Margaret Olley: Far From A Still Life

Far From A Still Life, by Meg Stewart (2012)is a biography about Australian Artist and Philanthropist, Margaret Olley.

The life of Margaret Olley is a facinating one…she was far from perfect, but she also achieved some amazing things that many of us dream of doing in our own lifetime. A recovered alcoholic, a smoker, a gypsy, a landlord, a philanthropist, a mentor and an artist, she trod her own path and was true to her own story.

I loved the little things beneath the surface that impacted her craft, the challenges she overcame and the experiences that forged her path. It is particularly important that we learn the reality of Olley’s life in an era where our society seems to be ever more focussed on the glossy manipulated image of perfection, rather than the reality of an authentic human.

It is a particular pleasure when you are reading a book and can relate to the locations and picture the spaces talked about.  Olley was born in Lismore (NSW), but grew up in Tully (QLD) and before spending most of her adult life between Brisbane, Sydney and Newcastle.  That is when she wasn’t travelling and adventuring all over the world.

Meg Stewart’s account of her life is factual and intriguing as you can hear the voice of Margaret coming through in sections where she clearly spent time talking to her.  Parts can become a bit dry as fact starts to outweigh the narrative, but it is a fabulous read to get some insight into the life of an artist who followed her own path and did what she loved. 

This is some of the main things that I took away from the book.

Income to Follow Her Passion

I found it encouraging and grounding to read about her adventures to earn an income to supplement her art.   I spend so much time pushing myself to try and live off my art when the reality of pushing the standard and development of my art practice is more important and sustainable.  Discovering the various jobs she did along the way was so varied and interesting.  Learning that the benefit of this dual purpose led her to be in a financial position of being able to support the arts in such a solid and uplifting way as a philanthropist in her later years impresses even more the importance of balancing reality with creating.    Olley was human, but she is also a wonderful role model to look up to as an creator regardless of your medium.

Margaret Olley with Archibald winner Ben Quilty who painted Margaret’s portrait


Often we try to lift our idols up into a god like status of being perfect, but Olley was anything but.  She was real and happily told her story of what that meant.  I got the feeling she never really tried to be anything other than who she was….for better or worse she was unapologetically authentic.

Making Art to Make Money or Making Money From Your Art

Right up until the end she was painting and preparing for a show.  In those times when you feel like giving up, or that maybe its too hard, it is imperative to remember that some of the most well known artists today never sold a painting in their life time, and lived a life of poverty.  It is their legacy that we know, not the reality of when the art was created.  As artists when we are pushing ourselves to build a brand and try to make a business out of our artwork, it is perhaps wise to remember the importance of creating something that is lasting, authentic and true to who we are.  Asking ourselves why do we paint? Create?  Is it for us or for someone or something else?  There is many ways to make money and anyone can do it, no one else has the ability to create art like you do.

Practice Practice Practice            

Every biography I read about an artist talks about them drawing, painting, creating every day.  Its something they have to do like breathing and eating.  Of course perhaps the narrative is constructed because that’s what the author thinks we want to read, but the evidence of drawings from artists such as Olley prove the validity of this claim that the continual and endless practice of creating contributes to artwork that is lifted to another level and sings its skill and energy.

Paint What You Know

I know in the past I’ve read books about writing and they emphasise the importance of writing about what you know, your experience, to create a story that the reader can really engage with.

I can see the value of this in creating art too.  There is something in the soul of an artwork that shines through when it comes from a deep place within its creator.  Those paintings that test me the most, contain more of me than the ones that I’ve rushed through or painted thinking it will attract a potential buyer. 

It doesn’t mean I can’t teach myself and embrace new ideas, but that to create something authentic I must put in the research, the practice and the exploration to create a well executed artwork.

Flannel and Wildflowers by Margaret Olle


One of the key things that stood out for me in Olley’s story is the importance of the people in her life.  Whether it was her Mum as her number one cheerleader, or the passion of people like Philip Bacon to pursue her to be a part of his gallery, those relationships helped to carve out the legacy that Olley has left.  Artists do need time alone to create, and the feed their creative spirit, but they also need to have a great network of people around them if they wish to share their vision with the world.

If you’re fascinated by the creative journey, or perhaps just want to learn more about Margaret Olley and her artwork, I highly recommend reading this book.

Read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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