Olive Pink is Australia’s very own Georgia O’Keeffe

By Angela Heathcote | November 30, 2018

The dreamy desert life of Olive Pink may be one that some Australians know little about.

BOTANICAL ILLUSTRATOR Olive Pink was born in Tasmania in 1884, but felt home was in Alice Springs, Central Australia – just as famous artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, but died at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Both visited these arid lands in the 1920s and made the move soon thereafter, a move which inspired some of their most spectacular works.

Both artists carry the same appeal: solitary desert wanderers, females ahead of their times and revered landscape and botanical artists, but even to Australians Olive Pink may be less familiar. Yet just as Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Santa Fe has become a shrine, so has Olive Pink’s residency in Alice. Located on the eastern bank of the Todd River, the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, gazetted in 1956, was a hard-won nature reserve. It’s namesake spent countless years campaigning for its establishment.

(Image credit: The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation)

Librarian and author Gillian Ward first came across the works of Olive Pink while working at the University of Tasmania. Following her death in 1975, Olive had requested her artworks be sent to the university to be studied by botany students, and it was Gillian’s job to curate exhibitions based around collections held by the university. “The artworks varied in quality,” Gillian says. “But I became fascinated with her as an individual and her extraordinary character.”

olive pink

An exhibition of her works was held at the university in 2004, and another took place at the Botanic Garden in Alice Springs in 2006. But it wasn’t until Olive’s family reached out to Gillian, offering never-before-seen letters and other personal possessions, that she began putting together Olive Pink: A Life in Flowers, published earlier this year, vividly describing the various stages of Olive’s life: from art school in Tasmania, the move to Central Australia, her campaigning for Indigenous rights and raising the status of arid plants.

Olive first visited Alice Springs in 1926 and continued to make short and long trips there, until she permanently set up camp at Thompsons Rockhole in 1943. “For the first couple of years, she lived in a tent and around that tent she created a fenced off area and planted a garden. It was hard living,” Gillian explains. In 1946, following the end of the war, Olive moved into an abandoned army hut where she set up a small museum to exhibit some of her artworks and arid plant specimens. Sidney Nolan was one of many notable visitors.

olive pink

At first glance, Olive’s paintings may not seem as striking as other Australian botanical artists, which had a lot do with the hot desert climate. “The quality of the artworks depended on the conditions she was in while painting,” says Gillian. “She wrote about how she was trying to paint in the heat of Central Australia where there isn’t much shelter. She also had to work quickly because the plants would droop with the heat.”

But for Gillian, and for many of Olive’s admirers, this is what makes not just Olive, but her desert life, appealing. “She wrote all over the drawings, most of them have little notes, so it became a record of the plant and anything she thought was interesting about it. She still painted pretty cards to generate income, but her arid plant pictures became more of a document,” says Gillian.

In 1956, Olive was evicted from the army hut and was later given a license to pitch a tent in a vacant plot, now the land on which the Olive Pink Botanic Garden lies. In 1958, a hut, similar to the original one, was rebuilt on the site. Before then, however, she had already begun agitating for the area to be officially made into a nature reserve. Australian Arid Regions Native Flora Reserve – later renamed the Olive Pink Botanic Garden – was created on 23 September 1956; a big success. What started out as a small garden today holds 600 Central Australian plants, 33 of which are rare or threatened.

“She would be very pleased to know that it is a thriving community hub now. She saw it as a place where people could have picnics, where plants could be protected from feral animals and other dangers for future generations,” Gillian says. “She would never have envisaged how important it would become, but she did a have a vision for a place where people could appreciate the beauty of arid plants.”

While there are many similarities between Olive and Georgia, what sets them apart is Olive’s variedness, says Gillian.

“I can see the similarities, however, I think Georgia O’Keeffe’s passion was being an artist, where Olive is much more varied,” she says, referencing the idea that Olive may have seen art as more of a way to advance the social issues she cared about, rather than art for art’s sake.

“She loved art, but I think they were coming from different places.”

Olive Pink in the 1970s.