Local Art: Scientist to artist

Published 5:44 pm Thursday, September 29, 2011

I had the pleasure of meeting Larry “Lars” Jenson when he was installing his recent show at Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles. He was busy unpacking his turned wood bowls and other non-functional wood objects.
I asked him about his background. Jenson had worked for the Environmental Protection Agency since 1979, retiring in 2006.
“I bought my first old lathe for $100 in ’94,” he told me, “one that the Milwaukee school system bought in 1934 for shop class.”
After rewiring it, he started using it right away, robbing the family woodpile and immediately turning vases and candlesticks evenings and weekends. He started showing his work, first at the Save the Dunes shop in Beverly Shores, Mich., where it was well received.
“I hadn’t used a lathe since junior high when we had to take one semester of wood shop,” Jenson said. “My father and grandfather helped me build things from wood. Orange crates used to be made from wood so we built a model barn from an orange crate.”
His paternal grandfather made a turned-wood teacup and saucer that were only a couple inches high. He also carved a pair of wooden shoes.
“I was always intrigued and impressed with that. I still have the tea cup and saucer,” he said.
There was a time when Jensen did make teapots that were abstract in design, several from a very interesting laminated wood — birch wood that is dyed and glued together to make planks with a whole variety of colors and patterns called Dymond wood.
“It was challenging to come up with different patterns,” Jenson said, “and I really enjoyed that.”
One of the earliest things he turned was Manzanita wood, a gnarly root from California.
“One of the early wood turners, Rudy Asolnik, made bowls out of Manzanita wood,” Jensen told me.
Jensen said the first time he had to call himself an artist — it was the strangest feeling. He thought of himself as a scientist for so many years. It took him a while to warm up to it but he feels comfortable now with being an artist.
Though Jenson only does wood turning, he did display some interesting photographs that mimicked the woodworking technique called “bookends” in veneer application where he used half an image of a tree, and butted the center up against a copy of itself. This image was used as the front cover of his book.
I asked what he will do next.
“My interests change every two to three years,” he said. But I have a project in mind — I have the black gum wood for it, a large sculpture 4 to 5 feet in length. It needs to fit on my lathe. I’m not sure what it will be yet, somewhat representational, I’d imagine. It might end up being a bottle. The piece of wood I am thinking about has sufficient spalting to make it interesting.”
I asked what “spalting” is, and Jensen explained that when the wood gets wet and is laying on the ground, fungus moves in and starts the rot process, leaving little dark marks on the wood.
“Spalting adds to the beauty of the wood,” Jensen said.
The lathe he uses now is a new Canadian lathe purchased when he decided to try doing floor lamps. I asked Jensen how many different kinds of wood he has used.
“I’ve used 43 different woods in one show,” he said. “For the Fernwood show, and the show in Chesterton (Ind.), I had to be sure to have more ready for the shows than I normally keep on hand.”
Asked what his favorite woods are, he said, “There are some that are kind of nice. Sassafrass is pretty on the inside with a creamy band with russet wood inside that band. When you turn it you get the smell of sassafrass. My wife’s favorite piece is a walnut coffee table that we still use. We visited a dulcimer shop in the Smoky Mountains, and I bought pieces of walnut wood and made the coffee table out of that. It was the first homemade present I ever gave her.”
An obvious sense of humor, Jenson confided, “My subversive attitude is to introduce people to the indigenous trees and woods of the National Dunes Lakeshore area.”
Jenson has been showing his work since 1996, and serves on Michigan City South Shore Art Association’s board. He was the 2009 National Dunes Lakeshore Artist in Residence.
You can see his work at the Southern Shore Art Association in Michigan City, Ind. You can reach him at rolar@comcast.net.

Kathee Kiesselbach loves hearing from people who enjoy reading this column. You can reach her at katheek@comcast.net.