Jencks is a world-renowned sculptor, known over the years for her monumental commissioned granite and bronze sculptures of such important individuals as Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Frost, and Aaron Copeland. Her studio-size bronze sculptures are primarily nude figures in the landscape --at the beach or on the dunes -- usually in a state of undressing or dressing. "The intent of each piece, large or small, is I want them to be viewed from the perspective of a child's vision of an adult figure. Monumental like a force of nature." And indeed, even her tiniest bronzes and terracottas, relate this feeling to the viewer of larger than life. Says Jencks, "My nudes are not naked or nude, they are who they are. Nude implies a state of 'exposure', a want, perhaps to cover oneself. These sculptures are about being who they are and have no interested in 'covering up'. They are natural, huge, like a mountain or tree."
Jencks’ sculpture relates to her experiences growing up with a family of intellectuals and artists who shed their clothing at the beach. "Not that they "flaunted" their nudity," she says, rather, "they were simply more comfortable. We would walk far enough up the beach so as not to offend. My parents and their friends considered it more "natural" to swim or lie around on the beach without any clothes to hinder them. So once out of sight, they would shed their clothing and carry on with their intellectual wranglings about Beauty and Truth."
Continuing, Jencks says, "I remember noticing as a tiny child how odd and different these monumental bodies were from my own more streamlined, tidy version. As a child, the beach was a magical place to me. We spent the summers in Wellfleet. The shape of the land, with its curves and dips, were like the forms of a large human body. As children, it was as though we lived on a big shapely body that we could walk on, dig in, and pick flowers from. The sea the sky and the dunes were our constants."
Art historian and critic Hayden Herrera grew up with Jencks, and wrote about their youth on the Cape: "A group of Cape Cod families had frequent beach gatherings at which the adults wore no clothes. For the children, the anticipation of these events was exciting: because our parents were busy with writing, painting, or composing music, most of the time we were left to our own devices…Privacy, creativity and individualism were the order of the day…Over the years, the young people became like a tribe. We knew a lot about each other, but very little about that other tribe, the grownups – except what they looked like naked, which we did not want to know."
Describing the small bronze sculpture groupings, Wendy Doniger writes: "The figures are tinier even than those small bronzes she has made all along as models for the colossal figures…these figures, by contrast with earlier beach series and the large bronze groups, really are together, in close human contact: the woman is caught as she falls, the pair of swimmers are holding hands, the man is asking the woman an ‘Unanswered Question’ (a reference to a piece by Charles Ives)."
Jonathan Shahn noted: "This prolific and powerful artist has a long experience and great mastery in using fired clay and bronze in numerous large-scale, even monumental, works, yet is also able to use the same materials in a most intimate and sensitive way,"
Penelope Jencks started her studies in art history at Swarthmore College. "But," she reveals to Ann Wood in The Provincetown Banner, "I decided I would rather make art than study it". Between her Swarthmore years, Jencks studied with Hans Hofmann, then continued her artistic pursuits at Skowhegan, Boston University (BFA), Boston Museum School and Stuttgart Kunst Akademie.
Fellowships and awards include: Agop Agopoff Prize for Sculpture (2005) and Meisner Prize for Sculpture (2001), both from the National Academy of Design; Distinguished Alumni Award, School of Visual Arts, Boston University; Henry Hering Memorial Medal and Prize for Outstanding Cooperation between Architect and Sculptor, National Sculpture Society; MacDowell Colony Residencies in ’75, ’76, ’78; "Commendation for Design Excellence," NEA; Massachusetts Artists Foundation Award, Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, Centro Studi Ligure. Jencks has received many major sculpture commissions including: "Robert Frost" for Amherst College; "Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial", Riverside Park, NYC; "Family Group", Readers Digest, "Danbury Family", Art in Public Spaces at the Courthouse, Danbury, CT; "Student", Farber Library, Brandeis University; "Family", Portside Festival Park, Toledo, OH; "Samuel Eliot Morison," Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA; "Chelsea Conversation", Chelsea, MA.