The Beauty of Bare Bones

The room is replete with bones. They fill shelves and boxes, embellish windowsills and walls. A Pleistocene cave bear skull from Russia's Ural Mountains dominates one shelf. Nearby reside the relics of elk and lynx, coyote and loon, pelican and wolf. Old cigar boxes overflow with other, smaller bones.

From this workroom in his home in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, artist Gendron Jensen looks out over the Rio del Pueblo Valley. From time to time eagles fly past, following the course of the river below. Jensen lives close to nature here--close to the heart and soul of his art.

For more than 30 years the 58-year-old artist has devoted himself to transforming relics from nature's midden into art objects of uncommon beauty. His meticulously rendered, often monumental, graphite drawings of bones invite the viewer to see these relics in a new way--to journey beyond their ordinary anatomical context to a deeper, more spiritual realm. Conjuring art from nature, Jensen combines, refines and enlarges these relics, juxtaposing shapes and textures to create sculptural, iconographic forms. These compelling works, at once highly detailed and highly abstract, evoke a primal connection to nature and its many mysteries. "There is a majesty inherent in bones," says Jensen, "a humbling geography that summons me to map its glories." For Jensen, bones represent the very foundation of being. "There is a vital resonance in every bone," he says; "the spirits of the animals are there. They speak of life and the creature they once were."

Largely self-taught, Jensen didn't start drawing until age 26, but his bond with nature was forged early on. As a 6-year-old exploring the shores of Minnesota's Pokegama Lake, Jensen came upon a small rodent skull. "I didn't know what it was then, but I was impressed by the way the teeth curved and fit back into the jaw," he recalls. "That discovery began my journey."

The onetime recluse spent 5 years at a Benedictine monastery in Wisconsin and 17 as a semi-hermit on a former mink farm south of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Ten years ago, he forsook the northwoods of Minnesota for the mountains of New Mexico and a new life with artist Christine Taylor Patten. In the winter of 1986, a grant allowed Jensen to come to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to draw turtle bones (Around the Mall, August 1986). During that stay Charles Potter of Natural History's Division of Mammals took Jensen to the Smithsonian's Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, to see some "real bones." Sliding open the door of an anonymous corrugated-metal building, Potter pulled aside a plastic drape to reveal the behemoth bones of a baleen whale.

"That moment left me changed for all time," explains Jensen. From this experience sprang the resolve for a second collaboration with the Smithsonian, one that the artist hopes will draw attention to the fate of the blue whale. Working with the collections at the Smithsonian and two other museums, Jensen will create a series of large-scale drawings of the skeletal relics of this leviathan. The project will culminate, if funds allow, in a traveling exhibition and a book.

Jensen's drawings, which are all rendered in pencil, have found their way into the collections of such museums as Minneapolis' Walker Art Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "What makes Gendron Jensen unique," says LACMA director Graham Beal, "is his single-minded vision and passionate focus." At the heart of that vision is the bare beauty of bones. "They are inexhaustible," Jensen declares. "I keep going back--they are a source of immeasurable wonder."

By Diane M. Bolz

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.