Vivid’s “Vale” to Australian Artist John Olsen

Giulia Sirignani


Jun 12, 2023

At 6 pm sharp on every night of this year’s Vivid Sydney, the late Australian artist John Olsen’s vibrant paintings of the natural world will illuminate the Sydney Opera House sails.

Before his death on Easter Saturday at 95 years old, Olsen had been proud and excited about the planned project in which his works depicting Australian nature and landscapes would adorn the iconic sails. Titled “Lighting of the Sails: Life Enlivened”, the visual spectacle is curated by Dr. Deborah Hart and animated by creative technologists from Curiious.  

Just a few days after the late visual artist and painter’s State Memorial Service in Sydney, his children Tim and Louise Olsen, and beloved grandchildren James and Camille gathered with family, friends and Olsen enthusiasts to watch his works animate the iconic building – a fitting canvas.

James Olsen, Tim Olsen, Peter Conistis, Louise Olsen, Camille Olsen-Ormandy, and Stephen Ormandy. Photo credits: Belinda Rolland

At the intimate setting catered by chef Peter Conistis at his harbourside Ploos restaurant, stories abounded about Olsen’s unique life – from his love of Mediterranean food after living in the Balearic Islands and Portugal in the 1960s, to family adventures at Camps Bay on Sydney Harbour.

“Lighting the Sails 2023 is uncanny timing,” Tim reflected. “It is an ode to John. It really was his way to sign off.”

John Olsen
The Vivid drone show lights up the sky in front of Olsen’s artwork. Photo credits: Belinda Rolland

Tim, an art gallery owner, talked movingly about his father’s work and personal life while requesting guests use the toast his father insisted on offering at family dinners, referencing his favourite poem from poet Kenneth Slessor – “Five Bells”.

Daughter Louise, an artist and co-designer of Dinosaur Designs, described Olsen’s last years and the touching times spent together around the kitchen table at his Southern Highlands home.

“He always had a sketchbook at the kitchen table. It was like an art school. Even at 95 Dad was still like a big kid. He never lost his inner child,” she remembered.

Musician William Barton, a proud Kalkadunga man, singer and performer of the didgeridoo who’d played at Olsen’s funeral earlier in the week, gave an emotional tribute to the great artist whose career spanned 60 years winning the Wynne Prize, the Sir John Sulman Prize, and the 2005 Archibald Prize.

John Olsen
Artist and Musician William Barton.
Photo credits: Belinda Rolland

“Now Uncle John is up there painting those big dreaming stories too with those elders of our landscape and our mother country,” declared William.

Among the guests were VIVID Sydney Festival Director, Gill Minervini; Destination NSW CEO Steve Cox and Chair Sally Loane; Michael Do, Curator of Contemporary Art at Sydney Opera House and Fabio Nardo, Creative Director of Curiious– all of whom collaborated to bring to life the VIVID Sydney Olsen Opera House activation. Journalist and Broadcaster Lisa Wilkinson was also among the 70 attending guests.

John Olsen
Lisa Wilkinson and Tim Olsen. Photo credits: Belinda Rolland


By Giulia Sirignani


Giulia Sirignani is a Walkley-nominated journalist, director and producer with nearly 30 years’ experience working internationally in broadcast and print journalism and as a documentary director. Giulia has reported and produced for ABC, Nine Network, CNN, NBC & PBS America, CNBC, RAI (Italy) and wrote for Fairfax publications in both Australia and New Zealand as well as corporate and tourism blogs. Giulia writes and produces content for lifestyle websites and She also trains politicians, corporate teams and academics in media and presentation skills, personal branding and corporate narratives. Giulia has edited books on public speaking and personal branding.



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