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Art as Voyage: Steve Jensen's Nordic Heritage

October 26, 2015

Step through an unassuming door dwarfed by new apartment monoliths off Pike Street, and you are in Steve Jensen’s studio; one of the few grand loft/studio spaces left on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. A huge, white-bricked interior is even more buoyant with dozens of paintings, sculptures and tall totem-like carvings. Most are smiling-upward bows of boat shapes — painted, welded, carved and fused in glass.

Steve Jensen in his Capitol Hill studio.

The boat is the emblem of Steve Jensen’s Norwegian soul. Boats carried his grandparents to America from Bergen, and boats are where he spent his young life as son and grandson of fishermen and boat builders. Boats are what he paints, carves, welds and bends.

“The image of the boat is meant to symbolize a voyage,” says Jensen. “Perhaps it is the voyage to the other side, or the journey to the unknown.”

"Blood Red Böt in Port Valdez"

And, of course, the voyage from the old world to the new. It’s not a surprise that Jensen’s given name is Sven.

“When I walk into Steve’s studio and look at his work I am immediately surrounded by a sense of Nordic-ness," says Eric Nelson, CEO of Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum. “When you look at the occupations that Scandinavians took on when they came to the Pacific Northwest, you see boat builders, fishermen and people working in the maritime industries. And even though Steve is an accomplished artist, you see these references coming back.”

Boatbuilding in Ballard (courtesy Nordic Hertiage Museum).

There are several distinct series on boats. One is a series of paintings. Jensen places graceful boats on different watery and moonlit fields. Some appear unexpectedly from fog and others quietly escape into mist. Most are on wood and sealed in glossy resin, enhancing both their separate mystical worlds and the materials that mariners use every day. On some of Jensen’s larger pieces, one might not see a boat at all, but rather anticipate one to emerge from a wide energetic expanse.

There are sturdy and imaginative sculptures — big heavy pieces that wrap resins and glass to brass, portholes, chains, stanchions, clasps and all manner of material that once had another use alongside water.

“I’ve been using recycled materials for over 35 years,” Jensen says. “I pick them up off of beaches and hunt marine salvage yards. I like to make something beautiful out of something that is going to be thrown away.”

“Rigging Canoe”, recycled glass, boat resin, salvaged bronze and rope.

And then there are the memorial boats, where Jensen expresses considerable grief and loss.

When his best friend Sylvain was dying of AIDS, he presented Jensen with a drawing of a boat and asked that it be made to carry his ashes out to sea. Jensen started on what would become a ritual, taking the small funeral boat to a place between Southworth and Blake Island in Puget Sound and sinking it. He then made a memorial boat for Sylvain that would be a museum piece. He did the same for his mother and father and his partner of over 20 years. They are together in that water and together in a magnificent creation of memorials along with less personal boats in which Jensen incorporates ideas of life and death — voyage — from Mexico, China, Antarctica, Norway (of course), Australia and other cultures.

A memorial boat for Pat Jensen is encrusted with her jewelry.  A painting of her acts as a shroud over a cast of her face that Jensen did while an art student.


Again, Nelson notes the Nordic-ness of this. “Boats being used as funerary vessels is a tradition that goes way, way back — even burial mounds of boats that have been burial chambers for Vikings.”

Says Jensen, “I just want people to think of voyage and journey in whatever way it may mean to them when they’re looking at my work.”


Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

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