Gena Goldsworthy Ollendieck ’91 is a scavenger. It’s a never-ending job, going through other people’s junk. Old black-and-white photos at estate sales. Spoons. Coffee cans. Typewriters. Her parents help her collect the stuff at thrift stores and yard sales. Then she takes it all home and tears it apart.
Gena is a found objects artist; she makes hand-bound leather books and mixed-media collages out of things people have deemed worthless enough to throw out. “I’m always looking at objects and taking them out of context to see their beauty,” she says.
Although Gena works hard to keep her artwork affordable, she makes a good living selling her pieces at contemporary fine arts shows around the country. Her hand-bound books start at $150, but her larger collages can cost up to $2000. She even creates custom pieces out of family memorabilia her clients bring in, working out of the studio in her northeast Iowa home — on the same 18 acres where she grew up.
People used to dump their trash on that land, and a young Gena would dig around in it looking for old metal cans and other promising objects. She collected buttons, and on vacation, she eschewed gift shop souvenirs for rocks and sticks she found on the ground. “I’ve always been drawn to — well, what some people call junk,” she says.
When she came to Central in 1987, Gena had no plans to pursue art; she wanted to teach elementary school. But the prospect of glassblowing was irresistible, and she continued with a few more art classes. It was her advisor, Joline De Jong, assistant professor of art, who convinced her to change her major to art and education. While working as a disc jockey on Central’s radio station and giving tours of the Des Moines Art Center, she took more art classes with Larry Mills — with whom she still keeps in touch — and John Vruwink — who taught her the bookbinding skills she uses to this day.
After graduation, Gena took a job teaching high school art — a career she thought she’d pursue the rest of her life. She taught for four years, but then Gena and her husband felt they needed a change. They quit their jobs, sold all their possessions and joined the Peace Corps.
The couple spent three years in Paraguay, a life-changing period that is still inspiring her art. “A lot of my work comes from that experience of following what your heart tells you to do,” she says. All of her pieces incorporate positive messages — both obvious and subtle — about how people live and interact with the world. She includes text, often stamped onto metal objects like spoons, that encourages people to follow their dreams and do good in the world.
After returning from South America, Gena decided to pursue her artwork full time. Now she lives with her husband Todd and 7-year-old daughter Quinna between Cresco and Decorah, Iowa. She’s been at it for 12 years.
The people she sells to at art shows and in galleries often recognize themselves, their families or their past in Gena’s pieces. They exclaim over a photo they swear looks just like their grandmother, or jump when they recognize a watch or an embroidery hook in one of her collages. Since Gena takes ordinary objects out of the mundane, they’re easily overlooked at first. When recognition hits, it’s like being faced with a lost but much-beloved old shoe. Gena describes the effect this way: “I think it’s very comforting because they’re all objects people grew up with. People know what they are.”
Gena, too, finds solace in her work. She still remembers something Larry Mills said at his retirement party eight years ago: At Central, it never felt like he was working because he loved it so much. Gena feels the same way. “I love what I’m doing because I play all day long.”
See Gena’s work:
If you’d like to see more of Gena’s work or learn about her artistic process, you can tour her home studio on October 7,8, or 9, 2011. As part of the Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio Tour, she’ll open her work space for a behind-the-scenes view. Find a map or make travel plans to Gena’s studio!