Gendron Jensen (Artist-in-Residence, 1994)

Artwork shows two small very detailed bones
"Isle Royale", 14" x 18" stone lithograph, 1994

NPS/Gendron Jensen

Isle Royale Reflection

"A raging wind of all one day pulled thundering waves whose spindrifts shot fully ten feet above the high basalt cliffs on Scoville point. We nestled within our thin-framed cabin, hugging away the chilled droning night which followed. Beyond the cliffs, ravens uttering throaty, airborne proclamations, whished out from and in to the doorless mists. Passing over and among boulders, the clear waters of Lake Superior welcomed gazings into their depths. The canoe flew silently, like a great bird bearing us above an undulating shadow cast far below on the rolling bottom of Tobin Harbor.

In thumping hush of first light, the great bull moose bore his ears close around the cabin, peering in at our dark, excited windows. The mantling spirit smell, so familiar from long years attending the decaying bodies of wild creatures, hung over Hidden Lake during retrieving the relics of the crippled cow moose who had drowned there.

I relished the predawn light over Edwards Island. The slightest of breezes took it in, playing out intricate patterns of the water’s surface. Hiking alone over windfalls in from Merritt Lane, I swooned at site of wolf-killed moose, whose deathly fern-clad arena was widely carpeted with ghostly hair. All else but broken shoulder blade and part of one leg had gone elsewhere.

The June nights spun loon calls threading back along the rocky shorelines. Out of this, while I slumbered, my darling, Christine, did wakefully hear one Timber wolf singing. Ahead of the filling moon that ruled most of our island sojourn, we bundled outside into wee hours of one shimmering night, greeted by the northern lights.

Beside woodland trail, the russet moose calf slowly rose blinkingly, summoned away by a mother’s nostrilled warnings. Meanwhile, nearby, tiny magenta orchids seemed set about by courtly throngs of Canada dogwoods, festooning the forest floor. I dancingly floundered about the underbrush, in woods up from shore of Bangsund Cabin, in the drizzling damp, gathering moose relics from midden heap of research castaways. What jubilation! What Uncountable Glories!"

- Gendron Jensen, 1995

Gendron Jensen Portrait
Gendron Jensen

Photo by Joey McLeister

About the Artist

Time and time again, artist Gendron Jensen heard the question, “Why bones?” It is not a surprising question. The workroom in his northern New Mexico home was a plethora of bones. Relics of elks, wolves, loons, lynx and coyotes lined his shelves. Other smaller boxes spilled forth from old cigar boxes. Drawings of bones also adorned the room – a small sampling of the 1,500 relic drawings the self-taught artist completed over 40 years. It bears asking, “Why were bones the focus of each drawing?”

“From ancient times, [bones] have been held as representative of sterility, aridity and death,” Jensen explained. “For me, beyond the physical fact of death, bones are portals unto exaltation. The bones seem to verily sing; they hum with resonate mystery.”

Jensen’s drawings attempted to unveil that resonating mystery. He refined and enlarged relics, juxtaposing shapes and textures to create sculptural, iconographic forms. The bones of a white-tailed deer and gray wolf came together to form a counterpoint of prey and predator. Opossum cheekbones were portrayed in jigsaw-puzzle fashion along with a snapping turtle vertebra. It all – in Jensen’s eyes – represented the creatures’ very foundation of being.

“The spirits of the animals are in the bones,” he said. “They speak of life and the creature they once were.”

The Smithsonian Magazine described Jensen’s work as “meticulously rendered, often monumental, graphite drawings of bones which invite the viewer to see these relics in a new way – to journey beyond their ordinary anatomical context to a deeper, more spiritual realm.” Jensen’s fascination with bones was sparked when he was just six years old. His youthful exploration of Pokegama Lake in Minnesota uncovered a small rodent skull. It was a discovery that initiated his bond with nature, though that bond would not take the form of drawings until the age of 26.

For 40 years, Jensen participated in numerous exhibitions and gave countless lectures at universities across the nation. His artwork is featured in the collections of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fogg Museum at Harvard University, and Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. He was an Isle Royale Artist-in-Residence from June 10th to June 29th, 1994. For more information on his artwork, visit Gendron's personal page. You can also view a documentary about Gendron's life and how he created his work.

Gendron passed away in July of 2019 after a battle with a rare bone cancer. The irony was not lost on him.

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Last updated: December 26, 2019

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