The Abstract Project: Searching for Mr. Potato Head

anywhere you wanta vibrant happy painting

“Mr. Potato Head. That’s the only piece I wish I’d never sold.”

The moment after she spoke this revelation I could tell from the look in her eyes that the loss of this piece still bothered her. It made sense to me – how could an artist sell any painting without feeling a great sense of loss? Consider not just the time spent, but also the emotional investment. Tamara Jensen’s paintings are more than just random brushstrokes on a canvas. Especially Mr. Potato Head. That one brought her an immense sense of satisfaction and joy. It’s long gone now … sold at a gallery show in Ottawa. To a stranger. For money.

I have to admit, I was a tad bit confused. Up to this moment I was under the impression that it was good news to sell a painting. I hadn’t given much thought to the pain of letting one go.

potato head

converted bedroom

Tamara (artiste extraordinaire) was giving Nataschia (über photographer) and I (curious interviewer) a tour through her home, her studio and her paintings. I’d like to think I also toured a little bit through her brain.

She has the most lovely art studio in her house. A converted bedroom … her creative space. Paintbrushes, paints, an easel, finished and unfinished paintings propped up here and there. Beautiful. It was as though I had walked right into her head when I stepped into this space.

“How do you know when a painting is complete?” I asked.  I could imagine that it might be hard to know when to stop. To put down the brush and say “It’s done” and walk away.

“I know it’s done when I can’t stop looking at it”, she replied.

Tamara recounts the completion of a recent work. “I went downstairs for a while, but I just had to go back up to the studio to look at it again”.

It made her happy, that’s why she went back.

I imagined her there, sitting on the edge of the quilt-covered bed. Smiling. Perhaps a forgotten glass of bourbon nestled in her hand. Peace. Bliss. A contented sense of accomplishment.

That’s when I realized how this painting thing was working for Tamara. Every artist has a “reason” for their art – the impetus behind their need to create. Without a reason, the art simply wouldn’t happen. Some artists put their feelings out onto the canvas. For example, the famous turn-of-the-century Russian abstract artist, Kandinsky. The purpose for his abstract works was to show his feelings by quite literally expressing them in colours and shapes on a canvas.

I put this this theory forward with Tamara to see if she could relate. It didn’t fly. Tamara has a different process and purpose altogether.

To gain a better understanding, I asked her to walk me through a painting, explaining her process to me. The piece that we looked at next was bright to the extreme – pink, blue, turquoise, peach, red, grey, and yellow … a myriad of colours represented in sweeping, scooping motions. All at once, it was both relaxing and exciting to look at. “A vibrant, happy painting” was how Tamara described it.

As it turns out, it’s so much more than just a “happy painting”. She then went on to explain some very big concepts to me, important stuff that you learn in university art classes, such as balance, movement, tension and process. I could see that Tamara was a very thoughtful, cognitive painter.

Impressed so far, I asked Tamara if she has a specific idea in mind when she starts.

For this painting, she knew what colours she wanted to use. Beyond that, she simply allowed the painting to reveal itself to her as it came to life. For Tamara, a self-proclaimed “control-freak”, it would seem to be a very contrary, almost dangerous idea to allow the painting to have a say in it’s own creation! But, perhaps that’s the beautiful thing about the process – the artist becomes an observer, humbly taking cues from the work in progress rather than asserting so much control. A letting go of sorts. A collaborative effort between Process and Painter.

As we walked downstairs, we passed by a framed photographic print of the long-gone Mr. Potato Head. The original work was much larger, measuring 4.5 feet x 4.5 feet. This photographed version is a faint reminder of the original piece. 8 inches square. I had to lean in to get a good look at it and observed a noticeable difference in style from her abstract work. While still very colourful, the signature airy wispiness is entirely absent in this piece. Much more control was exercised and it was comprised of clean, smooth lines instead. Very cartoon-like, actually. Bright colours. Playful. Bold. Tidy. This is the other style that Tamara is known for. Pop Art.

betty and veronica

It so happens that Tamara is a cartoon and comics enthusiast. Her obsession is quite apparent in this facet of her work. An extensive collection of Archie comics sits on the shelf nearby. Inevitably Betty and Veronica are featured in a handful of paintings in the living room.  Nataschia and I look at these and can’t help but smile in response.

Tamara seems to move back and forth between these two styles of work (Abstract and Pop Art) as each has it’s own set of delights. They are so opposite in style that I wonder if perhaps each is somewhat of a relief from the other.

Still on the tour of her paintings, I wonder aloud about what inspired Tamara to paint in the first place.

If her painting is an expression, that supposes there must be an impression to spark to inspiration. I posed this scenario to her.

I’m inspired by life” she says. 

I love this. When one is inspired by life, it means that there’s is an ebb and flow. Living and painting … then living again. Breathing in. Breathing out. Intake and outtake. Filling up and letting go. To me, this sounds incredibly beautiful and natural.

This also supposes that, just like breathing out after breathing in, painting for Tamara is a necessary part of ‘being’. I asked her to imagine her life without painting.

She quickly replied with one word: “Restless”.

It’s as though she’d be all bottled up with ideas and nowhere to express them if she couldn’t paint. Holding her breath.

She explained to me that once a painting is complete, the restlessness is gone. (Or could it be the other way around? Once the restlessness is gone, the painting is complete?)

There’s one other important aspect of painting she mentions to me … the anticipation of happiness when a painting is finished. Whether that happiness is for her or the future owner, it doesn’t matter. She is happy to share (most of the time!). I have a suspicion this is the reason why the disappearance of Mr. Potato Head still holds so much regret for her. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t know if it’s making anybody happy. I wonder, if she could know that one thing, could she let it go?

As for the location of the mysterious Mr. Potato Head painting? Tamara can only imagine it was sold to a man (or a woman) who collects paintings (or maybe not). Perhaps it has pride-of-place in the gallery room of a mansion somewhere in the Ottawa area or maybe it’s hidden in a stack of paintings in a bungalow in suburbia or collected and now leaning against a wall in a dusty attic. The best she can hope for is that the painting that she pines after is loved and that it is making someone happy. I hope so, too.

Tamara claims she’s content to let the location of Mr Potato Head remain a mystery. I don’t believe her at all. Or maybe I don’t want to. Perhaps, one day I’ll have to convince her to track it down. I’m just too curious to let it alone!


i want this one in my new house

P.S. Tamara does custom paintings. Contact her at <>

To see more pictures of Tamara and her art go to


This blog post brought to you by….

The Abstract Project: Exploring head-space and studio-space of Niagara artists.

A project created by photographer Nataschia Wielink and artist/writer Jennifer Elliotson which endeavors to expose the heart behind the work of artists in the Niagara region. It involves many curious and probing questions, thoughtful answers, amazing art (obviously), and lots of coffee.

It is our hope that you will join us in this adventure and send the love back to our artists with support and encouragement as they continue to SHINE!

Photography by Nataschia Wielink .



Aspiring story teller. Flower picker. Hopeful artist. Perpetual seamstress. Seasonal knitter. General pot-stirrer.

1 Comment

  • Reply February 19, 2014


    Lovely stuff here ladies, all of you! It’s fun and fascinating and over-the-top inspiring to get a glimpse into the lives of creatives, so thank you for bringing this idea to life, and sharing it with us!

Leave a Reply