In the student gallery off the lobby of the Fine Arts building at the University of Montana last week, Eric Jensen discussed his landscape oil paintings hanging on the walls.
“I don’t seem to paint the greatest hits,” said the first year MFA student, looking at a painting of a Washington coastline beach scene called Cape Alava. Later that day, he headed out for a weekend of backpacking with friends in Glacier National Park that would double as a research trip for his next painting’s subject matter.
“I’m not going to be painting the biggest views and the stuff that everybody knows, because I feel like that’s been so hammered out in landscape painting,” he said. “I’m looking for something in between, like the unsung hero or something that’s unexpected.”
In the gallery, he pointed to a painting of a tree in a forest scene across the room, the trunk illuminated in sunshine, calling direct attention to the tree itself, rather than its surroundings.
“It’s about the tree and us looking at the tree,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of my work, is finding that aspect of nature that’s overlooked.”
Jensen was born in Utah and first fell in love with the outdoors during trips to Moab with his family. He went on to study painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, focusing mainly on abstract work through his undergrad. But upon graduation, as they say, the mountains were calling.
“After going to school in Virginia, since I was born out West initially, I knew I wanted to come back out here for a huge variety of reasons,” he said, adding a lot of it had to do with the landscape. “I think deep down I always wanted to be a landscape painter.”
He spent a few years working as a professional artist before taking a Forest Service position clearing backcountry trails. It was his drive from one job site to another between Wyoming and Washington that put Missoula on his radar.
Here, he’s able to find inspiration while hiking on the weekends, sketching and taking photos along the way. His work still incorporates the abstract style he honed during undergrad, with many paintings blurring the lines between the real and surreal.
“What I’m working on right now is trying to find an even finer line between the realism and the abstraction,” he said.
In one of his recent paintings depicting dark storm clouds descending over a mountain valley, Jensen allowed gravity to let green paint drip down a patch of white canvas below one of the rolling hills in the foreground, creating what looks like a root system beneath the grass.
“You can see some of the backgrounds … they start dissolving into abstraction, and other areas are just not complete,” said Kevin Bell, director of the UM School of Art and a landscape painter himself. “He’s peeling back … the outer veneer of everything and taking a look at some of the structures and forms that make up this world that we inhabit.”
The School of Art has a long tradition of focusing on "sense of place," Bell said, adding exploring our natural environment is of interest to many of the faculty in their own work.
"We thought he’d be a really good fit with our program because he is interested in issues of, what is it to view the land and what is it about the land that maybe is unseen?"
In another piece called “Shady Grove,” a old orchard looks like it could be inspired by a walk up the main Rattlesnake corridor. While the trees, which fall on the top half of the canvas, are more realistic, the meadow in the foreground loses form, with organic and blended shapes and colors rather than individual leaves and blades of grass.
“They’re recognizable landscapes, but you can see he’s changing it, and there’s some slippage at the margins,” Bell said. “Things start to fall apart or change in a way that indicates a little bit more about the place than just what it looks like.”
Being a landscape painter in the contemporary art world is somewhat tricky, Bell said.
“When you say you’re a landscape painter, people conjure up a certain thing in their mind. There’s a stream flowing through the mountains, and maybe a cabin on the side. So you kind of have to fight against that long tradition of landscape painting to find something new to say about it.”
A former Forest Service employee who comes from a family of artists, Jensen wants to create more than just beautiful landscapes, weaving his knowledge of land management into his work to bring attention to the importance of public lands.
“I guess a lot of it comes from my time with the Forest Service and that direct experience with land management and seeing so much of it is underfunded and under-prioritized as far as the federal government’s attention goes, and it’s really hard to see that,” he said. He has a statement on his professional website regarding his support for public lands.
Jensen landed in a place that seems almost too perfect for his artistic interests, with the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation known across the West at his fingertips at UM in a town surrounded by pristine mountain scenery.
“It’s difficult to find communities and people that want to talk about art, especially on an academic level,” he said, adding he’d love to collaborate with the College of Forestry in his work while here.
Despite a somewhat unconventional start to grad school with a pandemic going on, Jensen said he's enjoying the MFA program. He's already got a show set to go up at Catalyst Cafe in October.
He hopes his paintings of the natural landscape not only bring appreciation for its beauty, but an awareness of its fragility and need to be protected.
“It’s so important that we have areas, especially wilderness areas, that we can go and see untouched nature or see what life does without us,” he said. “I think that’s every artist’s dream, is to actually find that literal connection to people’s lives. If one is moved by a piece, maybe they would want to do something about it.”