Ivan Jenson Blends Painting and Poetry
by Paul Weiner
Ivan Jenson is a pop art painter and contemporary poet whose artwork was featured in Art in America, Art News, and Interview Magazine while selling at auction at Christie’s. Jenson was commissioned by Absolut Vodka to make a painting titled “Absolut Jenson” for the brand’s national ad campaign, and his “Marlboro Man” was collected by the Philip Morris corporate collection. Jenson was commissioned to paint the final portrait of the late Malcolm Forbes before his death. He also wrote two novels, Dead Artist and Seeing Soriah, both of which illustrate the creative and often dramatic lives of artists. Jenson turned to poetry as an outlet for artistic expression, and he is now a prolific writer who is widely published in a variety of literary media. Jenson’s poems were recently published by Hen House Press in a book titled Media Child and Other Poems, which can be acquired on Amazon.
Tell us a little about your history as an artist, writer, and poet. What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
I came from an artistic family in Los Angeles, and we were encouraged to be creative from an early age. I became obsessed with Michelangelo and Renaissance art at around nine years old. I used to check out sixteen millimeter films from the library about Michelangelo and screen them for myself for hours on end. I made a sculpture at age nine in Costa Rica that was used as a poster for a national exhibit. I then discovered Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and Dylan Thomas at thirteen and began to write. I wrote movie reviews for the Valley News and Green Sheet at that age.
Then we moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where I gave some of my early poems to an English teacher in Junior High School, and he read them over the weekend. On Monday, he made a speech to the class and said, “Ivan Jenson is not only a better writer than me or any other teacher in this school, he is also better than any student here because he has something which cannot be taught. He has the gift of a poet.” My early poems where published in magazines in Indiana. I also wrote my first novel at thirteen after a vivid experience of a summer spent studying art in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was a coming of age story called Walking Wounded, and Delacorte Press wrote me that they thought it was “Catcher in the Rye times five.” Other editors said it was, “raw and brutal.” My father gave a few chapters to Ray Bradbury to read, and he sent me a letter which said I wrote better than he did until he was 30.
My family moved to New York city, where I briefly studied at the Art Students League where I was told that the artist’s life is a lonely one. I consider myself self-taught in both art and writing. My big break came when I hung my paintings on paper with paper clips in Times Square and became an overnight success. Everything I made sold instantly and I was able to quit my job as a caterer for weddings and move into Manhattan at age 20. It was perfect timing because I was catching, and riding the crest of, an art wave hitting downtown New York City in the mid 80s.
My early career was far from lonely. Though I painted for hours alone, as soon as I was done with the paintings, they were trucked off to East Village galleries and all the top night clubs in the City including the famous Palladium, where my art was seen during a Whitney centennial exhibit featuring East Village Artists. Every single painting I have made has sold. Soon after, I was commissioned by Absolut Vodka to create my own Absolut Jenson painting, which was featured full page in Art News, Art in America, Interview, and other top international magazines. I now shared the same ad campaign gig as Andy Warhol. Later, I sold my most expensive painting. It was of the Marlboro Man, and I sold it to Philip Morris. I befriended Malcolm Forbes, and I was invited aboard the famed Forbes Highlander Yacht to draw my trademark pop art portraits of the “Who’s Who” of the corporate world. I painted the last commissioned portrait of Malcolm Forbes.
Fast forward through the nineties. I continued to make my living as an artist, but little did I know I was gathering material for an unexpected literary career that was brewing inside me. I left New York in 2004 after personal and career burnout and found myself feeling lost in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But then, after a year of culture shock from the change to a much slower pace, I joined a writer’s group. At first, I brought in some unfinished fiction, and after receiving great feedback, I quickly made up for lost time and furiously wrote a series of novels as well as poetry. A girlfriend of mine at the time told me my poetry was as good as anything out there, and so, on a whim, I submitted to three magazines. Well, I forgot all about it, thinking it would lead nowhere, until a few weeks later all three poems were accepted for publication with glowing letters from the editors of the magazines. So I submitted more and got accepted again. Within three months, I was already published by some of the top ten online literary magazines in the country. I became addicted to writing poetry and seeing them published. Now, I have two novels published, Dead Artist and Seeing Soriah both published by Hen House Press, New York, close to five hundred poems published, and a book of poems called Media Child and Other Poems soon to be published also by Hen House Press.
Do you see your poetry and painting as being intertwined?
For me, they are very different. My paintings are all about a mix of classical and contemporary aesthetics, bold line, color, and structural balance. Other more painterly works are all about the romance of painting and its texture. But I can say that my adventures and misadventures as an artist living and working and loving in the trenches of downtown New York City for twenty years has given me an endless gold mine of material for my novels and my poetry. I am including my line drawings in my new book of poems.
As someone who has experienced the New York art world, do you feel as if New York City is a conducive place for artists to make new work?
For me, it was. My whole career was born when I first sold my art in Times Square, The Upper West Side, Soho, and Union Square. I got to meet, first hand, all my collectors. The streets were my living, breathing internet, and from all that networking, I met the important lawyers, gallery owners, club owners, and VIP collectors. I think that people still love to purchase a painting from a genuine New York City artist. But now New York is so expensive, I don’t see how an artist starting out could afford the overhead unless that artist had half a dozen roommates. My only roommates were the women who lived with me.
Now, for me, living in Grand Rapids, the internet is my new version of New York. I would say that the internet is now a virtual New York City. Thanks to e-mail, I can submit my poems with ease, and they instantaneously zip over to the literary sites. Then, when my poetry is shared on Twitter and Facebook, it is exposed to thousands of readers. I may not live in New York anymore, but New York lives in me. I still walk fast, and I maintain that driven inner pace, and, when I am working, I write often to the beat of Electronica music. And yet, living away from New York City has given me perspective on that seductively fast lifestyle, and coming from New York City has given me perspective on the wonderful subtleties of the Midwest. My novels, Seeing Soriah and Dead Artist, both take place in a fictional city called Gold Haven, Michigan, and key scenes take place in New York City.
You mentioned that a lot of your material comes from your time as an artist in New York City. What are some other common themes that show up in your poetry throughout Media Child and Other Poems?
My debut poetry book is a comprehensive collection of my poems written over the last four and a half years when this whole magical renewal of my creative life began. It was all so new and exciting, yet the words and the images fell right into place with immediacy and ease. Nothing was forced; it all just flowed. Every day was a new discovery of what was possible for me in poetry. I dedicated myself to writing at least a poem a day and then reading them aloud to my writer’s group and then unabashedly sending them off. It was a formula that worked famously and which I enjoyed immensely. Some of the poems in my book are autobiographical flashbacks to my East Village days. Through my poetry, I was to find form and meaning behind my former fast-paced lifestyle. It was not long into my newfound poetry career that wordplay appeared in my poems.
Now, I am a quick study, and once I realized I was onto something unexpected and wonderful, I grew in leaps and bounds. There was a phenomena going on both inside and outside of me. Here I was, drawing from my experience, my neurosis, my heartache, my highs and lows, and yet I was treating them with a lightness of touch and never forgot to add wit and universal punch lines to the mix. As I read aloud my poems at my writer’s group I learned that there was power in my knack for humor. Then I began to spin on common phrases, colloquialisms, clichés, and I soon drew from the media as well. Next came a cast of characters including celebrities or brand names, TV shows from Gilligan’s Island to Star Trek, and public figures from Jung to Joan Rivers and Chaplin. They just all showed up unannounced in my stanzas like a profound parade of self-styled product placement. I went as far as to title one of my most popular poems “Name Dropping.”
My poems are designed to work on the page as well as live, and I treated my writer’s group as a training ground for how to act out and really sell my poems in performance. And, soon enough, I was invited to perform them at theaters, bookstore poetry readings, or at the fancy homes of the “Who’s Who” of Grand Rapids. I was always pleased to get laughter right on cue where I wanted it, as if I were a stand up comic. And yet, through the laughter, I knew that the deeper meanings were still coming through. Not only do I make sure my poems open up with a hook, but then I take the reader or listener on a visceral ride and a public display of my deepest fears, phobias, and foibles in a metaphorical mash up with movie stars, literary icons, historic figures, and late night talk show hosts. Then I keep juggling on those phrases we have heard all our lives, and yet I give them new and sometimes twisted twists.
I never knew I had this treasure trove of verbal Americana stowed up inside of me. And yet it all channels through me, with a detailed structure, polyrhythm, sometimes multiple inner rhymes. Some poems are like monologues spoken by characters in a play or a scene from Film Noir. Others are snapshot memories, and others are like short films. My poems have been turned into short films by a talented filmmaker named Cassidy Bisher. He is currently adapting a poem I wrote especially for his production company. Its theme is nostalgia and the passage of time. The film will feature time lapse photography set against the spoken words of my poem. Obviously, this is a dream come true to see my poetry become cinema.
Note To Self a poem by Ivan Jenson
The Way It Should Be a poem by Ivan Jenson
Midwest Juliet a poem by Ivan Jenson
Has your painting style changed at all since you made the move to Michigan?
Since I moved to Michigan, my paintings have become so much more complex. When I depict van Gogh, as I often do, the paintings have become mosaics, puzzles of color where each color contrasts or has to answer to the color next to it. I am in as good form as ever here in Michigan as I was in my studio in New York City. I turn on urban R and B music, and I fall into cadence with my colors. My Michigan studio is quite big, and I can make a nine foot by nine foot paintings and feel myself engulfed in the vastness of the canvas. When I take a break and turn the music off, I hear the crickets and the birds at night, and then I carry my bucket of brushes through the backyard in the night with the moon shining, and I feel like the expatriate artist, like Gauguin who has found a slice of paradise far from the chiseled edges and the blazingly bright video advertisements of Times Square.
I like the idea of the internet being a virtual New York City. What are a few of your favorite web sites that have helped you use the internet to make your work public?
I have to be frank with you here and say that each morning, when I approach my computer screen with a cup of Starbucks in hand and just the right music playing on iTunes, I am truly reaching through the screen and grasping digital opportunities by the dozen. Google is my tool, and my hard drive is the fire of my inner drive which has never burned out. I am not at liberty to give out my self-styled, highly secretive, and self-developed tricks of the internet trade. But I will be candid and say that my transformation into a writer did not happen by accident.
I do not follow the usual format of submission. If there are standard systems or rules out there on How to Become a Published Author or Poet, well, then I have broken them all. Some of my poems have even been published in multiple publications. But I have never heard of a poet being put to jail for that free-verse transgression. I learned early that I must not only be a fountain of creativity, but that I have to also be a viral, guerrilla marketing maven as well. Usually, getting hyped up on caffeine and diet Coke makes me so ambitious that the pupils of my eyes dilate behind my glasses and I simply will it all to happen.
I admit I am addicted to getting e-mails of acceptance letters from publishers, literary magazines, filmmakers, ect, but to get that I must cast my net on the internet. My confidence comes from knowing that my angst and my ecstasy of words is loved and appreciated by the public and by the always wonderful embrace of literary circles. I am eternally grateful to the editors of online and print magazines and anthologies who have been so generous and receptive of my works from day one. For a creative person, knowing that you have something special is not enough; you must show the world your poems, your novels, your paintings, your sculptures, your quips, your funny asides, your best tragic mask, your pointed dress shoes and observations, your new pair of New Balance shoes, your trendy five o’clock stubble, your smile. And then you must wait, and if you are lucky, the world will answer back with an astounding, “Yes!”
I am trying to be Gandhi about this
But sometimes you make me so Mussolini
You think you are so very Jesus
But really you are much more Britney
Than Mother Teresa
Sure you Isadora Duncan into a room
With your Betty Davis lies
And you expect me to
Cyrano De Bergerac
You on the phone
Or Shakespeare up my e-mails
But I’m just John Doe
I’m no James Dean or Citizen Kane
The point is I want to be
Romeo to your Juliet
I want us to John and Yoko till the end
I want our children to
Be Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple
In the afternoons
I want them to be Dorothy and Toto
Near a rainbow
I want to be Mr. Brady
and you to be mother Maude
And though I’m no Tiger or Agassi
I still want my boys to be
little Eli Mannings
and the girls will be so Serena or Venus
Look I’ll never be a Bill Gates provider
and you’re no Keira Knightley in our quick-snaps
But still, when I see you I want to
Larry King you with questions
and Oprah you with compassion
We used to be so Brad and Angelina
But now we’ve become so Limbaugh and Obama
Guess it will be this way
until we are old and Castro gray
Is Vincent van Gogh an inspiration for you? Which artists and poets have influenced your work the most over the years?
Van Gogh is both an inspiration and a concern of mine. I first discovered van Gogh in a calendar in an elementary school classroom, and his vivid yellows and oranges, his use of thick paint seemed to be beckoning to only me. The childlike naiveté and the intensity of his works spoke to me. Van Gogh is a contemporary character along with Picasso in my novel, Dead Artist. In the novel, the artist protagonist, Milo Sonas, sees dead artists. He gets supernatual visitations from these two artists. Each artist represents a different spectrum of artistic recognition. Here we have Picasso, millionaire, South of France mansion owner, and a life filled with societal accolades and many younger wives and sensual mistresses, and then we have the troubled legend of van Gogh, loner, misunderstood, mad, loveless and an artist who never sold a single painting. In my novel, Dead Artist, I even the score and Van Gogh gets a second chance in the modern world when a young college coed sets van Gogh up with her best friend, a girl who is a van Gogh fanatic, who becomes the love of Vincent’s afterlife. In my novel, van Gogh finds love, and he gets to watch from another dimension as his paintings sell for astronomical figures. This is my artistic and poetic justice.
My foremost influence has always been Picasso. I was fascinated by him as a teen, and it was a thrill to know in the 70s that he was living and painting in sandals, shorts and fedora hats in the South of France. Here was a man who could have traveled or lived a life of luxurious leisure, but, instead, he chose to burn the midnight oil of his talent by painting all night long. He chose to spend a lion’s share of his ferocious ability exploring the safari of his artistic abilities alone in his studio. From an early age, I acquired this sort of prolific work ethic. On Mondays in New York City, I would always ritualistically begin a new series of paintings. As for poetry, I have loved Richard Brautigan for his whimsy. I loved Dylan Thoma’s rich Welch delivery of his poetry. And I loved how Walt Whitman stole from the Bible the many wonders of using the word “and”. I am not too proud to proclaim that I was infatuated with the melancholic and sometimes sentimental spell that Rod Mckuen had over the publishing world in the 70s. I let that dream go when I became an artist, but, as fate would have it, I was to become a poet after all.
Visual artists are always trying to find innovative ways of working. Today, many new media artists have taken to the web as an opportunity to program web sites that function as artwork. As someone who avidly uses the internet as a powerful marketing tool, do you think the internet is also a potential medium for the creation of visual art?
People today fall in love because of dating web sites; friends who have lost touch are virtual friends again because of Facebook, and so on. I hear all the time of artists using programs to paint. As a messy artist who lived in an apartment that was splattered with Jackson Pollock drips of color wherever you looked, I will be the first in line to work with virtual art supplies that don’t make a mess. And, of course electronic brushes that don’t have to be washed would be wonderful. Yet, as an artist with one foot in the 20th and the other in the 21st Century, I will always pour out my paint on plates and paint on canvas, if only to keep my spiritual connection with Vincent and Pablo alive. Who knows, maybe one day I will paint on my Mac and e-mail the file to multiple galleries in Paris, London and New York who will then display my art on sleekly framed canvas simulating monitors. And I will appear at the opening night of my international solo exhibits as a hologram of an artist with a glass of Chardonnay in his hand.
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