Tuesday, July 23, 2024

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HomeIssue 3A life in flowers: new account of the extraordinary Olive Pink

A life in flowers: new account of the extraordinary Olive Pink

p2523 Olive Pink cover 300A sumptuous new book by Gillian Ward brings to light the people, the art, the ideas, and the natural world that shaped the life work of Olive Pink. Ward is a reference librarian, researcher, artist, photographer and graphic designer, who worked for many years at the University of Tasmania Library as a librarian and exhibition curator.
The university holds an Olive Pink collection which then consisted of over 200 paintings of arid land plants donated by the artist just before her death. From this collection, Ward created an exhibition in conjunction with the Tasmanian Herbarium. So started the journey over more than a decade which has culminated in the publication of Olive Pink: Artist, Activist & Gardener (Hardie Grant Books)
The book is in two distinct halves. The second half is a selection of 55 of her Central Australian Botanical paintings; 44 of these plants are grown in the Olive Pink Botanic Garden where the book was launched last Saturday. The first half is a profusely illustrated biography, told where possible in Miss Pink’s own words.
This was made much richer by the generosity of her great nieces in Western Australia who shared their family photographs, letters and paintings with the author. Much of this material they have since donated to the University of Tasmania, greatly enriching their Olive Pink Collection. Currently much of the material featured in the book is being shown in an exhibition at the Morris Miller Library at the University of Tasmania.
Following is the launch speech by former curator at the garden, COLLEEN O’MALLEY. She invited Gillian Ward to Alice Springs  in 2006 to help with an exhibition and celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the garden’s creation, which was when the book idea first emerged:-
To many people the name Miss Olive Muriel Pink conjures up an image of a feisty, stubborn, strongly opinionated elderly woman who lived alone on the margins of Central Australian society and who made the lives of politicians, bureaucrats and even simple storekeepers very vexed and difficult. It is so easy to hold to that stereotype of the elderly spinster of a certain era, and to only see Miss Pink in that uni-dimensional way. But, thanks largely to two books we can get a much more nuanced and richer insight into Olive Pink’s life and the passions, ideals and people that shaped and coloured her life’s journey.
p2523 Olive Pink art 300These are the work of long-time friend of the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, Professor Julie Marcus whose immensely readable and very enlightening biography, The Indomitable Miss Pink: A life in anthropology, has recently become available in a new edition; and now a beautiful new book by Gillian Ward, entitled Olive Pink: Artist, activist & gardener:a life in flowers.
Starting with Miss Pink’s early years in her family’s home in North Hobart, Gillian has woven together a rich tapestry of images and words. She shows Olive’s extended family and friends, her home and surrounds. We also meet her various teachers, several of whom went on to strongly influence her thinking and some of whom doubtless sowed the seeds for her progressive attitudes toward social justice and her life-long interest in Aboriginal welfare.
Throughout these early years her twin passions of art and botany/gardening were well cultivated and allowed to thrive. Bushwalking around the wilds of Mt Wellington with her family or camping with art school friends she was never far from nature, and the gardens in her own family home and that of her grandmother’s provided inspiration for many of her early sketches and paintings.

One’s garden would seem like travelling over the world! In Hobart my Grandmother (Pink) had an Obelia (or Abelia) tree. It came from the Himalayas!!!….Then tulips – which are my ‘favouritest’ flower (pale butter-coloured ones especially) come from Turkey (not Holland as I had thought!) Peonies from China, Forget-me-not from the Alps (among other places) and so on – endlessly.

At Hobart Technical School where she first studied art and later at the Julian Ashton School in Sydney she mixed with many artists and aspiring artists, several of whom she had enduring friendships with. Some of them were similarly independent, strong-minded women with socially progressive ideas and attitudes.
It is clear that Olive greatly appreciated the skills and techniques she learned at the school although she didn’t always appreciate its rigours:

At Julian Ashton’s we drew nothing but skulls (real ones) – & plaster casts of arms, legs, hands and feet for months and months…….And we had to draw still life until we loathed it (almost!) (Bottles and ginger jars and apples etc!) Then we drew from anatomical casts of muscles, of limbs, face, and then whole body (And had to memorize these) Drew from a skeleton too. All had to go through this – (whether they aimed at painting landscapes or portraits or flowers or anything else.) Skulls! Skulls! Skulls!

Her art would be the one thing that she could fall back on throughout her life to help supplement her otherwise meagre income. Gillan’s book shows us the many ways Olive used her artistic skills to earn her living – on several occasions throughout her life setting up her studio and exhibiting her work or taking on fee-paying art students, or working with one of her artist friends to produce exquisitely hand painted cards or calendars depicting various wildflowers or garden plants.
p2523 Olive Pink sketch plantain 300My particular favourite (at left) is a Charles Rennie Mackintosh-reminiscent rendition of (I think) simple plantain flowers that Olive Pink sketched for one of the calendars she produced in 1922.
It was in 1920s Sydney that Olive Pink’s humanitarian interests developed. She joined several progressive humanitarian societies in that period, including the Association for the Protection of Native Races. Ideas sparked at these meetings would lead her to Central Australia and on to her later anthropological research and her work advocating for improved welfare and land rights for Aboriginal people.
However, it was her art and her interest in botany that gave Olive Pink a socially acceptable reason for a single woman to travel alone into the relatively uncivilised frontier that was late 1920s Ooldea to camp with Daisy Bates, and then later in 1930 to undertake a six month sketching tour of Central Australia. This later trip involved traveling by rail and stopping for several weeks to camp at various sidings to paint and sketch the wildflowers that were carpeting the country following drought-breaking rains.
It is artwork from this latter foray into Central Australia that Gillian has curated into the second part of her stunning book. Pairing each of the art works with a photograph of the actual species represented and with notes collected by Olive Pink or provided by local ecologist Peter Latz about various Aboriginal uses of particular plants, Gillian has created a gorgeous resource that field naturalists, gardeners and artists alike will take delight from.
Gillian’s book helps to show how at home Miss Pink was in Central Australian landscapes, and how despite the rigours of heat, flies, and few material comforts, and often in the face of indifferent – if not downright hostile – relations with neighbours or authorities, she was able to create a home in desert environments by surrounding herself with gardens and by immersing herself in the wonders of the natural world:

They are a marvel of bush beauty. Hundreds and hundreds of ‘hyacinth’ – coloured (they are not ‘blue’ really) ‘stars’ – facing upwards to the sky. They are in front of the Hut and bordering the creek…. I am very thrilled! As I saw masses of them (about 3ft tall) at Ellery Cr[eek], when I was out on a camel in 1930 and have wanted ‘a Creek and bluebells’ ever since!!! So now I have one.

Little did I imagine from early conversations between Gillian, Julie and I about a book on Olive Pink’s art, that Gillian would unearth the rich archival material that has allowed this idea to germinate and flourish. Her meticulous research and deft writing skills as well as her ability to build trust and a strong personal relationship with Miss Pink’s extended family has allowed us for the first time to see many of the personal letters, the cherished family photographs, annotated drawings and postcards, and the bits of domestic trivia that are on display in the book and which help build up such a rich picture of the creative and activist life of Olive Muriel Pink.
p2523 Olive Pink author 430So it is with great pleasure that I launch Gillian Ward’s book Artist, activist & gardener Olive Pink: a life in flowers here in this garden that Miss Pink so loved, that came into being through her vision and as a result of many years of hard work by her and her gardener John Jampijinpa Yannarilyi, and here on land owned by Arrernte people whom Miss Pink so admired and to whom she dedicated much of her activist life.
Right: Gillian Ward, left, with Colleen O’Malley. Photo courtesy Alex Nelson.  
At the launch Gillian Ward went on to read excerpts of Miss Pink’s letters to her niece Muriel Pink during World War II, in which she found  a softer side than that on show in many of her letters of complaint and lobbying for various causes. At the time she was camped for four years at Thompson’s Rockhole in the Tanami Desert. Her camp, surrounded by Bean trees, consisted of a small tent and her Chevrolet buckboard ute between which was constructed a rough shade shelter made with tree boughs under which she had a table.
Miss Pink writes:

I have been trying to paint some cards … but they are very badly painted. It is no joke trying to do it either in the hot tent (to get out of wind) or in wind and heat under “brush shelter” between tent and car. I have to wear a mosquito net veil all the time. Myriads of flies (smaller but like house-flies) and the humidity is so great that my pince-nez slip off my nose, and drips of perspiration drip off my face. So is it any wonder that they are not “masterpieces”.

Miss Pink often reflected on the comforts of home whilst camping at the Rockhole. In another letter to her niece she reflects:

I feel I’d like to be dictating it (the letter) sitting in a saddlebag chair (or rather dangling my legs over the arm of one – in front of a log fire (in a house). Not permanently but for once.

Instead I am sitting on an old car-seat (with cushions on it) under a bough- shade, with the starry sky as my ceiling and my feet on a fruit case – writing by a hurricane lamp. The only music is the distant sound of aboriginal voices – and the intermittent “whirr” of white ants.

Despite the hardships of living in the heat under very basic conditions she stresses the joy she has living surrounded by nature. In this letter she describes a particularly joyful occasion:

I (at times) only have about a cup of water in which to have a sponge bath so now perhaps you won’t be so shocked if I tell you when a little rain fell about a month ago – (the second lot since March! and then only a dribble). I soaped myself (in tent) put on tennis shoes only and went out in the rain (and light hail) for a shower bath. It was the loveliest I have ever had!!! With hail a massage – when it was blown against one by a strong, very cold, wind. (I finished with a school-girl complexion – all over!!! …I am longing to do it again!!! Don’t tell …of your Aunt’s doings – especially in the nude (They’d think I had “gone native” Far from it!)

Ms Ward concluded: “I hope that those of you who read my book enjoy learning more about this extraordinary woman who was ahead of her times in so many ways. Independent, intelligent, feisty, passionate and artistic – and with a good sense of humour. ”


  1. In a letter of thanks to Dan Conway and the staff of NTA District Office in Hartley Street in 1969 for remembering her birthday on St Patricks Day with a bunch of flowers, Miss Pink fondly recalled her favourite flower from when she was a little girl in Tasmania.
    Primrose forget-me-nots.
    Miss Pink used the term “Alician” to describe herself.
    Thank you, Ms Ward, for this lovely tribute to a great Alician, a true Lady of the Red Heart who loved all flowers.


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