Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen

The first survey exhibition of Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen's work hangs in the National Art School's Rayner Hoff Project Space. In it, we find an overdue opportunity to connect with an astute, devoted artist attuned to global modernist developments in painting, whose work is largely still owned and safeguarded by her children.

Valerie Strong painted a great many landscapes, to varying degrees of abstraction. Night Garden, c. 1984, is one such painting. In it, you can see Strong’s devotion to form: to line, but also to pattern and tone. From a grey-green wash flicker patches of orange and red, and beneath these the dark lines of tree trunks or branches declare themselves clearly for one moment before retreating into the fields of colour designating canopy or undergrowth. Looking at the painting feels like waking from sleep and opening your eyes in the morning, blinking, letting the light settle and the world solidify. 

Valerie Strong (elsewhere referred to as Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen, the name with which she signed many of her works) was born on New Year’s Day in 1933, in Sydney. By her own account, she was always an artist: “As long as I can remember I’ve always been drawing and painting. I can always remember my mother getting very annoyed with me for using up all her writing pads as a child,” she told Hazel de Berg in 1965. She lived in New Guinea with her family until the age of eight, at which point the Second World War broke out, and the family returned to Sydney. After school, she studied as a millinery designer, and saved enough money to send herself to East Sydney Technical College, now the National Art School. It was here that she would meet John Olsen, a teacher at the College at the time, who she would go on to marry. They would have two children, Tim and Louise, from whose collections most of the work in this survey is drawn.

The story of this relationship – both the particular story of Valerie and John and the more generic story of the young woman student and her older male teacher – is well-worn, and for fair enough reason. There were other important connections made at the College for Strong, though. She was taught by John Passmore, whose self-effacing philosophy, and approach to artmaking, is cited by Tim Olsen as a deep and lifelong influence on Strong’s work and ethos. Strong painted, as the show attests, prolifically, and yet this is her first survey show, ten years after her death in 2011. Seeing Strong’s works together – in the project space opposite the main gallery in which John Olsen’s Goya’s Dog is concurrently exhibiting – feels like waking from sleep and opening your eyes in the morning, blinking, letting the light settle and this under-examined body of work coalesce.

Steven Alderton, Director at NAS, expresses similar sentiment: “Valerie was an outstanding student at the National Art School, who became an accomplished and inspired artist and teacher in her own right. It’s wonderful to bring her work into the public eye and pay tribute to her as an important part of on of Australia’s most renowned creative families.” The show comprises works across a long period of Strong’s life, from 1959 to 2004, which number around seventy. A special highlight includes a work, Winter Shadows, which recently surfaced at auction.Sydney designer, editor, and researcher Kylie Norton, who had been working on the catalogue raisonnee for John Olsen’s show and researching Valerie Strong for some time, had been trying to locate the work to no avail when it emerged at auction, to the surprise of family and researchers alike. The work is generously loaned for the exhibition from the buyer, and is especially significant as the painting that Strong is working on in the only extant photograph of her at work, taken by David Beal in 1963.

The exhibition attests to a life of artmaking under-recognised by exhibiting institutions, by writers, and by researchers alike. The reasons for Strong’s absence from our cultural imagination and our archives aren’t firmly suggested by the exhibition, and nor can they, I think, be speculated upon with any certainty. Certainly Strong’s status as a woman, and the wife of such a figure as John Olsen, plays a role. I sense the story is also more particular, and thus more strange and more interesting, that that as well. Strong spent the final days of her life in St. Vincent’s Hospital, sketching the view out of the window, which included the buildings of the National Art School. Whatever the reason that this is the first major show of her work, there could be no more fitting venue. 

Valerie Marshall Strong Olsen – A rare sensibility
6–27 November 2021
Rayner Hoff Project Space, National Art School, Sydney

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related