Kristen Jensen visited by Maria Britton

I came across Kristen’s sculptures roughly five years ago during Bushwick Open Studios. She had a teeny ceramic piece or two on display. My memory is not accurate, but from time to time, they pop up in my mind as tiny porcelain bites glazed with a little gold. During our visit in her sun-filled studio in Bushwick, we talk about her path to ceramics, sewing, collections of ephemeral items, shoulder pads, and more.

Kristen’s studio space has moved between various locations over the years, but for now is located in her apartment. One wall of her studio has shelving for storage and the opposite wall has a table and sewing machine. Kristen collects all kinds of fabrics, but her soft sculptures are mostly made of denim and used clothing. On the windowsill is a remnant of one of her broken sculptures, a ceramic vessel made in the shape of a foot. It broke around the ankle. I imagine most sculptors working in clay have unfortunate stories of pieces shattering from an accidental bump. Kristen shares a few of her stories with me. Kristen’s sculptures most predominantly consist of both fabric and clay, but she works in other materials as well as performance. She sews at this studio and does her ceramic work at a clay studio.

We start the visit looking at some spindly-legged cedar tables that support smaller sculptures. She torched the cedar tables, accentuating the texture of the woodgrain and giving them a charcoal finish. Like the cedar tables, the surfaces of her clay pieces and soft sculptures retain a memory of their histories. Her attraction to clay has to do with its relation with the body and its ability to hold marks. She says, “it remembers how you handle it. It remembers when you fire it.” Kristen takes a slow pace in hand building clay vessels as opposed to throwing pots on a wheel, which is much faster. She says that the atmospheric firing processes she prefers foil the meditative nature of how she builds with clay. Atmospheric firing methods, like pit firing or wood firing, mark the surface of the clay during the actual firing, leaving a smokey image on the clay’s surface.  

The frustrations and failures of working with clay inform her process. Kristen unwraps a large vessel from its packed up storage state, peeling back a moving blanket to reveal this cracked and put back together vessel. It broke in the firing. The shards look like they should fit together perfectly, but they don’t. Kristen says that while firing, this piece broke in dynamic ways. She put the pieces back together to create this fractured vessel. She intentionally uses clay not suitable for making large forms to make large forms, understanding the likelihood of “failure”. Clay is a volatile medium, and Kristen purposefully pushes the limits of clay’s physical properties. 

Thinking about clay’s ability to hold a history makes me think about the memory of the fabric too. The used fabrics in her soft sculptures also contain a recorded history. Kristen collects different kinds of fabrics and chooses to work primarily with denim because it is such a recognizable fabric. For her, denim is a democratic fabric. We get on the topic of the current state of denim and the difficulty of finding actual denim with the rise of fast fashion and stretchy fake jeans. She’s drawn to older items of clothing for her fabric source, including bits of fabric from her and her husband’s clothing. She shows me one patch cut from her beloved silk blouse with a faint floral pattern. The larger soft sculptures are stuffed with bean bag filler, and the smaller soft sculptures, which I see up close in her studio, are stuffed with shredded bills and papers, rocks, and sometimes tea for fragrance.  

I ask Kristen about her background in art. She went to school in Syracuse and studied printmaking and drawing. Between undergrad and grad school, she made art with a specific idea in mind, which usually led her to learning a new process or working with a new material. This is what brought her to clay. Using porcelain, she slip cast old bathing caps in a series of 12. After that piece, she moved to other materials then returned to clay towards the end of grad school. She repeated that previous mold making process, but it wasn’t working. She started pressing the clay into the molds and then moved to hand building.  

She shows me a small ceramic bowl with a leather strap that she will probably wear or include in a future performance although all of the details have not been fully articulated in her head. She opens a jar with little unfired balls of porcelain. She went on a trip with friends to Staten Island to dig up some clay. On that trip she found several different types of clay. One of the clays is too crumbly to build with so she plans on making a slip, a mixture of clay, water, and other materials that can be used in many different ways with clay.  

We shift focus to some nearby works in progress based on her collection of wire hangers. Kristen tells me that she has a real attraction to ephemeral items, garbage, and mundane things. This series of silver hangers are based on bent and misshapen wire hangers Kristen collects. The original wire hangers are bent and shaped by whatever previous forces they met. She sees them as portraits full of personality. They have distinct shapes and curves formed most likely by someone’s hand to fulfill an immediate need. Kristen recreates the wire hangers out of silver. She has some experience working in metal-smithing. She talks about the final presentation and finishing touches they need.

Kristen brings up another collection she has been amassing. 
Somewhere in her studio is a large trash bag full of shoulder pads. Although the bag full of them is tucked away, out of reach -- probably better for the sake of the studio visit -- I am thrilled to meet a fellow shoulder pad enthusiast! There’s something about shoulder pads, whether cheaply manufactured or well-designed, that makes them beautiful objects. Kristen holds onto them for a future costume or who knows what. I have certain shoulder pads that have lived mixed in with my sewing supplies for years.

Recently Kristen invested in a sewing machine intended for making sails, while it was on sale. She has worked with a Janome and an industrial sewing machine in the past. Her machine for sewing sails can handle multiple layers of heavy fabrics. Sewing machines can be so specific in their functions that people who sew a lot seem to rely on a couple machines for different needs, like sewing heavy or delicate fabrics or special stitches. Another part of Kristen’s practice includes sewing bonnets and pinafores for herself, like her own uniform. 

The first few soft sculptures Kristen made were adapted from bean bag chair patterns. Now she makes her own patterns. She says it’s an interesting process and takes some getting used to. “Even if you’ve done sculpture, it’s totally different--like reverse engineering something. This is the idea of the final form I want to make. How do I literally make a two dimensional thing that will add up to that?” Kristen talks about how the nuances of pattern making and sewing can make or break attempts at elegant forms. 

We wrap up the studio visit with Kristen telling me about her work’s relationship to the body. Looking at her work, she speaks about where a body could fit. She points to one piece and says maybe that’s a neck rest. She refers to another vessel, saying it’s roughly the size of a torso. While we don’t talk directly about the performance component of her work, her pointing out where a body could go illuminates the potential development of a performance. Her sculptures look like they are doing what they are supposed to do, and her own body and actions fit right in as a fleeting yet vital component.

For more information about Kristen, please visit her website.