<b>BONNEVILLE LOCK & DAM, Oregon</b> - The mighty Bonneville Dam brings many concepts to mind - concrete, generators, power, river, lake, fish ... but how about ... art' No' Well, while "art" may not be the first word you think of, there is actually quite a lot of it around the project.

As a matter of fact, there are dozens of original murals and hand-lettered signs - all painted by one unique artist. Lee Jensen, who worked at Bonneville Lock and Dam between 1991 and 2001, is a sign painter by trade.

Jensen grew up on the Fort Hall Reservation in Blackfoot, Idaho, in the 1940s, without electricity and most modern conveniences. Without a lot to do, he entertained himself from a young age by learning to draw. After finishing school, he joined the Marines, signing on for what he thought was a career in art - but he ended up working in electronics instead. After four years with the Marines, he spent two more in Europe on a mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints before returning to the states to work as a sign painter throughout the west. He moved to LaGrande, Oregon in the mid-1970s to work for a sign company whose owner was somewhat eccentric.

"John was pretty hard to get along with, but he was a really talented artist," said Jensen. "He'd taken a number of college art classes and I learned a lot just by watching him. He was so fast, like greased lightning, so I got pretty fast too."

Jensen joined Bonneville Lock and Dam as a temporary laborer in the early 1990s. In 1994, he ended up on the paint crew, working with Laurie Lane.

"Lee started out painting signs," Lane said. "But when people saw his artistic talents, they let him get more creative, both with his signs and with painting in general."

At the request of some of his coworkers, Jensen painted a mural in the lunchroom of the dam's maintenance building. They chose the subject, a quiet lake with a large elk buck and snowy mountains in the background, with bright vibrant colors bringing sunshine into an otherwise colorless room.

From that mural the word spread about Jensen's abilities. Workers in the Administration Building requested a mural, so Jensen painted them a picture of Mount Hood. The women's restroom in the same building got a panorama depicting a coast-to-mountain scene.

"Everyone wanted a 'Lee picture,' and it benefited employee morale so much that he started painting more of them," Lane said. "They were beautiful, and the signs made people stop and laugh."

Employees in Powerhouse 1 requested a painting, so Jensen gave them cavemen with tools (reminiscent of Frank Frazetta) and dogs playing poker (based on the works of C. M. Coolidge) and painted other funny signs, including one depicting "government drones."

Jensen's works aren't just in restricted, employee-only areas. They are also found in public areas around the dam. Pat Barry, an interpretive ranger in charge of the Bradford Island Visitor Center, saw lots of possibilities for Jensen's creativity in the dam's many visitor spaces.

"Once I'd seen Lee's work, I had to see if he would paint some interpretive murals," Barry said. "His first was at the Robins Island picnic shelter." Inside, Jensen's paintings invite visitors to experience the Lewis and Clark expedition, or visualize what it must have been like on the Oregon Trail.

"Visitors to the Washington Shore Visitor Center also will see Lee's murals addressing salmon passage as they migrate up the Columbia River," Barry said. "The details are so fine that some of the paintings almost look like photographs. He's very fast. One of Lee's largest paintings took him only four days to paint." That mural covers the east wall of the Washington shore center and depicts wild salmon fighting their way up a rushing river towards rugged mountains.

More than 48 murals grace Bonneville's grounds, but dozens of signs outnumber them: hand-lettered and some so exact that they look machine-made. A visit to the equipment building provides some insight into Jensen's sense of humor, where he spoofed the follies of his colleagues through his artwork.

"One of the guys had an accident on his bike, so I painted a sign for him offering training wheels as his specialty," Jensen said. Other signs invite employees to attend crowbar and nail grinding classes in very creative ways.

Jensen left a legacy of his work at the dam. "I got to do what I loved doing: it brought joy to my co-workers and to the public, and ... it was better than cleaning the grease off of bearings on generators."

Most of Jensen's public work is located in the Bradford Island Visitor Center and the Washington Shore Visitor Center.

"Really, it was just a bunch of crazy ideas by a bunch of people that ended up turning out good."

Retired now, Jensen lives with his wife near White Salmon, Wash., but occasionally turns up at the dam, volunteering to retouch one of his murals.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16