Karen Jensen’s sumi-e paintings pour from her heart
Artist teaches at the Kimball Art Center
May 12, 2017
Karen Kurka Jensen was studying to become a librarian in the Twin Cities when a car accident nearly 30 years ago led her to the ink-and-paper paintings of sumi-e.
After two-and-a-half years of treatment and recovery, the doctors told her she would suffer chronic pain for the rest of her life.
"I was only 34 and decided to search for alternative healers and found a Chinese doctor, a traditionalist who specialized in Tui Na (pronounced TWEE na)," Jensen told The Park Record during an interview at her Heber studio.
Tui Na is a deep-tissue massage, and within a year and a half, Jensen had not only recovered. She discovered Asian art.
"The doctor would take us out to lunch, to the theater and introduce us to his friends," Jensen said. "I would pay attention to the things I would see in the restaurants and these homes and fell in love with the artwork."
One day, Jensen stumbled across two sumi-e painters at a renaissance festival.
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"I fell in love with what they were doing," Jensen said. "They had just returned to the United States after studying with masters for years in China and Japan, and I asked if they taught, and they said yes and that they had a workshop coming up."
During the class, Jensen loaded her paintbrush with ink and painted for two days.
"I said, 'This is what I'm supposed to be doing,'" she said. "I love it."
Jensen was partly drawn to sumi-e because it was ink on paper.
"All of my life, I've drawn, and in the early days, I would do pen-on-paper works," she said. "I loved the simplicity of the lines and the dark marks against the light. So, when I discovered sumi-e, I was like, 'Oh, my goodness. I get to do that with a brush.'"
Jensen, who teaches sumi-e at the Kimball Art Center and is going to start teaching at the University of Utah's Division of Continuing Education, said her early sumi-e works were traditional black-and-white images of leaves, trees and the outdoors.
"Minnesota, like Utah, turns into a landscape of white and black during the winter," she said. "I would paint those scenes and I just loved it."
After winning multiple awards for her black-and-whites, Jensen began experimenting with color.
"Now I paint with a lot of color," she said.
A move from Minnesota to Iowa strengthened Jensen's resolve to continue to paint.
"There was no one who even knew what sumi-e meant or that it was an art form," she said with a laugh. "I realized that if I wanted to continue, I needed to do it on my own. I needed to find the desire and discipline to do that, and this was the best thing that could have happened to me, because I began to develop my own style and a new aesthetic."
Last year, the National Sumi-e Society of America recognized Jensen with the Founders Award for her work called "Stratosphere."
The award is named after Motoi Oi, who founded the society in 1963.
Jensen's painting was inspired by the Iowa skies. She painted it in 2014 as part of a solo exhibition called "The Spirit of Sumi-E: Ode to the Iowa Skies" that traveled around Iowa in the last six months she and David lived there.
"Someone asked me, 'As a landscape painter, where do you find inspiration in Iowa?' and I said, 'You look up,'" Jensen said.
She said the award meant a lot to her, because the National Sumi-e Society of America recruits juries from around the world to vote on the entries.
"Mr. Oi once said, 'I know sumi-e will change when I bring it to America, because it will be Americans who will paint and learn this style,'" Jensen said. "He knew I and other American painters would not paint Asian landscapes, because we would not look at Asian landscapes."
Jensen doesn't consider herself a traditional sumi-e painter, even though she uses the traditional materials and tools.
She still makes ink by grinding ink sticks with water, but to save time, she mostly uses pre-made ink.
"I was taught to grind the ink and the best ink for painting is still made by grinding," she said. "But it does take 20 minutes to prepare. Also, if you are planning to paint all day, you have to grind enough ink to last all day."
Jensen has been painting for more than 25 years.
"The funny thing was I thought I was too old to really be doing something like this," she said. "I thought it would just be an avocation, which was fine."
Approaching sumi-e as a hobby freed Jensen up to do her own thing.
"I never put the pressure on myself to go out and make it as a professional artist and I think that allowed me to continue to study and explore and expose my work to a larger audience," she said.
When Jensen teaches class, she makes sure her students know how to properly create sumi-e works.
"This is an art form that goes back 5,000 to 6,000 years," she said. "I teach my students that they need to open themselves to their chi. It needs to come from your heart out through your arm and fingers.
Chi is in every living thing, Jensen said.
"Therefore, part of the sumi-e artist's quest is to find [and] experience the chi of living things," she said. "For me, that is in the landscapes I love. And thus, the desire and necessity of 'being' in place in nature."
"Sumi-e is a water-based medium and every brush stroke shows. You can't go back and fix it to make it look better. Still, it's so exciting to see the ink move across the paper. It's just magical."
For information about Karen Kurka Jensen's sumi-e works, visit http://www.karenkurkajensen.com.
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