The art of transition

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

“Thus did Odin establish that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea…“ recounts the saga of the Norse Vikings.

So perhaps it was no surprise when Steve Jensen’s best friend, dying of AIDS, asked him to carve a miniature longboat as a repository for his ashes.

The son and grandson of Norwegian fishermen and boat-builders, himself a Cornish-trained artist, Jensen knew that, for many cultures, a boat voyage symbolizes the transition of the human soul to the unknowable “other side.”

This first cinerary urn was scarcely consigned to the waves when Jensen’s father died and his mother asked for a similar one for him. And shortly after, it was his mother’s turn, and then his best friend’s. 

“Art school never prepared me to be a mortician,” he says, but along with his public art and sculpture, creating urn-boats became a calling. He makes them to help with his own loss and to console others in their sorrow. 

The sculptures in “Voyager,” Jensen’s exhibit at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA), are created out of salvage from beaches on Whidbey Island: driftwood, rusted iron and wire, tarry rope and broken glass. He draws on his artistic training and the boatbuilding techniques he learned from his Norwegian grandfather, whose presence he senses as he works.

The results of this service to the spirit are a remarkable collection of glistening objects with upward curving ends, each carrying sparkling cargoes of glass fragments immured in translucent resin—no human remains, but watch out for a scary, plastic skull.

The other exhibitions are well fleshed-out, with fine works by many other Northwest masters. Two gigantic murals frame the gallery entryway as part of “MoNA at 35.” One, a 50-foot-long tribute to the Rocky Mountains by Charles L. (Larry) Heald, took him two years to paint.

The second, by Pacific Northwest great William Cumming, is one of only four surviving Skagit County WPA murals. It was recently discovered in a barn!

The upstairs gallery features “Northwest Impressions: Lilli Mathews and Art from the Permanent Collection.” Mathews transforms a landscape—even a stick or a rock—into a vision of something deeper and wondrous. In her prominent triptych, “Flowering Grove,” a row of apple trees bursts into full bloom against russet grasses and a dark suggestion of towering firs.

“Before the Bulldozers” foretells ruin to come. We experience this emotion again in “Fog at Gilligan’s Creek,” a picture far spookier than Jensen’s lovely boats: skeletal tree trunks are masked by fog, a white orb is either sun or moon, and furrowed ruts appear as the massive pedestals of extinct pachyderms, both powerful and surreal.

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