A Living in Art

Nathan Jensen Creates New Frontiers

by Phil West

Three weeks ago, there was a man sprawled across the floor of Nathan Jensen's studio.

The man, made from wood and metal hinges, was one of many pieces of art in the room. Judging from his missing legs and slumping position, he wasn't going anywhere soon. It appeared there were other and better breakthroughs Jensen was focused on. In one corner, there were figures starting to emerge from from the darkness on several large canvases. In another corner, six small variations on the same basic, brilliant-yellow face sat side-by-side. But it was clear this man had become more than merely another project. The sketches spread out near him, the hastily crushed cigarette butt between his feet, and his position in the center of the room all suggested Jensen was focusing a lot of attention on him.

Less than a week later, Jensen was taking the man - nine feet tall and painted - to its new home, the Schatz Construction Company on RR620 in Bee Cave. It was just over a month ago that owner Peggy Schatz requested him. Schatz had been looking for a way to make their new headquarters, a converted barn, more visible from the road. She thought of a mural that had caught her eye in Johnson City, at an old mill converted into a rustic, funky mall called the Feed Mill. The Feed Mill mural is, to say the least, hard to miss.

It's a painting of a fantastical brick millhouse that covers three full sides (and part of a fourth) of a 60-foot high, corrugated iron tower. Several dark and solid seven-foot tall men, welded together from iron scraps, painted in bright colors, and attached to the building with angle irons, are positioned around an old-fashioned millstone. The painting is centered around the millstone but surrounds it with other elements: a web of metal poles, a system of metal gears, mountains of wheat, and a window looking out onto the Hill Country. It combines the stairs-and-landing floorplan of an M.C. Escher drawing with the Socialist character of a 1930s WPA mural.

Schatz tried to contact the one feedmill business she knew of, to see if they could help her track down the artist, but the business had since closed. The same night she tried to contact them, she saw a KXAN-TV News 36 human interest feature on Jensen's Feed Mill mural. "That had to be more than coincidental," Schatz said of the strange serendipity. From there, it only took Schatz a phone call to arrange for Jensen to make her two larger-than-life men. Although they were originally to go on the roof of the building, Schatz reconsidered the idea. Now, one would stand by the sign at the side of the road, the other at the side of the building. But they would still be enough of a curiousity to point customers to her business.

In a way, it's strange Jensen is getting a reputation as a public artist when there's so much else he's done. The Schatz project, after all, is only the fourth piece of outdoor art he's completed in Austin and the surrounding Hill Country. For the last five years, the 29-year-old Jensen has been making his living as an artist, but he's done it with a diverse spectrum of styles and a good-natured flexibility. His public artwork keeps the integrity of art while functioning as a sort of advertising, without compromising or falling on a single point between the two extremes.

His graphic design work is often clean and simple, different from the distorted figures, perspective shifts, and Alice-in-Wonderland weirdness that characterize his most experimental paintings. Jensen wins awards from the Austin chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, but has been told by some restaurant owners that they won't show his paintings because they're too upsetting for people trying to eat.

Jensen talks of "sneaking" his own style into whatever he does, with certain considerations made to his clients' needs and wishes. "It's an important factor in making money as an artist," he concedes. Yet in many cases, it is his ability to create the right opportunities for himself that has allowed Jensen to make a living as an artist.

When he went to live with a girlfriend in Australia three years ago, he survived for an entire year creating opportunities to do art. "I was washing windows in the town we were in," Jensen recalls, "and met a bike shop owner who wanted to dress up his building." Jensen immediately worked out sketches of bicyclists on a trail, watched by a number of native Australian animals. Through the bike shop owner, he found another shop owner who wanted her shop dressed up. He had almost run out of money, and was doing caricatures from a booth in a local market, when the director of a local tour service gave him a series of projects which financially sustained him for the rest of his stay.

His mural at the Austin Java Co., near 12th and North Lamar is a perfect example of how Jensen forged a chance to experiment and explore while adapting to the needs of his client. The painting shows a couple boating and enjoying a picnic of sandwiches and coffee on Lake Travis. The scene unfolds over an entire day, as suggested by the movement of the sun and moon in the sky above the water. The water crackles with greens and blues and purples, and seems to move along the contours of the large, cement-brick wall.

But there's a lot of strange things about the painting, the most obvious being the element of distortion. The twosome in the painting are at the far corners of the foreground - they're painted in a way to suggest they're in the boat, sitting at the table at the nose of the craft. By conventional physical laws, that's impossible, but looking at it within Jensen's bizarre perspective, it works. Also, the mural is constructed so that it's impossible to take the whole scene in at once, even when viewing it from its location behind the cafe's back porch to the sidewalk. This isn't unusual for Jensen - in some of his paintings, the canvas is bent and folded in a way where just one perspective won't do. He even says of one of his pieces, "I'd prefer sending out a video of it instead of a photo."

And then there's the immediately obvious oddity - the woman is smiling a mysterious, Mona Lisa smile with both of her mouths.

The closest Jensen had come to painting murals before his trip to Australia was painting large backdrops for several high school and church conferences during his years at Pflugerville High School. He had enjoyed his art classes in high school, and had gained a school-wide reputation as a cartoonist, but didn't think it was possible to make a living as an artist.

"One of the things I want to do, if I get a chance to speak to high school students, is tell them that it's okay to be an artist," Jensen said. "There's all these misconceptions about what an artist is - the whole starving-artist thing, the whole misconception that all artists are slackers and do a lot of drugs."

Jensen was more fortunate than other aspiring artists. His parents, a UT mechanical engineering professor and a homemaker adept at lace-making, actually encouraged him to develop his talents. "They said, `Why don't you be an artist?' Even with my dad's engineering background, they saw it as something I should do."

But Jensen was saddled with negative conceptions of making a living as an artist, and thought he'd have to compromise his desires with the realities of the marketplace.

"When I started college in 1985, I thought I couldn't do art for a living," Jensen said. "I started in architecture, thinking that was a nice avenue where I could do something kind of like art. But I realized, after a year, that it wasn't quite so. I wasn't that much of a spatial thinker; I would design a building and couldn't imagine myself walking through it.

"So then, I thought about trying art education. Then I tried advertising. Then I tried psychology. Finally I said, `Okay, okay, I'm going to be an artist.'" Jensen switched his major to art; despite all the indecision in his choice of majors, it only took him five years to get his degree.

Donald Lamm and Stella Blocker, college friends of Jensen's who were married three years ago, remember how miserable Jensen was as an architecture student.

"He was really stressed," Lamm laughed. "They were trying to kill him. He was up for 36 hours at a time on projects, and they would change the rules on him right before he was finished."

"Of course, it's not unusual for him to be up for 36 hours at a time," Blocker said. "He's a real workaholic."

"Then he only needs three hours of sleep a night," Lamm added. "But he'd usually pick inappropriate times for sleep."

Lamm and Jensen were roommates at UT's Jester Center dormitory, and Blocker, who started dating Lamm then, was a frequent guest. They remember frequently enticing him to draw cartoons. "It was just a natural thing for him to do," Lamm said.

"It wasn't a huge revelation to us when he decided to become an artist," Blocker said.

It was Blocker, herself tiring of the "rat race" of the American marketplace, who gave Jensen his first Stateside opportunity to do a public art piece. Looking to start her own business as an alternative to working unsatisfying jobs, she bought an old limousine with a plan to refurbish it and start a limo service. She knew, when she found her 1984 Cadillac Fleetwood, that she wanted Jensen to paint it.

"It was the first time he'd ever used an airbrush," Lamm said, "which is just amazing to me. When he was interviewed for the TV segment, he told them when he came to start painting the car, he froze. He was actually afraid. But we had absolute faith in him and whatever he wanted to do."

Jensen's Sketch Limousine painting is actually two paintings, one on each side of the 22-foot long car. One side, Blocker's favorite, is misty and esoteric, with translucent-white human figures swimming over a midnight-blue background. "This encompasses Nathan's art for me," Blocker said lovingly. "It's very fluid. I want to dive right into it."

The other side, a more linear but still distorted painting of five people in a limo, was obviously a playscape for Jensen. "I really played with the idea of relationships in this one," he said, pointing to the people's expressions and body language. With one couple, he signifies the woman is in control by placing her arm around the man - the arm finishes in a giant, cartoonish hand wrapped around his shoulder. The other three people are linked into some sort of complicated relationship. One of the women, wrapped in the man's giant hand, is giving the other woman an evil look. She responds by coyly and demurely looking away, and the smile on her face suggests both innocence and mischievousness.

There's also an element in the painting that surprised Blocker and Lamm when they first realized it. Jensen painted himself on the back panel, alongside a woman who looks remarkably like his current girlfriend. But when he painted the car in April 1994, he hadn't met her yet.

There's a lot about Jensen's work that is remarkable, but no matter what he does in the future, it might be hard to match the effort and sheer athleticism that went into the Feed Mill mural. Jensen got the opportunity to do the piece when Charles Trios, who was converting the Johnson City property into a shopping center last year, ran across some of Jensen's paintings in Austin. Jensen said he would do the piece if Trios arranged for a scaffolding that would allow him to move up and down the tower. Jensen and Trios modified it along the way, including using a truck winch attached to a car battery to allow for better control. Still, the four months of painting were not without moments of adventure.

"I had some dramatic falling incidents," Jensen deadpanned. "I was attached to the scaffolding ropes with a mountain climbing harness, but there were a few times where the scaffolding just fell. One time, I was hanging onto the rope with the scaffolding chains resting on my arm. The scaffolding was heavy enough where it took two people to lift it. I somehow managed to get down safely." He opted for a simpler design on one of the sides because of the live power lines within falling range of the tower. As Jensen put it, "Falling's one thing but being electrocuted is another."

And the worst of it is, Jensen has a fear of heights. "But it was a good experience for me," he said. "It helped me confront those fears." But when asked if he no longer has a fear of heights, he said, "I have more respect for heights now."

There weren't just physical challenges either - Jensen had to relearn perspective and even how he painted detail for the tower piece. "I painted all this detail at first," he said, "and when I got back on the ground I couldn't see any of it." And unlike many of his other paintings, it was a complicated process to back up and get a good look.

When Jensen finished the piece on the last day of July 1994, he remembers experiencing an intense tangle of emotions. On the drive home, he cried a bit, let out giant whoops, and immediately packed for a camping trip to ground himself.

There's something to be said for the visibility a piece of public art gives an artist. Most visual art, after all, is viewed in museums or galleries. Audiences have to come to it, comprised of people usually predisposed to viewing art and who have certain expectations of what they'll see. But a piece of art like the Feed Mill mural is a surprise. It rises out of the distance in a place where you wouldn't expect art to surface. As cars approach the mural on the highway, they slow down; their passengers point and crane their necks to get a good look. When Jensen drove away from the completed piece, he had to know this scene would repeat itself for years.

Yet if there's anything political about having that kind of access to an audience to Jensen, it's in the piece's ability to inspire others to do art. In an e-mail he sent me in response to some of my clarifying questions, he wrote, "What I'm most wanting to get people to do through the murals, and my paintings, is to try. Quit talking about how it won't work and how `art is dead' and how `it's all been done.' No, it hasn't."

"All it takes is to awaken the creative spirit that dwells in each one of us," he continued. "It is a valuable resource and aspect of being a human. Painting is only one tap - albeit a very powerful tap. Yes, I was given a special gift in my talent and my family, but it took me a long while to discover that, contrary to popular opinion, I could become financially sound and live happily by making creative use of these talents."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle