Madison artist brings painted, wooden flock to east side neighborhood

By Jenny Peek | November 15, 2022

  • A wooden pink flamingo.

A wooden pink flamingo — the official bird of Madison — stands in front of a house on Madison's east side. Artist Jo Jensen is behind the colorful artworks that now dot her neighborhood. Jenny Peek/WPR

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There’s a street on Madison’s east side that’s dotted with large-than-life birds.

A sandhill crane, a red-winged black bird, a pink flamingo. No two are alike — except for a couple of cardinals.

Artist Jo Jensen is behind the eye-catching, wooden replicas. She says what started as a gift for one neighbor, exploded into a painted flock — transforming a stroll down the sidewalk into a birder’s paradise.

“I’d made a large robin because I was yearning for spring. So I put it out in my yard and my neighbor Anita came by and told me that it was her, I believe, spirit animal. So of course I thought, ‘Well, if it means that much to you…’ and I gave it to her,” Jensen said.

Wooden painted robin sits in a front yard.

This wooden, painted replica of a robin started off artist Jo Jensen’s flurry of painting wooden birds for her neighbors. As of May 2022, she’d crafted more than 50. Jenny Peek/WPR

From there it took off — like a bird in flight.

“Another neighbor said, ‘I would really like you to make me a Redwing Blackbird.’ And then neighbor Julie, across the street, I’ve made several for her,” Jensen said with a laugh. “And from then on it was just one after another.”

Jensen keeps a spiral notebook of all the art projects she’s been commissioned to make — she’s also well known for her pull-tab paper maîche and lottery ticket Mod Podge. But lately the pages of that notebook are filled with the names of birds.

She reads them one by one: “There’s a yellow warbler in there and a titmouse and a Kookaburra, hummingbirds, Goldfinch nuthatch, Indigo bunting. I made my neighbor who has bees a queen bee. Whooping cranes, kingfishers, barn owls, doves, orioles, night herons.”

According to Jensen, the birds range in size depending on the species — hummingbirds are the smallest — but are typically somewhere between 3 and 4 feet tall.

While Jensen has always been a creative, she says crafting wooden fowl was never part of the plan.

“I’ve been making art my entire life. Painting birds? This started last year,” she said. “It was just a fluke, something to do.”

How to make your own feathered friend

Jensen has firmly said she’s not going into mass production, or creating an Etsy shop to sell the birds — it’s a neighbor’s only kind of project. But she did share how to make your own wooden replicas.

Here are the supplies you’ll need:

  • Half-inch plywood (handy panels work best)
  • Jigsaw
  • Clear or white primer
  • Acrylic paint
  • Waterproof polyurethane
  • Garden stake

“It’s fairly simple to do if you have a jigsaw and an eye for drawing,” Jensen said. “I would recommend if it’s going outside that you prime it … I don’t use exterior grade plywood because it splits and it’s wavy, so I try to use what are called handy panels. Then just give it a really good coating of the polyurethane after it’s all painted and dried.”

Artist Jo Jensen and her wooden dinosaur.

Madison-based artist Jo Jensen poses in her front yard with a wooden dinosaur she painted. While most of her wooden cutouts are birds, she said birds came from dinosaurs, so why not? Jenny Peek/WPR

“I have no idea how long they’re gonna last outside,” Jensen continued. “Some are posted on those lawn signs people have, little skinny wires, some some are stuck in the ground like that, and others are up on garden stakes.”

Looking at her own yard, Jensen said she hopes the carved creations can be a way for people to express themselves — and have a little fun along the way.

“I think in Wisconsin people have seen the ubiquitous Dutch people bending over showing their bloomers and stuff, the bathtub blessed virgins and things like that,” she said. “So however you want to junk up or beautify your yard, it’s up to you.”

Jenny Peek

Jenny Peek

Jenny Peek is a news editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and senior contributor for Isthmus. When she’s not out tracing her next lede, you’ll find her hanging out with her boys Liam and Riley, often with a piping hot cup of coffee in hand.

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