The Art of Kuring-gai

It’s all on the wall

Yellow, black and grey abstract artIt’s hard to miss Kuring-gai’s punchy green carpets and the fuschia trim but there’s a lot more colour to be found, much of it hanging on the walls. Janet Ollevou, Assistant Curator of the UTS Art Collection, started work at UTS in 2008. One of the first things she noted was the importance of Modernist Abstraction and its relevance to the Kuring-gai site.

“At Kuring-gai specifically, I found it fascinating to see this wonderful architecture, and I realised there was a whole segment of the collection here from a moment in art. It became clear that many of the works were purchased at the same time and that time was the construction and opening of Kuring-gai,” she says.

Ollevou became convinced that much of the inventoried art was specifically chosen for the architecture. “It makes so much sense when you look at the way the colour works within the concrete structure.”

Her collection highlights include the hard edged abstractions, the shaped canvases, full of colour –she loves how they activate within architect’s David Turner’s amazing building. It is far too easy to lose an artwork when placed in such strong, bold, concrete structures. “If you put an ordinary painting on the walls it could suck the life out of it, but many of the Kuring-gai  artworks were bold enough to stand up to their surrounds.”

It’s not just the powerful paintings that draw attention. Another part of the collection contains a small but extraordinary collection of textiles. When Kuring-gai opened, there was a large arts and crafts department and these works were likely selected to complement the teaching program. A personal favourite of Ollevou’s is a Finnish rug, or ryijy, handcrafted from wool and cotton by Uhra Simberg-Ehrstrom. The artist was an original Marrimekko designer and the work was feared lost until it popped up, packed away in a cupboard!

"Collection highlights include the hard edged abstractions, the shaped canvases, full of colour."

There are also the sculptures, familiar to many who visited the Kuring-gai campus. Two of them, by Ken Unsworth, triggered Ollevou’s curiosity. “When I saw his name on the art collection list I wanted to have a look. He is one of the venerable masters of Australian art and these are very early, important works” she says. When the works were located, off-display in the underground car-park and in poor condition, they decided to contact Unsworth with an eye to restoration.

“Ken has an amazing visual memory,” she recalls, “He had never seen the finished commission as he had gone overseas before it was completed,  but took one look and said ‘That’s wrong’. We thought he was upset at the condition but the fabricator had accidentally flipped a piece.” In the end, the award-winning work “Blaze” was rebuilt from scratch and looks fabulous in its new home outside the Great Hall. “It is just the right place” states Ollevou, “it’s always amazing to see graduates interact with it, having their photos taken next to it after a ceremony.”

Ollevou often receives requests for particular pieces, with people becoming attached to works they associate with great memories. One visitor to UTS realised that he used to play near one of the Ken Unsworth sculptures as a child, while attending theatre performances held at Kuring-gai . Always remembering the work and artist, he had actually grown up to become an artist himself.

It is this kind of interaction Ollevou hopes to encourage. Earlier this year, as part of her continuing studies, she organised an exhibition containing elements of the Kuring-gai College collection alongside other works from the UTS Art Collection and more recent work by contemporary artists. Called ‘Colour on the Concrete’, the exhibition and self-guided art walk showcased art from Kuring-gai. An amazing list of artists was featured, with works by Tony McGillick, Michelle Collocott, Alison McMaugh, Graham Blondel, Emma McGilchrist, Col Jordan, Chris Bull, Fred Cress and John Dallwitz.

Red and black abstract artMany more items will show their faces in a new display, in January 2016, when Kuring-gai stalwarts attend the city campus for the first time. ‘Going Bush in the City’ will feature artworks from the collection that speak to the bush landscape and built environment of Kuring-gai and hopes to, “capture the casual, relaxed attitude that Kuring-gai was known for”.

Both UTS Tower and Kuring-gai are of a similar age and there is a strange synergy between the two, many of the works sit very well within the tower, almost as if chosen for it. Ollevou explains, “It’s been brilliant watching the campus evolve. The Kuring-gai collection has real vision and I’m quite excited that UTS has inherited these complementary works. We are very lucky with the works we obtained from Kuring-gai.”

Story by James Cottam
Photography supplied by UTS Art Collection