The Art Of Things Lost And Found

Ocala artist Aspen Olmstead fashions thought-provoking works of art from repurposed items.

Currently residing at the Tuscawilla Art Park is a great blue heron unlike any other of his species. Cloaked in a shiny suit of armor, he is suspended in perpetual landing mode. Oh, and he’s part cow skull and beer cans. This nature-defying heron is the creation of Ocala artist Aspen Olmstead.

“I consider myself a found item artist,” says Olmstead. “I pick up items that get my attention, things that others throw away, and repurpose them into art.”

The inspiration for Olmstead’s great blue heron actually came from her then 7-year-old daughter Ambria and was 10 years in the making.

“We were walking along the shore at Cedar Key and Ambria found broken pieces of a fishing pole. She said the pieces looked like the legs of a wading bird,” says Olmstead. “Then, while shopping in a thrift store, we came across some vintage chain mesh purses and thought they looked like a heron’s head feathers. I stashed those things away, thinking one day I might use them to make a heron.”

That day came in the fall of 2017, when Olmstead was asked to create another piece for the Tuscawilla Art Park. At the time, Olmstead’s The Web We Weave had been on display for more than a year. Also a found item art installation, it was inspired when Olmstead came across a spider web with trash trapped in it.

“Now it was time to create my heron, so I started researching them, looking at pictures,” says Olmstead, 43, who has lived in Ocala since she was 12 and grew up only blocks from Tuscawilla Park. “I must have looked at hundreds of pictures to get a vision of a model in my head. Then I looked at my stash of trash, which is color-coded and categorized, to put him together.”

A whitewashed cow’s skull that she found years ago in a pasture, turned upside down,  became the heron’s center mass and breast bone. Broken fishing pole pieces became his beak, legs and wing skeleton. The chain mesh from those vintage purses worked perfectly for the head feathers.

“I made his neck vertebrae out of deer and alligator bones, and the discs between are plastic detergent caps,” says Olmstead. “I run a cat rescue, so I have lots of aluminum cat food cans. I used the tab lids to make the neck feathers.”

Olmstead enlisted the help of a friend, with a particularly useful appetite, to further flesh out her creation.

“My friend gave me 115 aluminum beer cans, which I hammered flat to use for wing feathers,” says Olmstead. “The beer can pull tabs make up the heron’s chain mesh body.”

Once the heron was complete and on display, Olmstead says, “The heron really wasn’t mine anymore. He’s my gift to the community.”

While not always a found item artist, Olmstead says she’s been “an artist since I could hold a pencil.” Growing up in Sarasota, she credits her always-doodling mother with gifting her with basic art classes when she was a child.

“We always had art books in the house and I had an amazing first grade teacher who encouraged me to follow my art passion,” recalls Olmstead. “While living in Sarasota, I would visit the Ringling Art Museum as much as possible.”

Over the years, Olmstead’s art evolved from pencil to pen and ink to wood burning to found items. But she adds that “pen and ink will always have a special place in my heart.

“The two artists who really inspired me to pursue found item art were Larry Fuente and Tony Cragg,” says Olmstead. “When I saw their work, it just really connected with me and I kept it in the back of my mind.”

A freak twist of fate led her to pursue the genre. While working with animals in captivity at Silver Springs State Park, Olmstead was attacked by the coyotes that had been raised there. The incident, which happened in February 2000, left Olmstead not only with physical scars but psychological ones as well. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“While recovering from the injuries to my legs, I spent a lot of time looking at my propped-up feet and thinking,” she explains. “That’s when I had an epiphany about making art with what’s laying at our feet. And that’s found item art.”

The heron will be on display at the Tuscawilla Art Park through the end of the year. And Olmstead is already planning her next installation.

“I’ve done a concept sketch of a big colorful octopus. I want it to carry the message that water is life. And we’re endangering all life with the trash we’re dumping into our oceans and waterways,” offers Olmstead. “I picked up a hard hat on the side of the road one day. I’m thinking that turned upside down, it will make a great head for an octopus.”

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