After retiring from the Biology Department at Virginia Tech in 2007, Tom Jenssen
returned to an undergraduate interest in ceramics. His creations are thrown pieces to
which are added glazes, melted glass, painted imagery, and “appropriated” objects. An
early example is “Good Dog” where a jar totes a family salt shaker on its lid.
This won 1st prize at the Radford City Fine Arts Show in 2018, validating the direction Jenssen
was taking. Clearly, there is a playful nature here, but there can be more serious intent
in other works, such as a panther stalking through a swampy habitat.
The animals depicted in the current exhibit range from the aquatic to the amphibious to
the terrestrial. Examples include a great white shark, sea turtle, rhinoceros, and giraffe.
One piece even features a mermaid. In each case, animal behavior and habitat are
depicted with accuracy and detail (well, except for the mermaid!)
To produce the images, a slurry of iron oxides, a very fine paint brush, and a whole lot of
patience were needed. The animal-oriented theme resonates from Jenssen’s career in biology and from an
interest set early as a youth. His family rented lakeside cabins for entire summers
during which the boy was never seen in anything but his bathing suit. Swimming,
catching turtles and frogs, exploring with his dog — these were the activities that set the
stage for his career in field biology.
There were mentors along the way, like JohnGoodman (University of Redlands), Charles Carpenter (Oklahoma University), and Ernest Williams (Harvard). With their guidance and example, Jenssen developed a
consuming interest in evolutionary biology, herpetology, and, in particular, the behavior
of lizards. It was the latter that took him to tropical habitats in Mexico, Panama, Hawaii,
Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
As a ceramist, Jenssen initially produced pieces that carried a whimsical sense with a
touch of kitsch. More recently, however, topics have turned increasingly toward literal
expression, as Jenssen continues to explore the traditional with the unexpected.
Take a close look at the black panther piece. The panthers running around the base of
the jar have the same musculature as the one on the lid, an object found in a tractor
store. Getting the dark color of the animal just right was captured by shading the
painted coatings of iron oxides. The panther images had to be carefully scratched into
the surface of the clay.
This level of detail is unusual in ceramic art. Notice, too, that the panther on the lid is not just standing there. He has a foot resting on a log and seems to be standing in shallow water. Panthers often live in swamps, so the panther is in his natural habitat. He is at home. The log was formed from red and black clay, the
water was made from glass, and an extruding tool was used to make the vines.
Attention to detail and authenticity is a hallmark of the artist’s work.
Tom Jenssen’s ceramic pieces are on display until the end of March at the Montgomery
Museum of Art and History, 4 East Main Street in Christiansburg, Virginia. A public
reception will be held on February 2 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.