A Spirit Journey

By Mary Jo Lund

Eighteen years ago, I went to a rummage sale in Newport, Oregon, and bought an oil painting of an American Indian. It was painted on a 16×21-inch, hand-carved slab of Taos sandstone that weighs sixteen pounds. Its original crate-wood frame adds four inches and four more pounds. It’s not a lightweight piece.

The sandstone painting of a Native American by "Jenkins."

The sandstone painting of a Native American by an artist named “Jenkins.”

For sixteen years, I lugged the painting from one dwelling to another, clueless about both the artist and the subject, or how such a painting ended up in a pile of donated items in an Oregon coast rummage sale. For a long time, I thought the subject was an Indian chief. The artist who signed his name, “Jenkins,” on the painting had not written any name or title on the back of the picture. I took to calling the Indian man “Ancestor.”

My Ojibwa friend Joe encouraged me to look for the tribe and real name of the Indian I’d taken for my ancestor. He said it would be our Spirit Journey, and a chance to earn my war pony. He also said my ancestor would want to be returned to his people.

I’ve been on that Spirit Journey for a long time now. I thought discovering who the Indian man was and finding his people would be the end of the story. Of course it was not that simple. First I had to find out about the artist who had signed his name “Jenkins,” which could help identify the Indian man, and perhaps trace how the painting ended up in Newport, Oregon.

In 2011, I took the painting to an art authenticator, who kept it for two years while he traced the artist. He concluded that it was painted by Paul Jenkins (1923-2011) in the late 1940s, in the classic style of an 1850 portrait of a Native American Shaman. The face has the smile of an Indian yet to face the white man; his eyes are moist, as if the painting had just dried. The artist was also a skilled stone carver, the art authenticator said.

There was a problem, though. Paul Jenkins had reportedly destroyed all of his work done prior to leaving the Art Students’ League of New York, when he burst upon the modern art scene as an abstract painter. This meant there was nothing to compare my Ancestor painting to. I read everything I could find about Paul Jenkins, and learned who had been in his circle of friends. One of his closest friends had been fellow artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) of Portland, Oregon. Rothko had family who lived in Newport, Oregon, who could have kept his friend Jenkins’s painting in their attic for decades.

I also learned about Jenkins’s art instructors, Morris Kantor (1896-1974) and Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953). In the late 1940s, when the portrait was painted, Kuniyoshi would have been nearly 60 years old. When I found photos of Kuniyoshi, it seemed apparent that the painting was not of some unknown Indian chief, but was of Jenkins’s art instructor, dressed in native splendor. Kuniyoshi had died May 14, 1953; seventeen days before I was born.

Usually, to complete a School of Fine Art degree, a student must create a perfectly life-like portrait, and students often choose their art instructor as the subject. I had looked hard for any other artist named Jenkins who might have painted a portrait of Yasuo Kuniyoshi dressed as an Indian, but could find none. I even looked for a “Jen Kins.” I didn’t know much about artists by name and had passed over “the” Paul Jenkins as possibly being the artist. But when I saw a photograph of Mr. Kuniyoshi, I had to take a step back and reconsider.

It seemed I had found a lost portrait of one of the most famous artists of the last hundred years by another famous artist of the last hundred years: Kuniyoshi, by Jenkins. Last seen heading west with Mark Rothko. I thought that was the story: finding a lost work of art is big stuff.

Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Yasuo Kuniyoshi

Then I read the Kuniyoshi papers in the archives of the Smithsonian, and realized that the real story is the one told by Mr. Jenkins in the image itself. Yasuo Kuniyoshi, it turns out, was a Japanese citizen who spent much of his life wanting to be a Real American in every way, and to be treated as such.

From the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor until 1951, under no circumstance was a Japanese person allowed U.S. citizenship. It was against the law during and after World War II. (Sadly, we seem to be repeating that cruel history today, rejecting refugees of current wars.) Due to the political and racial tensions surrounding the Second World War, the U.S. citizenship papers that Yasuo Kuniyoshi waited for never came.

He had lived in America since the early 1900s, but he remained Japanese, an “enemy alien.” As the years passed he applied for U.S. citizenship. He lived in New York, taught art at the Art Students League of New York, and worked for the U.S. government during the war. But he remained Japanese, an “enemy alien.”

In 1951, when the law banning Japanese becoming citizens was repealed, his hopes to become an American rose again, but for unknown reasons his application never was approved. When he was sick and dying, he asked daily whether the citizenship papers had come yet. Every day his wife had to tell him, “no.” Finally, unable to let his wish remain unfulfilled another moment, she told him, untruthfully, “Your papers came in the mail today.” It is said that he died a happy man with that news.

Yusuo Kuniyoshi is now called a great American artist, although to his last breath he remained Japanese, an “enemy alien.” But what the U.S. government denied him was granted by his student, Paul Jenkins. Jenkins made Mr. Kuniyoshi a Real American: a native American Shaman, the one everyone in the tribe consults.

This is as far as my Spirit Journey has taken me. I have found to my own satisfaction the artist who painted Ancestor and traced its probable route to a rummage sale in Newport, Oregon. The remaining leg of my quest, to return Mr. Kuniyoshi to his people, is so far unfulfilled. I guess I won’t be earning my war pony any time soon.

Personae

Paul Jenkins: born Kansas City, Missouri, July 12, 1923, died June 9, 2012 in New York, age 88. Nationality: American

Yasuo Kuniyoshi: born September 1, 1889 in Okayama, Japan; came to U.S. 1904; died May 14, 1953 in New York City, age 63. Nationality: Japanese

Morris Kantor: born 1886 Minsk, Belarus, came to U.S. 1906; died 1974 in West Nyack, N.Y. Nationality: American

Mark Rothko: born Marcus Rothkowitz September 25, 1903 in Daugavpils, Latvia/Dvinsk, Russia; came to Portland, Oregon as a child; died February 25, 1970 in New York City. Nationality: American

Editor’s note:

Eric Francis’ mentor Josepth Trusso worked as the studio assistant for Jenkins when he lived in Paris in the mid Sixties. Trusso refutes that this Native American portrait is by the Paul Jenkins in question. Eric’s note to me about it was, “I suggest we run the piece, but quoting this email from Joe as a kind of postscript. I think that the story is still valid as a personal quest, regardless of the outcome.” Below is Trusso’s reply to Eric. — Amanda Painter, Articles Editor for Vision Quest

“I’ve checked my correspondence with Paul and his signatures, none of which remotely resemble the sig on the sandstone piece. Why the authenticator never checked those easily available Paul Jenkins sigs is beyond me. Debra has researched a bit and found several Jenkin- named artists in the southwest who do paintings of Native Americans including an American Indian artist named Jenkins, too. So, we’re of the opinion it is not a work by Paul Jenkins.” — Joseph Trusso

18 Responses to A Spirit Journey

  1. Mike Rogers says:

    I may have information that may or may not help. I have 2 sandstone paintings of native American bust that are very similar to the one you have also signed JENKINS. I don’t know any thing about the artist but I do know that my father was a door to door salesman of pots and pans in the early 70’s in Phoenix Az. he traded a set of pots and pans for the paintings and they have been in our family ever since. the person he traded had told my father the he painted them. My research leads me to believe the artist is from Prescott, Az.

  2. Branden says:

    My dad has one of these paintings by Jenkins… He acquired it when we lived in southern Ca. back in the sixties I guess… The subject is said to be Dull Knife. I will get a photo of it next week. Just shoot me an email and I’ll send it.

    • amanda says:

      Thank you, Branden — I have sent your comment and email address to the author, Mary Jo Lund! Hopefully she will be in touch with you soon.

  3. Branden says:

    Here is a link to one that has sold: http://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/native-american-indian-painting-on-sandstone-moun-286-c-c0349caa00

    Looks like it sold for $10 ;-(… so, most likely nobody is going to get rich off of our Jenkins paintings.

  4. Jeff M. says:

    I know exactly who Jenkins is. He is my grandmothers ex-brother in law. His name was Robert “Bob” Jenkins. He often would paint on sandstone and sometimes other items. He would sell them to family for around $60 around the 1970s. My family has many of them I have one myself. In later life he got into sculptures like his father whom is in his late 80s and a millionaire living in Prescott Valley. Bob died I believe in 2011. He was an alcoholic through much of his life and had a bad heart. He requested a cowboys burial in a cheap pine box with his cowboy boots on. He is burried along the highway somewhere between Phoenix and Prescott Az.

    • amanda says:

      Wow, Jeff M. — thank you for chiming in on this discussion! I am going to give Mary Jo, the author, your email address so she can contact you directly.
      🙂
      I love that this mystery might finally be solved!

  5. Tena Tracy says:

    I have 2. 1 on sandstone and 1 on canvas. Please have Mary Jo contact me

  6. Danny jenkins says:

    Hello my name is Danny jenkins I am the soon of this artist. He has passed away a few years back. He was very educated in the tribes of Arizona Indians he has many beautiful amazing paintings. My email is dannyjenkins34@ hotmail.com

    • amanda says:

      Hello Danny!
      MY apologies for the delay in approving your comments, but I have been traveling and apparently my coworkers were not getting the comment notifications. Anyway, thank you very much for offering your contact information to Mary Jo — I will pass it along to her and copy you in, and hopefully the two of you can correspond directly. I think she will be very excited to solve the mystery of this painting. 🙂

  7. Danny jenkins says:

    the artist of this piece is my father. Robert Arthur jenkins

  8. Chelcie Jenkins says:

    And he is my grandfather!

  9. Ryan Arthur Jenkins says:

    And mine!

  10. Dereck Franks says:

    I have 4 of his sandstone paintings, I’ve owned them 34 years and my Dad had them forever before that. Any way to identify the people in the portraits?

    • amanda says:

      Dereck — I’m not sure, but I can give your email address to the author of this article and Danny Jenkins, who is the son of the artist.

  11. Laurel says:

    I also have one of these paintings on sandstone mounted on boards measures 27″X36″ weighing 40 lbs. and a Native American with a bone choker and full warrior headdress.

  12. Joni Wallace says:

    Can I get info on my painting as well?

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