Louise Olsen recalls drawing with lipsticks during one of her first art classes as a young child.
Her parents, award-winning painter John Olsen and artist Valerie Strong, ran The Bakery Art School in Paddington, and Louise remembers attending the “quite exuberant” life drawing classes.
“I remember in one class, my dad said, ‘Look at this kid’s drawing’ and I was feeling so proud of myself because there were all of these big students, all drawing around me,” the UNSW alumna and Dinosaur Designs co-creator says.
“Children’s drawings are so good at getting inside the feeling of the subject. They somehow capture the essence of the figure of the subject, whereas when we get older, we tend to get caught up in what we feel something should look like.
“That’s what my parents’ classes were about – getting inside the essence of the subject.”
Similarly, her husband, UNSW alumnus and Dinosaur Designs co-creator, Stephen Ormandy, says he wasn’t ready for kindy unless he had his smock on, ready to paint.
“Someone must’ve told me then, ‘You know you can do this as a living’, because I was obsessed with it,” Ormandy says.
“School, from kindergarten, was something I had to get through to get to art school.”
The couple, who met at the UNSW College of Fine Art (COFA), (now UNSW Art & Design), started design company Dinosaur Designs more than 30 years ago as a way of supporting their painting careers.
“To set up a market stall and sell your paintings was possibly not the best idea – it’s not quite the environment you envisage,” Ormandy says. “So we came up with something more immediate – we painted earrings and t-shirts. It’s still painting.”
The successful resin jewellery and homewares business, which had its roots in the Paddington markets, now hosts stores in New York, London and Japan and sells on Net-a-Porter as well as in Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdales.
After a long hiatus, the couple are, as Olsen puts it, “stepping forward as the artists that we are”, in the exhibition Olsen Ormandy: A Creative Force, which is at the Newcastle Art Gallery until February 17.
“Dinosaur has been such a creative outlet. It’s not as if we haven’t been working: we’ve been working non-stop … every bead’s a sculpture … we just haven’t been expressing it in paint or on canvass,” Ormandy says.
“As a villager would work in clay, we work in resin in the same way. It’s hand-felt, it’s got the touch of the creator, the humanness, which is why people hold our work and feel the hand.”
“I also think, being an artist, it’s a lot of solitude, it’s a lot of time on your own … and I don’t think I was ready for that,” Olsen says.
“Dinosaur (Designs) swept us up and we created it, but we’ve definitely loved it and enjoyed it, and grown so much from it.”
The Newcastle exhibition hosts paintings and sculptures by the individual artists, as well as collaborative works.
“I’m painting abstract landscapes. I’m really fascinated by space and about the empty fullness of space … particularly living in a country like Australia, where it’s so vast and yet so full – that fascinates me, and working in compositions with landscapes,” Olsen says.
The artist says she has always been conscious to have a different voice to her 91-year-old father, who she says creates “more symbolic” paintings than hers.
“Dad’s [painting] is more juicy, like lines of paint, and I’ve got a little bit of that but I’m probably not as linear,” Olsen says. “His is more figurative, where mine is more colour-filled.”
“Louise has been working down there [at her father’s studio in Bowral]. He keeps going down to the studio and grabbing a brush and he’s getting very excited about what she’s doing and she’s saying, ‘Dad! Back off!’,” Ormandy says.
“I think the power is simplicity for me; I love that sense of composition around that,” Olsen says.
“So that’s where I feel I separate myself. Where dad will keep going with it, which is so nourishing and lovely.”
The painter says she was more influenced by her mother, Valerie Strong, who used to swap paintings with artist Fred Williams and who she says created “beautiful abstract forms”, and “had a lot of poetry and a delicate nature to her work”.
“She had an incredible sensibility, an incredible fineness and she’d spend up to six months working on one colour, creating a surface,” Olsen says.
Ormandy uses photo collages of coloured paper shapes as a foundation for his paintings and sculptures, which are inspired by art, the human body and nature, particularly the Australian landscape and fauna.
He says he was interested in the make believe idea of stage and plays at art school.
“I was often calling works ‘Macbeth’ or ‘MacDuff’ – you know these things that were just swirling around in my head,” Ormandy says.
At art school, he befriended Daniel Coburn, son of abstract painter John Coburn, who allowed him to use his spare Kings Cross studio and who also influenced Ormandy’s work.
“I had this opportunity to see and talk to John Coburn on a daily basis, and I think that interaction sank into me, that simplicity of shape that he has,” Ormandy says.
“A lot of people often talk about Coburn when they look at my work and yes, his influence is there, but I think Olsen is there too with his sense of colour and underpainting, the structure that John put into a painting, although often hidden in the craziness of line and mark.
“But there’s a sense of ‘design’ for want of a better word that sits under his work, which is a great influence.”
Ormandy says he has simplified the way he has gone about his painting, and has focused on three main areas – “that’s line, tone and hue”.
Their 19-year-old daughter Camille Olsen-Ormandy has also developed a passion for portrait painting and is about to start her third year studying Fine Arts at UNSW Art & Design.
While Ormandy remembers dragging his daughter “through a million galleries” when she was younger, Olsen recalls Camille being fixated on a Wassily Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York when she was 10, and having a childhood obsession with Jackson Pollock.
Ormandy says he’s not surprised that Camille is interested in “grabbing a foothold somewhere maybe left of what we are all doing”, adding that Camille’s grandad was one of the great Australian portrait artists.
“[Olsen] just did the most beautiful portrait of [Swiss sculptor Alberto] Giacometti,” Ormandy says.
“The hands were working with clay in this drawing … and Giacometti’s just so intense. He gets the passion of the artist.
“But yes, she’s finding her feet I guess, in a crowded space.”
The artists say their exhibition at the Newcastle Gallery is a milestone for them in terms of scale – “because Newcastle’s a large, very scary space as an artist” – but they are not intending to slow down.
Olsen’s paintings will be part of a group show in New York this month (January), and she will also exhibit at her brother Tim Olsen’s Woollahra gallery in August.
There are plans afoot for her to exhibit in New York in 2020.
Ormandy will exhibit on the historic Island of the Impressionists in Paris in May.
“They are quite excited about my work and I’m excited about showing it.”
The advice Olsen and Ormandy have for UNSW Art & Design students is “don’t stop – simple as that”.
“People ask ‘Why is Dinosaur successful? Why are you as artists achieving?’ and I just say, ‘It’s simple, we didn’t stop’,” Ormandy says. “We love process, we love making, that’s the joy.”
“You don’t stop, and you navigate your way, and you work, work through it,” Olsen adds. “As long as you keep working at it, [art will] give back.”