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Matt Ottley Exhibition – Toowoomba

A Special Report from our partners at The Lighthouse Toowoomba

“The first exhibition for 2024 is underway at The Lighthouse Toowoomba and it is wonderful to see The Write Gallery abuzz again with art and audiences.

Matt Ottley’s incredible The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness exhibition opened in Toowoomba to a full house on Thursday 1 February, where his film adaptation, of the book by the same name, was screened at The Strand Cinema, prior to the opening night of his exhibition at The Write Gallery.

The response to Matt’s work has been both immense, one attendee at the opening night commented, “It was a profound and moving experience and offered beautiful insight into complex mental health and Matt’s creativity. His incredible works and message are so important towards breaking down attitudes around mental illness in the community.”

Fellow synaesthete, and local artist, Sandy Pottinger has written a beautifully articulate review of Matt’s exhibition – we have shared below. We encourage you to take the time to read her words, which are on par with the exquisiteness of Matt’s work.

Every secondary school in the region has been invited to bring their senior students to the gallery for this important insight into mental illness, and the art processes Matt uses to start the conversation. If you are reading on behalf of a school, there is still time to book a time that suits.”

Keep up to date with The Lighthouse Toowoomba by subscribing to their newsletter The Beacon.

More from Jenny Stubbs

I attended the opening night event, seeing the film for the second time and the exhibition for the first time.  The exhbition is absolutely amazing! I just love Matt’s work and the way he has shared his personal expereinces with mental health issues. A couple of prints will be gifted to family plus one lovely one from The Incredilble Freedom Machines by Kirli Saunders will adorn my wall. Of course I bought the book to go with it to add to my collection.

It was a packed house in the cinema and they have now organised a second screening to coincide with the end of the exhbition. This will bw followed by a Q+A session with Matt, and book signing at the gallery. Please click here to watch the film trailer



The exhibition is open Tuesday – Saturday 10am to 3pm, or by appointment, until the 29th February. I have had two visits already and have a third planned.


The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness – Matt Ottley

A review by Sandy Pottinger

The Lighthouse complex, which includes the Write Gallery, is a safe place. It is a sanctuary which celebrates difference through inclusion, acceptance and understanding. It offers the opportunity for open discussion, it is a catalyst for growth and awareness, as well as the exchange of information. It also encourages and promotes children’s literacy by offering writing workshops, book readings, and storytelling, and holds exhibitions that are odes to the art of book illustration. 

The current exhibition, “The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbelievable Sadness”, is an inter-modal experience of profound emotion. It presents the illustrations that shape the eponymous book against a background of specially written music. Time should be invested to read the detailed didactic panels as these reflect the artist’s voice that defines the narrative and shares the creative process in the weaving of the story. The protagonist, a young boy tormented by an internal, and growing despair, adopts the persona of a bird and flies over the landscapes of the world seeking beauty. What he finds, in coming to terms with his demons, is a message of hope that is universal. It is a seamless link to Emily Dickinson’s little poem that begins:

“Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul-

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all -…”1.

“The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness” is a multi-winged opus that has been created, nurtured, developed, and finally set free by artist, writer, musician, and film maker, Matt Ottley. This gentle, humble, yet fragile human being is surely a national treasure.

Throughout his life Ottley has experienced the crippling isolation of mental illness. Undiagnosed for many years the little boy, then adolescent, and now man has fought his battle in a private, fearful, and often lonely juggling act of survival. Today he has a name for his illness: bipolar disorder. It is now mostly managed, and he has strategies in place to balance the mood swings, although he has to occasionally contend with psychotic episodes.

Writing and illustration have been an essential part of Ottley’s safety net. These he has now combined with music, gloriously orchestrated to circle the visualisation of his words with warm, sometimes strident colour interposed with jagged shard-like forms of noise in harmony.

“The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbelievable Sadness” tells the story of a boy consumed by the growth of a seed deep within him.

The seed becomes a tree whose flowers offer ecstasy but whose fruit garners sadness. Graphic, painful, yet curiously reassuring, the story of discovery gradually unfolds in an epic fairy story that is both fierce and comforting. The boy, transformed into a bird, discovers a curious city. He visits an ornate cathedral-like palace ruled by a despotic sovereign, an embodiment of corrupt power and merciless control. The sovereign, whose intestines are inflated with the fetid effluence of negativity, has an outside toilet attached to the palace walls and supported by thin chicken leg stilts in true Baba Yaga style. She banishes the boy-bird, sentencing him to fly far and wide seeking beauty.

Ottley’s illustrations capture the magic of flight, the wonder of the world. Light and shade and elongated shadows form patterns of experience and celebrate the majesty of nature. The boy in the story mirrors this sense of awe but also feels the haunting, yet fleeting quality of beauty. There is war and capitulation, endings and beginnings. The boy acknowledges that the tree that lives within him is part of his human condition, partly ecstasy and partly sadness. Its branches and roots may torment and embrace, yet they also bear flowers and fruit.

Ottley’s music takes the viewer-participator to new levels of consciousness. The Brno Philharmonic Orchestra combined with the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno give vitality to Ottley’s colourful score which carries the narrative through soaring rhapsodies and heart-breaking choral crescendos that evoke flight, spatial geometries, and a sense of resilience and hope that echo in the words of Albert Camus:

“In the midst of winter, I at last discovered that, there is in me, an invincible summer”2.

Copies of the book “The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness” come with a CD of the music and are available at the Gallery, as are other publications by Matt Ottley.  Read the book and listen to the music and be transported to a world of hope and love and belief in a future of possibilities.

Sandy Pottinger is a Toowoomba based artist and writer. She is a retired lecturer in Visual Arts from the University of Southern Queensland and was the art critic for the Toowoomba Chronicle, writing the Around the Galleries column for twenty-five years.

“Hope is The Thing with Feathers” from The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson, Thomas A Johnson, Ed., Harvard University Press, 1999

2 “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays”, Camus, A., Translated by Justin O’Brien, Vintage Books, New York, 1991, p 121.

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