Time for some contemplative sculpture

written by Christopher Cudworth

Jim Jenkins is a graduate of the University of Iowa School of Art. But his career path following college included some major time in the field of mechanical engineering. His natural aptitude for how things fit together essentially earned him the equivalent of an engineering degree based on experience managing plants that make machines and parts.

That’s as simple a description as we dare engage, because the ability to think mechanically and actually execute those designs in practice is way too technical for the average mind to conceive.

But when you add together the ability to think artistically as well, particularly in terms of abstraction, then you start to get a hint of what hanging around Jim Jenkins is like when he is working.

Working in materials such as stainless steel as well as found objects that are converted sculpture amounts to a material commentary on the state of humankind. To whit, Jenkins thinks almost in reverse to create his sculptures. He gets ideas through meditation, and these become solid visions as he considers how to form them from metal, glass and just about any material he can absorb into the process.

“I have a bit of an advantage over other artists in that respect,” he observes. “My background in engineering makes it possible for me to use almost any kind of material or object in my work.”

But that’s only one aspect of his methodology, because the burnishing of stainless steel becomes a conversation between the surface of the metal and the human eye. He conceives how to cut and shape and pierce his materials and then collaborates with a metal fabricating company, whose owner sometimes jokes, “What kind of crazy stuff are you bringing us this time?”

Jenkins is not crazy. He’s a risk-taker in some respects, and those risks are so wonderfully calculated they feel like they existed before he even thought of them. And to that end, he once heard the great designer Buckminster Fuller give a talk, and admired the manner in which the man was able to bring concepts to life. “You do not belong to you,” Fuller was once quoted. “You belong to the universe.”

One can walk right under one of Jenkins’ sculptures that stands in front of the new Richard and Gina Santori building, also known as the Aurora Public Library. The arch of stainless steel created by Jenkins stands over ten feet tall. Gleaming against the sun and sky on a warm summer day, the sculpture resembles the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Only this is an arch with so much more to say. It is titled Deus Ex Machina, which is defined as: “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.”

What a powerful statement to place in front of a library! And it means exactly that. When seeking solutions to problems, the library is indeed an ideal place to start.

The answers may indeed be unexpected, and the sculpture leads the eye across a surface cut with letters, which are the foundation for words, which are the foundation of language. The heart of all ideas comes out of all these literary foundations. But Jenkins puts them in a visual context.

Upstairs on the second floor of the library, Jenkins’ other sculptural and artistic work sits on the west side of the building facing the sunny plaza where his Deus Ex Machina piece stands. This is his Time Machine table and its companion, The Book.

One can imagine sitting down at this table and pushing a button to make it start up to mess with the alchemy of time and thought. Its many depths of glass and steel include a magnifier that reveals a secret message below. Both children and adults can explore these spaces and come away with mysteries swirling around their brains.

And The Book? It is propped open with a solid foam “book mark” so that you can’t lose your page as you flip through the drawings Jenkins created to convey the ideas behind it all.

This is public sculpture at its very best. These are not painted cows or acrylic-glazed creatures rendered to temporarily distract the public from daily life. These are entries in the tablet of the human mind. If given a moment to sink in, the sculptures of Jim Jenkins challenge perception and invite more than a surface take on public space and private ideas. And that intersection is where inspiration is ultimately derived.