Though born in Vancouver in 1927, LeRoy Jensen spent his early years in Shanghai, China, with a Canadian mother and a Danish father, who worked for the Great Northern Telegraph company. When China became politically volatile, the Jensen family moved in 1933 to Nagasaki, Japan, where LeRoy took his first drawing lessons from a Japanese gentleman.
When World War ii began in 1939, LeRoy and his brother, Colin, were sent to boarding school in Vancouver, which he found “a horrible place.” In 1941, at fourteen, he lied about his age and began four years as a “fireman” with the merchant navy, traveling to Pacific Rim ports.
Unsure if his parents had survived after leaving for Hong Kong, he kept in touch with his maternal grandmother in Vancouver. Fortunately, when his ship returned to that port, his mother answered the door at his grandmother’s home, and he was reunited with his parents. His mother encouraged him to begin drawing again at age eighteen, an interest that helped him cope with a tough life as a young seaman.
ART STUDENT IN DENMARK AND FRANCE
Rejuvenated by his art, he returned to Vancouver and exhibited his first painting, a portrait of his father, and another, Early Morning Salt Spring Island, in the 16th Annual B.C. Artists’ Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He then attended the Vancouver School of Art for a year (1948/9), but felt that their teachers gave him little direction or foundation in art.
Restless and hungry to learn, he began searching for a more stimulating
LeRoy travelled to his father’s homeland in 1949 and enrolled in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Under Axel Joergennsen, he received a vigorous art education: hours of lectures on art, art history and drawing—the model, still life, street life—as well as painting and studio work. After marriage to Nonna Bossleman, a drama student, LeRoy and his wife moved to Paris, where he studied with Andre Lhote, a Cubist painter, as well as with Ferdinand Leger, Ossip Zadkine and Jean Metsinger. Despite poverty and hunger (they lived in unheated rooms for two years), it was a time of intoxicating intellectual stimulation and creative ferment. In addition to a vibrant life in studios and cafes, LeRoy travelled, and on one trip met a painter friend of Picasso, Edouard Pignon, and studied with him.
RETURN TO VANCOUVER
In 1953, LeRoy and his wife returned to Vancouver, which seemed like a desert after living in Paris, until he met local artists Jock Hearn, Dave Marshall and George Fertig. LeRoy, Hearn and Marshall formed the Pendulum Group, spending many hours discussing and gauging the depths of art, using unique pendulum symbols to identify their work in opposition to the posturing of a small clique of male artists and educators who controlled the art scene and favoured Clement Greenberg and New York abstract expressionism. Though he had a one-man show, it did not pay the bills, so LeRoy mowed lawns and painted houses to survive. A rare exhibition was the 1956 show organized by the B.C. Region of the Federation of Canadian Painters at the New Design Gallery, a private avant-garde gallery in West Vancouver started by Alan Balkind and Abraham Rogatnick. Ten artists under thirty years of age were featured—including LeRoy, Bill Mayrs, Ron Kelly, Herb Gilbert and Heather Spears.
Interested in ontology, as defined by the philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, LeRoy studied and gave lectures on the subject, and was greatly influenced by French painter Georges Rouault.
By the 1960s, LeRoy, his wife and two sons, Kim and Anthony, lived in Powell River, then Argenta in the central Kootenays, and also in Kelowna. He produced art for exhibitions, shared several two-man shows with Vancouver sculptor Egon Milinkovich, and briefly taught at the Okanagan Landing School of Art.
However, by 1965, he had separated from his wife. In 1967, he gave a six-month lecture series on ontology in New York, where he met actress Lynda Woolley, whom he married in 1968. Returning to Vancouver, he had a renewed commitment to his art, and in addition to oil painting and etching, he began doing frescos, stained glass and floor mosaics, exhibiting at the Gallery of B.C. Arts, across from Stanley Park. LeRoy and the Pendulum group held the view that a work had to honestly convey something legitimately felt or perceived, otherwise it did not function as art, only as decoration. They saw art as an intriguing method of self-discovery and response to the world around them.
My only wish is for my work to be seen for what it is, not framed in clouds of publicity. Only one thing interests me, some humane expression. I believe in the individual, in his or her actual value. I believe in Revolt—primarily in relation to myself. In this I have some childish success.
LeRoy accepted teaching posts at the University of British Columbia and the Banff School of Fine Arts, but resigned after struggling with the way art schools spent time on ancillary activities—negotiating interviews, conversations with critics, press releases, catalogues and wall texts—rather than on teaching as a sacred trust with a student whose art is an internal journeying, enhanced by communication and learning from others.
By the fall of 1970, he offered a class on drawing and painting through the Vancouver Free University at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, now known as The Cultch. It proved life-changing for a core of students, including Roy Patterson, Wendy Newbold Patterson and Don Wunderlee, who valued the skills he taught as well as his philosophy of encouraging self learning and a personal journey. Along with drawing and practical skills, such as mixing pigments, LeRoy believed that painting and drawing were based on Four Forces: movement, luminosity, rhythm and spirit. He stated:
Bernie Raffo, former owner of Winchester Gallery wrote:
LeRoy’s primary medium was oil, but he also produced etchings on a small press in his studio, gouaches, watercolours, lithographs, conte sketches, pastels and volumes of drawings, exploring the subject of “mother and child” his whole life.
He continued to be involved in issues, writing letters to the local newspapers and opposing clear-cutting of old-growth forest in B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound and Carmanah Valley. He visited the valley and contributed his art to a fundraising book, Carmanah: Artistic Visions of an Ancient Rainforest, which also included the work of Salt Spring artists Simon Camping, Carol Evans, Robert Bateman, Diana Dean and Diana Thompson. When Texada Land Corporation, which owned 10% of Salt Spring, clear-cut forests on the island between 1999 and 2001, LeRoy participated in protests, which saved half of the land slated for logging. However, the inclement weather during one protest precipitated a decline in his health. He continued to draw and paint, but refused open heart surgery when the doctor recommended it.
LeRoy’s last painting was sitting on his easel when he died in the spring of 2005.
LeRoy Jensen’s work is in public collections: Burnaby Art Gallery, Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery at the University of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
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