years of tobacco smoke, then com­pletely fill the pris­tine space with an Aladdin’s cave of art and ephemera, from arm­less man­nequins to a bowl of plas­tic eye­balls, that have set­tled un­der a patina of dust.

The project is the an­ti­dote to Grand De­signs, in which ar­chi­tec­tural wrecks are trans­formed into gleam­ing dream homes. Re-cre­at­ing artist Mar­garet Ol­ley’s Syd­ney home is no task for the faint-hearted.

Part of her ter­race in Padding­ton in Syd­ney’s in­ner city, where she lived, painted and died, has been trans­planted to the rolling hills of Mur­willum­bah in north­ern NSW. The Mar­garet Ol­ley Art Cen­tre will open on March 15 as a pur­pose-built ex­ten­sion to the Tweed Re­gional Gallery.

It is be­lieved to be the first time an artist’s home-stu­dio has been re-cre­ated in Aus­tralia. It is a ter­ri­fy­ing hon­our, ad­mits gallery di­rec­tor Susi Mud­di­man.

“I have been a nightmare to the builders,’’ she says. “It’s a bizarre sce­nario for them. They are try­ing to make orig­i­nal door frames and win­dow frames that are fall­ing apart fit. They want to do a good build­ing job, they don’t want it to look like it’s fall­ing down.”

Three rooms, the ram­shackle for­mer Hat Fac­tory tacked on to the rear of Ol­ley’s ter­race, the lit­tle Yel­low Room — the sub­ject of many paint­ings — and kitchen have been re-cre­ated in­side the gallery.

“In the last cou­ple of weeks, I’ve started to get that spooky feel­ing when you walk in. It’s so real,’’ Mud­di­man says.

As the in­te­ri­ors have taken shape, Mud­di­man has re­alised how the mind plays Alice-in

Won­der­land tricks. “The first day I walked into the [re­con­structed] Yel­low Room, my im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion was, ‘Oh, the ceil­ing is way too low, it’s not right at all.’ I had this mild panic,’’ she says. “Then I re­alised that I was so used to [Ol­ley’s] paint­ings of the Yel­low Room.”

In these, the Yel­low Room ap­peared big­ger and wider. Call it artis­tic li­cence — or the en­chant­ment with which Ol­ley im­bued her world.

Ar­chi­tect Bud Bran­ni­gan has taken a the­atri­cal ap­proach to the re-cre­ation while at­tempt­ing to make the spa­ces look au­then­tic.

“It’s al­most a stage-set ap­proach,’’ he says. “What you want is for some­one to say, ‘Ah, now I can un­der­stand where she lived and how she worked and how she painted.’ ’’

Cre­at­ing the phys­i­cal space is just one as­pect of the $4 mil­lion project. As with a paint­ing, it’s what is in­side the frame that will lodge in vis­i­tors’ minds. In Ol­ley’s house the mar­vel­lous and the mun­dane rubbed shoul­ders. Egyp­tian scarabs nes­tled with dried pomegranates, an orig­i­nal Pi­casso with Kama Su­tra place­mats, spice racks with paint palates, turps bot­tles with wellused ash­trays.

The Padding­ton house was so over­flow­ing that when project cu­ra­tor Sally Wat­ter­son be­gan doc­u­ment­ing, sort­ing and pack­ing the cor­nu­copia of won­ders ahead of its re­moval to the gallery, her first job was to clear a tiny space in which to work. As she sat day af­ter day in the Hat Fac­tory — with her lap­top bal­anced on her knee and a hack­ing cough from the dust — she no­ticed a lit­tle vase in the shape of a wheat sheaf perched be­hind a chair.

“I’d been look­ing at a vase on a daily ba­sis. Then I re­alised where I had seen it,’’ she says. The vase was in Ol­ley’s 1955 work Still Life

with Ket­tle, now in the Art Gallery of NSW. Wat­ter­son dis­cov­ered more trin­kets that had ap­peared in Ol­ley’s paint­ings, of­ten from decades ago, in other parts of the house. This prompted Wat­ter­son to sug­gest that ephemera from else­where in the house that had ap­peared in Ol­ley’s paint­ings should be ac­quired by the Tweed gallery.

As such cu­rios con­tin­ued to be un­cov­ered, Wat­ter­son no­ticed, as Mud­di­man had with the Yel­low Room, that their scale in re­al­ity was dif­fer­ent from their artis­tic ren­der­ing.

“They were ac­tu­ally a lot smaller than they ap­peared in a lot of im­ages. They had a lot less power in phys­i­cal re­al­ity,” says Wat­ter­son.

Ol­ley was a great en­ter­tainer who wel­comed a stream of vis­i­tors. Yet all houses con­tain sec-

IN OL­LEY’S HOUSE THE MAR­VEL­LOUS AND THE MUN­DANE RUBBED SHOUL­DERS

rets, pri­vate items not in­tended for pub­lic con­sump­tion. How to strike a bal­ance be­tween pre­serv­ing Ol­ley’s house but not ex­pos­ing in­ti­mate de­tails never meant for pos­ter­ity or pub­lic dis­play?

“Per­sonal documents were in other parts of the house,’’ says Wat­ter­son. “So there was not a lot of moral de­ci­sion-mak­ing to be made. If there was any­time I wasn’t sure — for ex­am­ple med­i­ca­tion or a script for medicine — I was lucky enough to have the two ex­ecu­tors who knew Mar­garet well and I would say: ‘ What do you think?’ ”

More than 70,000 items have been cat­a­logued, packed in 160 boxes and sent in seven trucks to the Tweed gallery. Very lit­tle was thrown out — no mat­ter how un­usual or un­ap­peal­ing it was.

“There was a lot of de­bate about cig­a­rette ash,’’ says Ol­ley’s friend and co-ex­ecu­tor Chris­tine France.

Was any taken? “I think so,’’ she says. “We did throw out some chocolates and dead rats. But we took one rat in a plas­tic bag.”

The house France knew in­ti­mately yielded items not even she was aware of, in­clud­ing a large sofa buried un­der piles of books and pa­pers. More sig­nif­i­cant were the un­fin­ished paint­ings, sketches and stud­ies that emerged.

“Mar­garet might have started some­thing 15 years ago and she’d get stuck and she’d put it aside. Then she’d walk past it for a cou­ple of years and she’d go, ‘ah, I can see what’s wrong with it now’ and start work on it again,’’ says France.

“So there were a lot of things that hadn’t seen the light of day. They were stacked one in front of the other so you only ever saw the one that was at the front.”

Many of these will go to the cen­tre, says Philip Ba­con, Ol­ley’s dealer, friend and co-ex­ecu­tor. The ex­act num­ber is still be­ing de­ter­mined. Ol­ley col­lected works by her fel­low artists, in­clud­ing Cres­sida Camp­bell, Ni­cholas Hard­ing and Euan Ma­cleod, and these have been given to the Tweed gallery.

And what would Ol­ley make of the re-cre­ation? “She’d be thrilled,’’ says Ba­con.

She was aware of the plan, which Ba­con dis­cussed briefly over lunch the day be­fore she died in 2011, when her friend Quentin Bryce — the Gover­nor-Gen­eral, who will open the cen­tre as one of her last of­fi­cial en­gage­ments — ar­rived with a pic­nic lunch. Ol­ley gave the idea the nod and swiftly changed the tricky sub­ject.

“She said: ‘I think that’s a lovely idea. Now does any­one want more quiche?’ ” says Ba­con.

Ol­ley’s house was the cen­tre of her life and art, he says. She tried liv­ing in a grander house nearby, but re­turned to her ter­race.

“She loved the light and be­ing able to move from room to room depend­ing on the sea­son,’’ says Ba­con. “She made it into a won­der­land.”

Re-cre­at­ing her won­der­land has meant be­ing part-voyeur and part-de­tec­tive, Mud­di­man says. “You’re pry­ing on some­one’s life and at the same time there’s a fas­ci­na­tion. It continues to paint a por­trait of her and ev­ery­thing she had around her.”

The Mar­garet Ol­ley Art Cen­tre at Tweed Re­gional Gallery, Mur­willum­bah, NSW, will open on March 15.

From far left, views of Mar­garet Ol­ley’s home, trans­planted to Mur­willum­bah; Susi Mud­di­man in­side the Mar­garet Ol­ley Art Cen­tre, top right; Ol­ley with a copy of Cezanne’s Bords de la Marne, a paint­ing the Art Gallery of NSW bought in 2008

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