A Documented Life: Connecting the Past to Present through the photographs of a Roycrofter
- by Drew Jensen
My great-grandfather, Terence Denz, lived his entire life in East Aurora, NY. Born in 1891, he was raised with his brother and two sisters on the outskirts of town. In a time when farm labor was the most common way to earn a living in rural America, the Roycrofters afforded him a rare opportunity to work in a new industry with the rise of the Roycroft Print Shop. The son of a contract painter, he understood a hard day’s work and what it provided.
Sometime between 1906-1910, he began working at the Roycroft Print Shop, and by 1910, he had earned himself a position as a Pressman. He continued his work there until March of 1918 when he enlisted in WWI. After nearly a year overseas, he returned from Brest, France, in February 1919. Upon his arrival home, his skills, hard work, and reliability earned him a letter from the Roycroft requesting his return to work as a Pressman in the Print Shop.
There he would work for nearly 20 years, until the close of the Print Shop in 1938 when the Roycrofters filed for bankruptcy. And though the details aren’t clear, when Samuel Guard purchased the Roycroft Campus, he reopened it with the help of former shop workers. My great-grandfather was one of those workers, continuing his tenure at the Print Shop until 1941 when Sam Guard, too, filed for bankruptcy, closing the shop for good.
My great-grandfather didn’t take his skills to another print shop after the close of the Roycroft. As far as I know, he never used his lifetime of printing skills and knowledge again. He closed that chapter in his life and moved on. By the beginning of 1942, he was employed at Bell Aircraft as an assemblyman, helping prepare the US for another World War. A World War that, at the spry age of 50, he honorably enlisted in. My great-grandfather passed away in 1968 at the age of 77. Through the personal effects he left behind and the stories told by his children and grandchildren, I never got the impression that, beyond providing for his family, he thought his work would hold any value after he was gone, let alone leave a legacy. A legacy his great-grandson would strive to uphold 50 years after his passing.
Having digitized my film negatives in college, I was tasked by my family with scanning and protecting these glass plates. A process that would profoundly impact the direction of my life, ultimately leading to the pursuit of a dream I never thought was possible. My great-grandfather’s life is an inspiration to me. His skills as a Pressman were appreciated and valued, and his longevity at the Roycroft Print Shop was admirable. In truth, I probably have a romanticized view of the man, at least when it comes to him as a Roycroft Artisan. He was a Roycrofter, and his skill set was a greatly valued asset to the Roycroft Print Shop. I have gleaned from his personal effects that his career at the Print Shop was dictated more by the circumstances of the time than an internal drive to be a part of something revolutionary or creative. I would consider him a skilled and knowledgeable tradesman by modern standards. The Roycroft uniquely positioned itself with a foundation based on the Arts and Crafts values of hand-crafted and the use of modern technology to share its work with the world. It’s easy to forget today that the Roycroft Print Shop was a modern outfit at the time, requiring skilled labor to function—the skilled work of its Roycrofters.
Although his work in the Print Shop was the driving force behind my infatuation with my great-grandfather, the most inspiring thing didn’t come from his work there. It came from the glass negatives we found of his family, his town, and his place of work. The documentation of the people, places, and things he valued enough to capture on his bulky 4x5 field camera, his documented life.
In 2022 I fulfilled an aspiration of mine to become a Roycrofter like my great-grandfather. To earn the distinction of Roycroft Artisan and the right to adorn my photographic work with the “RR.” To carry on the legacy my great-grandfather left me. To document the world around me as a Roycrofter, with HEAD, HEART, and HAND.
The images shown throughout this article, taken by my great-grandfather, are the inspiration for the direction I intend to take my photographic work in the coming years. Shifting back to analog photography, the version of this medium that I fell in love with nearly 20 years ago. With several 35mm and 120mm film cameras, I have begun to curate a body of work documenting the people, places, moments, and experiences I value. A series I call “A Documented Life.”
To the right are a handful of recent images included in this series.
In time, I will introduce even older photographic processes, like dry plate (silver gelatin) and wet plate (collodion) photography, into my work as I regain my knowledge and experience with film. Though time-consuming and labor-intensive, these forms of photography produce stunningly beautiful images and represent the type of photography my great-grandfather used to document his life.
I’m excited to share this evolution with those who wish to follow my work. For current imagery and ongoing projects, you can find me on social media and my website (linked below).
Roycroft Renaissance Photographer
Website - drewjensenphotography.com
Instagram - DrewJensenPhoto
Roycroft Print Shop c. 1930 (Photo by Terence Riley Denz)
Huber Press in the Roycroft Print Shop c. 1930
(Photo by Terence Riley Denz)
Terence Denz in his yard c. 1930
Terence with my grandmother, Mary Denz c. 1927
Fountain at Roycroft Campus c. 1930 (Photo by Terence Riley Denz)
Denz Family in the 1930s
“Photographs hold great power. They connect the past with the present. They tell stories and teleport viewers to places they’ve never been. Photographs bring about associations unknown, speaking to each viewer individually. Photographs are magic.”
- Drew Jensen
Sunrise over Denver, 2023 by Drew Jensen
Sunrise on the Flatirons, 2023 by Drew Jensen
I wanted to feature an article by my friend and fellow Roycrofter Drew Jensen. Drew lives and works in Colorado, and he has some amazing family ties to the Roycroft and photography through his great-grandfather, Roycroft Pressman Terence Riley Denz (1891-1968). Below is his article about photography, East Aurora, NY, and his family journey over the decades with Roycroft. Enjoy! - Julie Leidel
Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft employees in the 1930s. Terence Denz is in the 3rd row, 12th from the right.
The Roycroft Artisans: Then & Now
Bookplates of the Arts & Crafts Movement
I want to help bring balance to people’s lives through art. Simply put, I want my artistic expression to be a reminder to seek out genuine human connection and true closeness to nature (and the divine) while focusing on the present moment.
As I write, I realize I want to explain more about why I have this goal, not only for my art but for my life.
I want to be part of a movement to wake people up from the zombie-like state that technology can trap us in. We are near people every day without connecting to them. We reach more people than ever before in history through technology, sometimes without a single thought of making a positive interaction. We tend to over-correct in response to this over-stimulated, over-busy, over-stressed society we live in by shutting out true connections and replacing them with artificial ones. We walk into people on the street absentmindedly, or crash our cars into other cars because we are too busy “connecting” to people through our smart phones.
Technological development has paved the way for invention, innovation and improvement in almost every aspect of our modern lives, yet this constant hum of synthetic reality has become a replacement for genuine human connection.
We are in close proximity 24/7 to other humans around the globe, mostly through artificial devices: smart phones, computers, automobiles, head phones, televisions, Apple Watches, iPads, gaming consoles, video surveillance, virtual reality, and many more. Technology is swirling around us all the time through apps, social media, websites, email, radio, texts, pod casts, news casts, movies, gaming, programming, and the list goes on and on. We can stand feet or even inches away from people without acknowledging them. We can sit with loved ones to share a meal without even talking to them, looking down at the technology in front of us instead. I see each of these advancements as a possible brick in a larger wall of isolation around our souls if we aren't careful to find balance. The way technology fosters multi-tasking and hyper productivity in our daily life is also a major cause of stress, overwhelming us with a sense of being too busy for honest, heart-felt connection to one another.
We, as the human race, have morphed into human doings, not human beings. I find it interesting that the Oxford dictionary definition of human being is this: “a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.” Think about this for a moment. Has our superior mental development (as it relates to our constant use of technology) hindered our power to articulate speech with our actual vocal cords? Has it even cut into our ability and opportunity for upright stance on a regular basis? Has our artificial, constant closeness to people mindlessly changed our ability to really “plug in” to a human connection on a soulful and healthy level?
Has technology changed how we human? (Yes, I’m changing “human” to a verb for a second.)
Human connection isn’t just about those closest to us. It doesn’t stop at our family and friends or our co-workers and classmates – those souls that we have put more effort into, or those people that we have just spent more time around. Human connection to me also happens as we walk on the sidewalk, as we drive down the road, as we take up space in a room of a building, as we stand on our earth, under the sun or moon, and of course as we use our various technological devices. But, we have literally thousands of opportunities for human connection every single day to the people that are right next to us, physically not just virtually.
I’ve been selling my artwork at art shows and festivals for nine years, and I’ve had conversations with literally tens of thousands of people. For the last two years of my journey, I changed my focus when I’m at a show meeting new people. I very purposely set a new intention for that part of my life, which ends up being over 50 full days a year. I actively talk to strangers that end up walking out as friends. I didn’t want my focus to be solely on selling my art (to make a living) but my purpose shifted to really, genuinely connect with people in the here and now. I want to hear their stories of connection to the land and nature, and also to each other. I want to listen to their memories that my paintings may bring to the surface. Over the last two years especially, I’ve paid attention. I see the human spirit in beautiful new and surprising ways. I see people struggle with the same things I struggle with, while at the same time seeing how unique and special and different they all are. My empathy and compassion has increased, and my judgement has slowed. I want to learn from others, even if we only cross paths for a few moments in this lifetime. I can’t tell you how much this has changed by artwork, and my perspective on life. I was scared to be that present, to make it my goal to really connect because I really thought it would be draining at first. I’ve been blown away by how much this focus has filled me up, in direct contrast to my fears. I literally find myself some days trying to figure out why other artists are starting tear down so early, only to discover that the day has flown by because it was filled with so many great conversations.
That said, I screw up this goal all. the. time. I forget to focus on my intention to connect. I get tired and hot, or worried about that big dark cloud, or the fact that I have to use the restroom and I don’t know how to sneak away for a second to take care of me. I get annoyed at thoughtless comments by others. I forget to turn off my inner monologue to focus on listening to the person in front of me. I can give so much to new people during the day, that I may forget to give that same attention and 10 times more to my own family and friends. But, I know I’m making progress. I know I can turn that mindful, present-moment focus on quicker and more often when I practice it regularly. I know there’s always room for improvement.
I know that my life is richer and more colorful and inspired and full, not because of the technology that makes my life easier, but by the human beings that cross my path each day and their openness to connect to me, especially if they see the door is open. This is what I want people to take home with them in my artwork too: Genuine human connection and true closeness to nature (and the divine) while focusing on the present moment.
I share this long manifesto with you today because I’ve also made it a goal of mine to define my mission as an artist (as it turns out) on virtual paper, not just in my head alone. I hope this is the beginning of many new experiences I can open myself up to as a business owner, dreamer, artist, and of course, human being.
I've recently been commissioned by the Civic Center Conservancy to create a painting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Greek Theater and Civic Center Park in Downtown Denver. On this journey, I've found and fallen in love with the artwork of Allen Tupper True (1881-1955.) and I wanted to share some of his amazing story here.
He was born in Colorado Springs, and spent a great deal of his life here in Colorado. He grew up living at a time where the west was still a beautiful combination of early settlers, Native Americans, frontiersman, trappers, and prospectors. His goal was to always tell the true story of his American West: the hardships, virtues, spirituality, work ethic, and daily life of all the people living here at the turn of the century.
Photo Credit: Victoria Tupper Kirby in her book Allen Tupper True: An American Artist
DYI: Flatten your Art Canvas for Framing
Here's my trick to take a gallery-wrapped art canvas down to a thickness you can easily frame on your own. The reason I do this is simple. My printer does a STELLAR job in professionally adhering the art canvas to the inside backer board. No mat or glass is needed to bring this art canvas to life in a standard frame. I tried ordering rolled canvas prints, and I couldn't get them to lay flat to save my life it seemed. Then, I realized that this part is already done for me, I just need to make it flat for most frames.
I open up the back, pull off the black backer board (usually in many chunks) and then take out the foam core center. I then gently open up the artwork like a present to lay all the edges flat. If you have box cutters and a cutting mat, then you have everything you need to make that art canvas lie flat for framing without a mat. As you open up the back, you’ll see the beveled edge on the inside that makes the corners so nice and flat when it's folded up. No ruler needed, you just run your knife along that inside beveled edge and it cuts perfectly to size.
Make my art, YOUR art by customizing it to get the designer look you want!
I just walked down to the mailbox to find my favorite letter of the year waiting for me. I've been accepted as a Roycroft Renaissance Artisan for a second year! This warms my heart, and gives me a real sense of belonging within the Roycrofters-At-Large Association. I'll be heading out to New York this June for Summerfest, and I'm over-the-moon excited to spend some quality time on campus in the days before the show.
Julie Leidel shares news and musings on inspiration for her artwork.