‘Voyager’ documents grief and loss, journey of life and death

See artist Steve Jensen’s exhibit at the Schack Art Center in Everett through Nov. 3.

Artist Steve Jensen with his mother’s shroud over her boat in his exhibit “Voyager” at the Schack Art Center in Everett. “Voyager,” is on display through Nov. 3. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Artist Steve Jensen with his mother’s shroud over her boat in his exhibit “Voyager” at the Schack Art Center in Everett. “Voyager,” is on display through Nov. 3. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The Schack Art Center’sVoyager” exhibit by Seattle artist Steve Jensen, which opens today, draws heavily on his family’s Norwegian heritage as fishers and boat builders.

It’s the first thing Jensen mentions after introducing himself.

“My parents were from Bergen, Norway,” he said. “My father was a fisherman. My grandfather was a fisherman and my other grandfather was a boat builder.”

The nautical references are imbued in his work, a message in a bottle, sunken ships, compass points, a ship’s porthole.

Some of the ships on display are what he calls memorial boats, copies of a series of ships he created which held the ashes and personal effects of friends and loved ones and, in Viking funeral tradition, sent out to sea.

Carved from cedar, each about 24 inches long, they symbolize the journey from life to death.

They document a series of losses — a friend, his father, his mother, his lover — all coming between 1998 and 2004. They died from AIDS, suicide, mental illness and alcoholism.

“Those are subjects that no one likes to talk about, but almost everyone has had one of those affect their lives,” said Carie Collver, Schack’s gallery director. “It’s an exhibit that will appeal to both men and women.”

Jensen said he hopes they will help others come to terms with their own grief and loss.

His first such ship was made for his friend Sylvain Klaus, who died of AIDS at Seattle’s Bailey-Boushay House in 1998.

The next was for his father. Norman Jensen, 68, took his life by gunshot in 2000 after being diagnosed with a spinal disease that would paralyze him — and which he never disclosed to his family. The only message he left them was a list of bank accounts pinned to his shirt.

This memorial ship, created by Seattle artist Steve Jensen and dedicated to his father, is part of his “Voyager” exhibit at the Schack Art Center in Everett. (Sharon Salyer/ The Herald)

This memorial ship, created by Seattle artist Steve Jensen and dedicated to his father, is part of his “Voyager” exhibit at the Schack Art Center in Everett. (Sharon Salyer/ The Herald)

This boat is the most emotional and, to some, the most controversial of his pieces. The picture of his father on the memorial ship is surrounded by bullet shells, the photo of him pierced by bullet holes Jensen created by using the same firearm his father used to take his life.

Although Jensen’s works have been displayed at seven museums in the last two years, some have declined to include it in their shows.

His mother, Pat Jensen, also died at age 68, just two years after her husband. That loss, her son believes, was just too great for her to endure. Her memorial boat includes a watch, her jewelry and a painted portrait of her on silk from the 1950s.

In 2004, John Clinton Williams, Jensen’s partner of 24 years, died of a stroke, following a lifetime of alcoholism.

His memorial boat includes pictures of him, and, in unsparing honesty, a filled Absolute vodka bottle, his drink of choice. Quite literally, “it’s meant to be a message in a bottle,” Jensen said.

The show displays 69 pieces of art, his largest-ever exhibit. Jensen, 63, is a graduate of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

Steve Jensen’s wood carving, “Compass,” is part of his exhibit at the Schack Art Center in Everett. (Sharon Salyer / The Herald)

Steve Jensen’s wood carving, “Compass,” is part of his exhibit at the Schack Art Center in Everett. (Sharon Salyer / The Herald)

Not all of his works are so serious. A salvaged ship’s porthole contains a small canoe he created that appears to be floating inside, called “Canoe Floating in a Porthole.”

“To me, the canoe in this porthole is floating off to another space,” he said. “We don’t know where it is, we just know it exists. It’s meant to be spiritual.”

A piece of wood found in a muddy area of Skagit County and salvaged by Smith & Vallee Gallery was given to Jensen. It was radiocarbon dated as 2,300 years old. Jensen carved it into a piece called “The Skagit Canoe.”

Some may already be familiar with Jensen’s work. One of his carvings is displayed at the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center, part of the Angel Of The Winds Arena in Everett.

Jensen also carved the door pulls for Ballard’s new Nordic Museum.

Jensen said he hopes his art demonstrates how the emotional impact the deaths of a friend, family member and life partner can be turned into works of art.

“That’s the take away,” he said. “When something tragic happens in your life, turn it into something beautiful.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 ; salyer@heraldnet.com.

If you go

What: “Voyager: Steve Jensen”

Where: Schack Art Center, 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett

Cost: Free

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 3. Opening reception is from 5 to 8 p.m. Oct. 4. A talk by Jensen on his art is set for 2 p.m. Oct. 28.

More: 425-259-5050 or www.schack.org

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