Goodman Community Center | Art is in Jo Jensen’s blood

Art is in Jo Jensen’s blood

East side resident Jo Jensen is an artist and her art is who she is. Jensen paints astonishing works using acrylics and builds sculptures.

October 4, 2023 |
Artist Jo Jensen stands next to her painting of musician James Brown, which hangs in the Ideal Bar.
Jo Jensen displays and sells much of her art, like this painting of James Brown, at the Ideal Bar.

By Jody Renaud, Eastside News

Jo Jensen is an artist. To look at her work, to hear her story, to really see her, she is her art — and her art is who she is. She is also a mother, a grandmother, a friend to many and a valued neighbor. You may have seen her large plywood birds in the Emerson neighborhood.

She also paints absolutely astonishing works of art using acrylics. She finds musicians inspiring, mentioning Amy Winehouse, Jim Morison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain. She did a series a while back in which she deified each musician in the “27 club” — a group of musicians who died at the age of 27. For example, in her painting of Cobain, he has angel wings and is suspended in the sky above Seattle. The frame for the painting is covered with pearl guitar picks. Paintings of this size and scope can take days to complete.

She likes to build stuff. She makes intricate dioramas reflecting environments in which, if you look closely, you will see amazing messages. This love also extends to the fact she has done some of her home renovation herself, recently installing beautiful countertops in her kitchen.

Jensen explains that she can’t remember not making art. She finds creating “very meditative. If I can think it, then I can make it. Most things I make are out of waste items or trash.”

The waste items are given to her by friends or are found. A case in point are her sculptures created from gambling loss — pull tabs, bingo sheets and raffle tickets. Bartending friends and gamblers give her their tabs, which she uses to create visual puns about the dangers of gambling.

Pull tab mask
This mask was created from discarded gambling pull tabs.

Jensen also writes poetry when she does not have time to make physical art. Much of her poetry is a reflection on her experience as a middle school teacher, relationships and nature. It is compelling in what it reveals about both the joys and difficulties of being human. For 22 years Jensen was a teacher at Cherokee Heights Middle School, teaching family and consumer science and health education.

Back in the early 1990s, Jensen made Kidlidz, which were sold at Puzzlebox on State Street. Kidlidz were like balaclavas with animal features.

Jensen is originally from Milwaukee and moved to Madison in 1980. She has two children, and art runs in the family. Her son Bill painted the mural on the Ella Apartment building, 2860 E. Washington Ave., and her daughter is a gifted seamstress and quilter.

She recently had two art shows in the area — the first in July at Doundrins Distilling in Cottage Grove and the second in August at Dark Star Art Bar on East Washington Avenue. Her works are also in constant rotation at the Ideal Bar, 1968 Atwood Ave.

Many of the works are for sale, and the bartender at the Ideal will take payments for the art. Jensen can also be reached by email at

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