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Seattle artist takes viewers on a voyage to other worlds

Step through an unassuming door, dwarfed by new apartment monoliths off Seattle’s 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 adorned with dozens of paintings, sculptures and tall totem-like carvings. Most are the upward-smile bows of boat shapes — painted, welded, carved and fused in glass.

"Blood Red Böt in Port Valdez"

“Blood Red Böt in Port Valdez”

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.”

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.”

In 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.

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

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

“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.”

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

"Sylvain". Photo by Linda Young

“Sylvain”. Photo by Linda Young

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.

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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.”

This report originally appeared on Seattle’s public television station KCTS9. The video was produced by Stephen Hegg and edited by Amy Mahardy. Aileen Imperial was the director of photography. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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