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Sport 38: Winter 2010

Olive Burling (1922—) — Artist

page 260

Olive Burling (1922—)

A longtime resident of Timaru and botanical illustrator, Olive Burling saw a mermaid while visiting her sister and brother-in-law in the coastal resort of Raumati. The sighting occurred during a trip to Kapiti Island. Burling was sketching a clump of grasses at the southernmost tip of the island while her brother-in-law fished from his dinghy on the other side of the island, when an alteration in the colour of the sky made her look up from her page.

Of the experience she would later say only that 'the light changed for me'.

Burling was unable to recall how much time passed before the mermaid sank beneath the waves and the light returned to normal. Silent during the journey back to her sister and brother-in-law's house, she went out the next day and purchased oil paints. Using a discarded set of sails she found in the garage as canvas, she painted the works that would become the basis of the Keel series: Keel I, II, III, IV and V.

In these paintings bold swathes of ochre, cream and brown paint, applied with both brush and palette knife are anchored by the dark vertical shapes that rise from the base of the canvas, bisecting the paintings like a great keel. The colours and shapes appear to float in space; a space that is invented by the artist and has been described as 'profoundly meditative, while not excluding the world'. Ostensibly the record of the changing light over the course of a single day, Burling's Keel series possesses a power which, like Satoe's The Eclipses, compels its audience, even while its meaning eludes comprehension.

Burling continued to work on a monumental scale using unstretched canvas. Besides Keel I, II, III, IV and V, she is most well known for the twelve paintings that comprise the Hieroglyphics series.

from 'Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand'


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