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Penelope Jencks: Sculpture explores age, the elements, and human form

Before she came to BU in 1956, Penelope Jencks studied at Swarthmore College, the Hans Hoffmann School, and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Jencks arrived at the College of Fine Arts expecting to become a painter of abstract art, but after graduating in 1958, found herself drawn to sculpture. A selection of her work, in terra cotta, plaster, and bronze, is now on display at the 808 Gallery. Click on the arrow above to hear Jencks talk about her work and to see a slide show of the event’s installation. The artist will be on hand at the exhibition’s opening reception tonight, Friday, March 17, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and will give an artist’s talk on Wednesday, March 22, from 1 to 2 p.m. All events are free and open to the public. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky.

Penelope Jencks (CFA’58) says the large open space at 808 Commonwealth Ave. is the perfect setting for the first comprehensive survey of more than three decades of her work: Penelope Jencks: Sculpture. The 12,000-square-foot 808 Gallery allows the larger nude figures, nearly 10 feet tall, to appear neither crowded nor dwarfed. “This is where they belong,” says Jencks. “I can’t imagine that my work will ever look better anywhere else. I’ll hate to take it down.”

Some of the work is from Beach Series I, an ensemble of life-size nudes in terra cotta inspired by childhood beach outings where friends swam together without suits. The work, done in the late 1970s, is intended to evoke the elements of the beach itself. The beach is essentially the shape of the human body, says Jencks; terra cotta is essentially sand, and sand is essentially earth. She discovered the joys of creating large-scale figures, she says, after working on a bronze sculpture of Samuel Elliot, which is at the intersection of Exeter Street and Commonwealth Avenue.

Beach Series II, also represented in the show, was created in the mid-1980s and includes nine larger-than-life figures. Because terra cotta presented structural problems at that scale, Jencks switched to plaster, but the figures’ expressions and gestures also strive to convey a relationship to their elements.

“As a child I can remember older bodies seeming so strange,” says Jencks. “When you’re four years old, you think your body is the normal one.” While her first Beach Series is about the connection of the beach and the figures, she says, the second series is about the artist’s connection to the figures. Regardless of her intentions, however, she hopes visitors to her show will bring their own curiosities to interpretation of her works.

“What’s more important,” she says, “is how it strikes the person who sees it.”

Jencks is currently working on a granite sculpture of Robert Frost, which will be installed at Amherst College.

Penelope Jencks: Sculpture runs through April 2 at the 808 Gallery, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free and open to the public.