John Olsen leaves powerful messages through unique art

Bigeye Tuna by John Olsen
Bigeye Tuna by John Olsen. Photo: Christine Turner, Facebook

John Olsen is a man with a purpose. Unconsciously, he inspires the next generation through his creative works to make a positive impact on the environment.

John Olsen is unassuming. His weathered face and hands attest to a life spent trawling the ocean for a good catch. A softly spoken man, John is known for his metal sculptures which contain quirkiness and character and which captivate the imaginations of people.

His daughter Christine Flett notes everyone from little kids are interested in looking at his art pieces and everyone can take something from it.

“His art is so robust that they’ll still be around decades from now and the topics are really about life,” she says.

The issues John’s work encompass are wide ranging and relevant to current topics affecting the environment including climate change. Christine sees in his work examples of the loss of species, the environment and what humans are doing to the environment with regard to extinction of species.

“I’m really proud of him. He works with a purpose and he’s very passionate about it,” she says.

A metal turtle sculpture created for the Kalkie State School garden is a visual reminder about why and what they do around the school according to principal Melinda Findlay.

John Olsen metal sculptures
John Olsen is known for his quirky metal sculptures. Source Facebook

“Out in the garden where we’re growing fruit and vegetables with chickens and worm farms serves as a reminder why they’re (the students) giving up their time, how they can help out and the impact they can have on the environment,” she says.

The Reef Guardian students see more than face value in John’s art. Ben, a Reef Guardian, recognised John’s sculpture is made by welding pieces of metal together and something more.

“With a lot of love,” he says.

The Reef Guardians use an environmental focus in school projects such as their Gardening Club, selling beeswax wraps to reduce using plastic wrap, making school tea-towels into bags to reduce single use plastic bags and supporting environmental events. They participated in the ‘Reef Together’ Convention on 10th September at Bundaberg PCYC Multiplex.

Jessica, a Reef Guardian, believes their responsibility to care for the environment rests with all the people in the community.

The sculpture therefore represents to the Reef Guardians the ocean, sea life and how we care for the reef and the animals in it.

John’s concern with environmental changes began when fishing in 1982 trawling Fraser Island. He noticed different species travelling on currents due to changing water temperatures.

“It’s just become a global football,” he says.

John’s early work also indicates the motivation behind his artwork. A piece titled ‘Chernobyl Man’ is terribly important to John and represents sustainability and risks
of nuclear power.

“It was just a little piece of a red cedar branch that screamed out, for some slightly deep thought. He was begging to be released. And so it was,” he says.

John’s work is diverse, using stone, wood and mixed medium as well as metals. Other pieces express a strong Egyptian influence such as stone works made from Chillagoe marble and granite.

Basalt rock from the Hummock has been used in small black sculptures of fish while other fish are made from Chillagoe black marble.

Fish images feature strongly

The image of fish features strongly in John’s work. An example is The Brewhouse’s ‘Drunk Fish’ beer symbolised by one of John’s sculptures as one of the restaurant’s tap handles, carved by John. The wooden carvings feature a turtle, fish and kangaroo.

Jack Millbank, The Brewhouse owner, tells how the ale’s logo in the form of an upside-down fish represents a fire in the Millaquin rum distillery. It happened in 1936 when lightning started a blaze resulting in the runoff of rum in the Burnett River which killed all the fish in the river.

More of John’s artworks featured at the Brewhouse are Ned Kelly and a fish light hanging from the ceiling. Mr Millbank says these are simply on loan to the Brewhouse. The artworks tie in with the business’s core values as it is a community hub to be enjoyed by the people.

“They’re on display in The Brewhouse for the people,” he says.

Kathleen, who works at The Brewhouse says it’s not just generic (artwork) that you can get anywhere. Someone’s actually made it and there’s stories behind it.

“We get a lot of people comment on the artwork and take photos,” she says.

The utilitarian nature of some of John’s pieces reflect a childhood on ‘The Baffle’ where John remembers talk about the war.

“The war must have had a terrible impact on everybody,” he says.

Fish hawh in strike mode by John Olsen
John Olsen says this work represents a fish hawk in strike mode, ready to grasp a fish from the water. “I used to watch them at the Baffle during early childhood. We actually had a young pet fish hawk my brother Herbie caught for about six or nine months. We fed him on little cubes of fresh mullet but then the little chap left for a while, then came back and then left permanently the next time. The hawk was never caged at any time. Photo: Christine Turner, Facebook

Christine believes the influence of isolation and necessity contributes to her dad’s art.

“Where dad grew up he would make something if he didn’t have it,” she says.

John can trace his family history to the arrival of his grandfather from Denmark on the ‘Dorunda’ in 1883. Rasmus Olsen purchased land in the Rosedale area including Flat Rock on the banks of Baffle Creek where John, older brother Herb and sister Betty were born. Even though daily hardships made life challenging, like swimming their cows to Morgans Island for grazing, John reminisces that it was a pretty good world.

“Simple as it could be,” he says.

While this generation’s focus is on entertainment and technology, what John remembers the most from his childhood was fishing which he says, consumed his life.

“I didn’t have a strong education, but going to school in a rowboat must be different to these days, I think,” he says.

John’s grandson Damian has a favourite piece titled ‘Archimedes’ Law’ made in 2015. He likes the way it flows and the colours in it.

“It kind of seems like it’s about movement, so one thing moves and it makes the rest move,” he says.

Damian really likes his grandad’s artwork and says art provides a different kind of entertainment to using computer games.

“(It) Makes you think. Art makes you think about physics, fishes and animals and places where they come from,” he says.

Unique materials encourage learning

The composition of John’s metal sculptures sometimes consists of cutlery, tools, bicycle chains and other odd assortments which all find their way into the anatomy of his creations. John sees the viewing by today’s generation of his artwork as them learning a bit over time.

“It’s something they can test their mind on and down the track if they look very closely they’ll see that it’s almost a timeclock. All those materials, well they’ve been made at certain times, certain decades, so it’s kind of making a calendar out of scrap metal,” he says.

Exhibition of John’s artwork has been through Graydon Gallery – Breathing Space in New Farm, Woodgate Arts in Spring, Bundaberg Art Society and Bundaberg Regional Art Gallery.

In July 2017 some works featured in All Creatures Great and Small in the Arts Precinct, Hazard Gallery in Bundaberg. The idea for the piece John has just finished had been floating around in his head for some time and is a rather large turtle which was seen at the ‘Reef Together’ Convention. He likes to think it is a little bit special.

“I guess they’re all special, in one way or another. So often people ask me what my favourite works are. And I don’t really know. They all have some special influence,” he says.

The influence of John’s forty-five years in the commercial fishing industry has given him a unique perspective as an artist. He attributes this to building their own boats.

“I’ve got a technique that I don’t know anyone else anywhere has used,” he says.

Just as a boat has a frame, John constructs his marine creatures using a seafaring eye.

He likens the keel to a fish’s backbone, while the stringers, the longitudinal in a boat represent the fish’s rib cages.

The natural world is difficult to ignore in John’s pieces which are aptly named. From pieces such as Pelican, Oyster Bird, Fish Hawk, Pyro Bird and Old Man Emu to others such as Queensland Groper, Marcellos Dolphin, Snapper, Spaniard and Barramundi just to name a few.

A breakdown in hydraulic steering equipment saw the start of John’s creative sculpting in metal after he saw interesting bronze fittings and began experimenting with bolting together a bird sculpture. He now uses other techniques such as welding to create various pieces and uses heat which assists in adding vibrancy and life.

Abstract designs titled Tropical Storm, Inferno, Illusion, and Infernal Axis allude to global concepts. John states that this connection as purely nature driven.

“There’s an incredible source pool of subject matter whatever art you want to do. Put it together and if you’re lucky it works,” he says.

While he considers the environment is dreadfully important he also stresses taking advantage of the time you have. To leave a message along the way is the lesson John learnt through art.

“You can only tell your own story,” he says.