The news that artist Olaug Vethal passed away reached me on February 26. The sad, shocking news made me stop from my work and reflect about her friendship and artistic activity as I experienced it.
Olaug and I became friends while meeting every Saturday and Sunday to draw and paint from live models at Alfred Briffa's studio in Mosta. During short breaks we talked and reflected on each other's works and eventually even exchanged drawings.
Later on she asked me to make speeches and officially inaugurate two of her personal exhibitions. One was in June 2004 at the Caraffa Stores in Vittoriosa where she focused on her response to some of Caravaggio's works. The second was at Artitude Gallery in Sliema in 2006 where she showed works, mainly inspired by African people. I had visited her studio in Depiro Street, Sliema, various times to follow closely the progress of her prolific production.
I had watched her at work, making broad movements, not just with her hands, but involving shoulder and hip movements. She moved the totality of her body making gestures with her hands in attempting to capture what she wanted to represent, many times through sweeping brush strokes and flow of paint. Olaug's art is about rhythm, getting hold of her painting completely, immersed in the powerful language of colour, which was sometimes mixed directly on the canvas.
She wanted her art to be fresh and free. Her work was generally vibrant and joyful. In those exhibition speeches I had summarised Olaug Vethal's art in three points which I would like to repeat here.
First is speed in execution. This was very important for Olaug, for she wanted her art to record the immediacy of what she felt towards a particular subject or mood at a particular unique moment in time.
The second quality is freedom, for she wanted to reduce premeditation as much as possible as a consequence of the first characteristic.
Thirdly, her work is about energy translated into concrete forms, whether the subject was nudes, bathers or whatever.
Having said this, she was never embarrassed to record in her sketching or paintings any second thoughts that at times developed later on or during some doubtful moments while working. She was never afraid to make alterations, cancel, or even destroy images. She believed that the painting had a life of its own and allowed this to be manifested in her self-expression. Her self-confidence grew as she worked incessantly, gaining more control of her different media and relative techniques.
Some considered her art too rough, messy at times, incomprehensible, even chaotic. But Olaug lived her art and for her art. She was honest in what she did and did it with passion. She was also a devoted teacher and will be missed by students, family and friends.
Because of my long absences from the island, I make it a point to take with me some reminders of home and dear friends. With me I have a watercolour sketch retouched with crayons representing sunbathers on our beaches. Her spirit lives on. So long Olaug, and thank you for your art.