News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

‘Salty’ artwork suggests beauty and connection

Gallery. Museum. Public park. Those are the places we expect to find art. Malia Jensen’s “Nearer Nature: Worth Your Salt” defies expectation and brings art down to earth, among the people — and animals, too. Through the end of December, the project is on display at a feed store in Redmond and a bar in Maupin, among other locations.

The video installations form one component of an unusual, clever, and downright funny piece. The first step involved sculpting parts of the human body, and objects representing body parts.

Jensen is a gifted sculptor who roams from medium to medium: bronze, wood, clay, polyurethane resin. For “Nearer Nature,” she carved sculptures out of white, high-density salt licks, the kind left in pastures for cattle to nuzzle.

The resulting sculptures were placed in wild or rural locations dotted throughout the state, including land near Redmond. Motion-sensitive field cameras filmed animals drawn to the salt licks: deer, coyotes, birds, elk.

Jensen and a team of editors used the footage to create a six-hour video.

“Watching the video — it’s meditative, contemplative,” she said. “It’s just basic animals. It’s not charismatic mega-fauna doing battle, its not National Geographic spectacular. It’s just animals, daily life, walking through the woods. In a way, it’s not that special.”

Viewing nature and animals on the screen, however, feels special in the right context. From the hypnotic charm of television to the addictive lure of smartphones, screens are often used to manipulate people for financial or political gain. Instead, Jensen harnessed their power to suggest beauty and connection.

“I see this project as a kindness, an open-hearted pursuit of something beautiful,” she said. “If there is an evolutionary function to beauty, it’s to remind us to take care of that which is not yet broken.” (See related story page 9.)

Jensen’s family moved to the Willamette Valley from the Midwest when she was four years old. Her grandparents were “working-class Minnesota, very stalwart;" her grandfather owned a big farm. In Willemina, a small town on the southern edge of Yamhill County whose tagline reads “Timber Town USA,” her parents bought 50 acres.

“My dad was a potter, Mom taught grade school. We had a classic ’70s back-to-the-land craftsperson life,” she said. “We had a big garden.” After her parents divorced, Jensen and her brother moved to Portland with their mother. Jensen was 12 years old.

“I think of the country, my childhood in Willemina, as the Eden that I lost,” she said. She has lived in Portland much of her adult life, with ample time in New York City as a working artist.

“There’s an urge in me to get back to that wild land,” she explained, “and a longing for the landscape that drives me.”

The project reconnected Jensen to country life, if only temporarily. Driving to the Redmond area, she was reminded of her days as a scenic painter on the set of the Gus Van Sant film “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” years ago. It was hard work, but driving through the landscape bookended each difficult day with beauty.

“I stayed in a friend’s cabin in Tumalo for a month and a half while I was working on that movie,” Jensen remembered. “I drove a crummy old Datsun. I remember waking up in the cold, my paint would be frozen in the morning. Painting a lot of fake rocks and outhouses and signage. Bonding with the Smith Rock area.”

She sees the project as illuminating the pathways that animals make through the landscape, partly to “underscore the parallel map of human movement and travels — where you build your life.”

Her travels and other expenses for this project were supported by a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Creative Heights Initiative.

“I think of the animals as emissaries from the other world, the world of nature,” she said. Human consciousness can be seen as one world, “the land of language and fossil fuels. Then there’s the animals: spiritual connectors to our primal roots.”

Yet Jensen is also inspired by overhead maps of Manhattan.

“You see Broadway cutting at a diagonal across the island,” she said. “It’s that way because it’s the original pathway, the migration pathway of the animals up and down the island. Then it became the path that the Indians used, and then became the path that the white man used.”

Such paths “connect us as humans to the very literal, essential, fundamental need and use of the land, the landscape, and the environment,” according to Jensen. “I feel such urgency now — many of us feel urgency — to connect back to the earth, to what is essential, fundamental, undeniable.”

“Nearer Nature: Worth Your Salt” is on view at Oregon Feed and Irrigation at the north end of Redmond through the end of this month. The work may also be viewed at Tygh Valley General Store and the Riverside Restaurant in Maupin. Details are available at


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