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Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Page: 8505

Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (18:35): To say that our country has lost a national treasure with the death of Margaret Olley on 26 July is not an exaggeration but a statement of fact, Margaret having been named as such on the occasion of her being awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia. Margaret Olley's significant contribution to the art world will long outlive her, and I count myself fortunate to have met her on several occasions. Once asked how she would like to be remembered she replied:

Ah ... l don't know, for helping people I think.

Indeed she will be. This artist and philanthropist will remain an icon for her art, which is such an important part of our society. Creativity brings life and innovation. Margaret Olley enriched Australian galleries with her own work and the donated work of others—masters and unknowns alike. In addition to gifting the works of such luminaries as Picasso, Cezanne and Degas, worth literally millions of dollars, she encouraged struggling artists by buying their paintings to donate to galleries to help build the artists' portfolios. Margaret Olley, as a true artist, referred to her work as 'the only thing I like doing ... the only thing I've wanted to do all my life.' Celebrity was not important. Indeed, as a young woman when William Dobell won the 1948 Archibald Prize with his portrait of her, she said she was embarrassed to think that people were looking at her.

Although technically born in New South Wales, Margaret Olley grew up in our state of Queensland, where we claim her and where her talent was first recognised during her time at Somerville House. Of course such a talent would not be confined to one place or town and she travelled the world painting and studying before choosing Paddington in Sydney as her home, where she lived a long and full life in her famously eclectic home. When asked what her final words might be she replied:

I might say to the good Lord: 'Just one minute. I haven't finished that painting'.

It is therefore truly fitting that she died after a full day of painting. She was a vibrant soul until the end and her vibrancy will survive her. This is a woman who in her later life was forced to make use of a walking frame but equipped it with both a bicycle bell and a car horn—definitely not a woman to be ignored. The last time I saw her she also had a glass of carefully balanced on her walker as well. She was passionate not just about art but about social and political issues as well. Her vigour and persistence made her a role model. She encouraged emerging artists, including Ben Quilty who—fittingly in this last year of her life—won the Archibald Prize with his stunning portrait of her. When he asked why she painted so many works at one time, she said:

I'm like an old tree dying and setting forth flowers as fast as it can, while it still can.

Indeed, those flowers will continue to blossom through not only her own works or the works she so generously donated to the people of Australia but also in the success of the young artists she mentored and who will continue to enrich our culture through their work.

What a life, and what a legacy has been left to us. Margaret Olley once described her philanthropy with the simple analogy of a turning wheel, that all of life was about giving and receiving and therefore linked—simply adding 'so I like to give'. The art world and indeed all Australian people are so fortunate that we were the ones to receive.