Kristian Berg was 9 years old the first time he entered the Minnesota art studio of Gendron Jensen. Nicknamed “the bone room,” the space contained the skeletal remains of animals Jensen had scavenged from the woods surrounding his family’s rented farm, poised to find new life in death as the subject of the artist’s next intricate drawing.
“It’s just him finding the angle that captures the landscapes that we walk by every day, “ Berg said.
Decades later, Berg, a documentarian and senior producer at WPSU-TV, invites the community to join him behind the closed doors of Jensen’s artisitic sanctuary. He will host a screening of his documentary “Poustinia” on Feb. 28 as part of the College Town Film Festival. The film won the Diane Seligman Award for best short documentary at the 2013 Woodstock Film Festival and the Audience Choice Award at the 2014 Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. It most recently snagged the grand prize and best documentary honor at the 2014 Rumschpringe International Short Film Festival in Lancaster.
“Poustinia” is the culmination of Berg’s lifelong fascination with Jensen. The artist produced his first local art exhibition at an Episcopal church in Grand Rapids, Minn., where the documentarian’s father presided as priest. The exhibition was a series of graphite drawings of old milk pails that Jensen found around his family farm.
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Berg was impressed, not only by the detail of the drawings, but by the solitary man who casually dropped references to monks and saints into everyday conversation.
“I think that everybody has somebody in their life that they wish that everyone could know. That’s the privilege of being a filmmaker,” Berg said.
Berg first captured Jensen’s artistic process on film in 1977, when he was still a senior in high school. That footage has long since disappeared, but the two continued their correspondence throughout Berg’s college education, and Jensen’s letters, all handwritten or handtyped, remain in the documentarian’s possession to this day.
The filmmaker’s fascination with Jensen endured over the 12-year period it took bring “Poustinia” to the screen. Berg worked on the short film in between freelance assignments, collecting interviews with the artist as funding continued to wax and wane.
“How do you get off the treadmill of paying the mortgage to do something personal? That’s the challenge,” Berg said.
The narrative that began to unfold over the course of a little more than a decade became, in part, about Jensen’s evolution both as an artist and as a human being. Throughout the course of the documentary, Jensen becomes proficient in the medium of stone lithography and explores a romance with his now wife, the artist Christine Taylor Patten, who he joined in the mountains of New Mexico in 1987.
Berg noticed a change in the artist during this period, watching as the once-removed Jensen became more gregarious, a change he credits to Patten.
“She opens up something in him socially,” Berg said.
This spring, “Poustinia” will be given national distribution on PBS. Berg said he hopes that the film will provide audiences with insight into Jensen’s creative process.
“Gendron wants you to look into nature instead of at,” Berg said.