"Everybody has a place that they go to, that they would like to immerse in," says sculptor Jason Tennant. Though spectacular and moving, our moments in those spaces are fleeting, few, and far between, he says. Tennant finds his solace and his fascination in the woods and fields, in lakes and streams.
"My whole life isn't like that, but when I'm working on my sculpture, I can go there in my mind."
Tennant specializes in carved wood sculpture, rendering nature using elements of nature. He lovingly depicts all manner of birds, prey mammals like deer and moose, and such predatory species as wolves, coyotes, or lynxes. "My work is very based in North American species, and my experience," he says. Tennant often adds nearly anthropomorphized touches of cackling beaks, snarling grins, and laughter-crinkled eyes to his animal masks.
While he was growing up, Tennant's family moved around quite a bit, bouncing between rural and urban environments and an island just outside of Detroit. In his youth, his family owned 70 acres in rural Michigan. "I was really inspired by summers in the water in the mouth of Lake Erie," Tennant says. He explored his artistic reverence of nature at a young age with drawings and paintings of fish, and began woodcarving at age 12.
Tennant has been certified to scuba dive since he was 16, and has done a lot dives in freshwater lakes, including memorable dives while it was snowing. He says he loved getting close to the fish, and a sculptural relic from that obsession hangs in his studio: a 5-foot long, incredibly detailed Walleye, with a shimmering oculus made from a camera lens.
Tennant earned his MFA from the University at Buffalo. Though fascinating in their own right, his sculptures from that time period look a lot different than his current work. These imposing, industrial "gargoyles" were leering, blocky forms dominated by snarling, toothy maws. "My work was kind of voracious," Tennant says. "I think I was kind of getting some of the urban and industrial stuff out of my system." Downriver of Detroit could be "uglier than hell," he says, with steel mills spewing airborne waste and making the paint peel from the cars.
Tennant's current depiction of predators don't impose the same kind of cold terror. The wolves and coyotes are infused with a sense of intelligent survival, instead of menacing, facelessness.
After 10 years as a woodshop instructor for at-risk kids at BOCES, Tennant dedicated himself to making art full-time in 2004. He began to show his work at festival art shows, and today, has found a continuous, enthusiastic, and diverse buyer audience through his Etsy account. In 2010, Etsy sent a producer to make a video on his work for their "Handmade Portrait" series.
Tennant's "Nike of the Forest" series is a body of sculptures loosely based on the "Winged Victory of Samothrace" and comprised of foraged pieces of fallen American chestnut trees. The centerpiece of each of these sculptures are the gnarled old remnants of roots, branches, and trunks of trees afflicted with blight, cut down in the 1930's, and left on the hilly forest floors of the Finger Lakes region. Tennant purchased some of this land in 1998, and has made good use of his scavenging skills.
To these raw chestnut center columns, the artist has seemingly seamlessly attached detailed wings carved from conifers and painted to resemble plumage. Just like the Greek Nike, they are headless, the twists in the wood like flowing robes, with wings spread wide in an elegant, exultant gesture.
"They express an embodiment of ephemeral experiences that occur when one is immersed in nature, and the resiliency of nature to human impact," Tennant says. In more recent work, he has incorporated more overt figurative carvings between the wings, which he says is an homage to Terri, his wife of 10 years.
Tennant has lived and worked from a house and studio in Macedon for the past two years, having previously lived in Rochester with a studio in the Hungerford Building. Between his rural home and camping on his land, he spends much time in meditative observation of nature. And as an omnivore himself, Tennant has a deep reverence for predators and for prey alike. He grows food in gardens on his property, forages for wild edible mushrooms, fishes, hunts, and dresses his own kills.
He imbues his sculptures with the fragile immediacy of distilled wonder, brought back from his sensitive watch over the ebb and flow of nature's pleasures and dangers. While making a piece, after Tennant has carved the forms to his liking, he works with the exposed natural grain by sanding and adding layers of acrylic glaze or casein paint to achieve realistic-looking plumage or fur. "I try to articulate natural patterns by exposing natural patterns," he says.
Tennant has started working with bone as well, and so far offers pendants and earrings carved into tiny antlers. He's also recently become transfixed with the beautifully textured tree bark of deadwood, and has begun experimenting with covering bendable plywood with it — "still interpreting nature, but with a minimalistic, textural" focus, he says.
At the moment, Tennant is working on several commissioned works, including a chandelier encircled by ravens in flight, and preparing to teach a course in art essentials for non-art majors this fall at MCC.