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Brush strokes bring balance to barrister’s life


Barrister Oliver Koehn loves his job, but he’s also passionate about painting – so much so that a couple of years ago he cut back his work hours so he could spend more time on his art.

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Koehn now works nine days a fortnight in the criminal law section of the Legal Services Commission (SA’s legal aid service) and on the other week day puts brush to canvas creating portraits and landscapes from his home-based art practice.

“My painting helps me bring balance to my life,” he says.

“Like most jobs in the law, the work is demanding and stress levels can be very high.

“We hear a lot about high rates of stress-related illnesses in the legal profession and the consequent need for lawyers to have other pursuits outside their professional lives. These pursuits are a diversion from work issues and provide an opportunity to reflect and recharge.

“My art does this for me.”

Koehn currently has 14 paintings on show alongside work by two other artists – his wife, photographer Malinda-Ro Koehn, and fellow painter Jan Burns – in an exhibition titled Where? … Reflections on Place at the North Adelaide Community Centre Hall.

Although he drew and painted from an early age, Koehn tells InDaily it was Malinda-Ro’s battle with breast cancer that prompted both of them to start taking their creative pursuits more seriously around nine years ago.

He says on his website that the confrontation with mortality brought home for him the truth that “dreams count for nothing if they are not realised”.

Koehn held his first solo exhibition at the Legal Services Commission in 2008 and has since shown his work in a number of other places around Adelaide.

His 14 paintings on show in North Adelaide were inspired by an 18-day trek he did with his sister-in-law and a friend along the western shores of Lake Torrens to raise money for Cancer Council SA.

“It was very isolated and we had to cart all our gear in a specially designed trolley because it was too far to carry everything by backpack,” Koehn says. “We had supplies buried along the way.

“It was quite an eye-opening expedition.”

The barrister-artist was awestruck by the vastness of the 250km long by 30km wide saltwater lake, by its fascinating flora, and by the rocks – “so many different rocks, many of them moulded and formed by what must have been waves lapping against the shore a long time ago”.

Malinda-Ro was support team co-ordinator for the trek, and many of the rocks featured in her series of images in the Where? … Reflections on Place exhibition were photographed at Lake Torrens.

'Specular', Lake Torrens, by Oliver Koehn.

‘Specular’, Lake Torrens, by Oliver Koehn.

Koehn says he was initially frustrated by the discovery that even in such a remote natural location, there were still signs of human activity. He decided to channel those feelings into his paintings, which seek to convey both the beauty of the lake and the tension between people’s desire to escape the ratrace and the “spoiling effect” of intrusions into untouched places.

‘It was really quite amazing – it was almost a spiritual experience,” he says of the trek.

“I was looking for something that would inspire me and I was really moved by it.”

Koehn’s work and art have previously come together through portraits (both paintings and caricatures) of his Legal Services Commission colleagues and others from the legal world, some of which were shown in an earlier exhibition at the North Adelaide Community Centre Hall.

'Fishing for evidence' – Koehn's painting of Judge Muscat.

‘Fishing for evidence’ – Koehn’s painting of Judge Muscat.

Through the portraits, he seeks to convey the subjects’ characters and out-of-work interests. There is one, for example, of Judge Paul Muscat fishing from a pier, and another of former LSC barrister Julian Kelly, whom Koehn describes as a crusader for justice.

“For his [Kelly’s] retirement, I was commissioned to paint a portrait of him.

“He’s dressed up as a crusader with armour and a tunic with the Legal Services Commission logo, and he’s got an arrow stuck in his side; his face is contorted in agony and there are references to a recent case he was involved in.

“It’s quite dramatic.”

'R v Keogh', by Oliver Koehn.

‘R v Keogh’, by Oliver Koehn.

While some of his art is inspired by his work, Koehn says that usually when he paints he turns off to everything else.

“I put on all sorts of music and just drift into other worlds … sometimes it’s almost euphoric.”

Artists Oliver Koehn, Malinda-Ro Koehn and Jan Burns are showing their work at the exhibition Where? … Reflections on Place at the North Adelaide Community Centre Hall, 176 Tynte Street, until May 26.


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