Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Demise and Beauty: Hilary Jacobsen Embraces Death Through Art

Certain people exude authenticity: it’s apparent in their genuine and honest reflections. Hilary W. Jacobsen is one such person, possessing a natural and humble attitude towards life, yet confident and eager to discuss her artistic journey. A native of Salt Lake City, Jacobsen reflects on how her childhood helped cultivate in her an appreciation for nature and enjoyment of the wonders of the outdoors. “Being in nature, with nature, helped me find myself and in some ways became my religion,” she says. “I found a peace in being outside—in nature, which led me away from the religious beliefs that I’d been taught as a young child and introduced to me to a new spirituality.”

Elements of nature run through Jacobsen’s work—there is always a connection to the natural world, be it through animals, patterns or human skulls. Jacobsen becomes animated as she talks about her connection to nature and there is truthfulness in her expression of the serenity she experiences through her spiritual relationship. Freedom from the confines of city dwelling spawns a new wave of creativity for Jacobsen, who contemplates the sense of renewal that occurs when engaged in the beauty of the natural world and which eventually manifests on canvas.

Jacobsen, a new mother of a cherubic six-month old baby girl named Juniper, reflects on being drawn to paint as a very young child: “I think I was around six when I had my first lesson. I was encouraged and supported by my parents to explore my world through art.”  And that’s what she’s done ever since. “I entered the art program at the University of Utah to pursue a driving passion and had an amazing experience in every respect. Professors such as Sam Wilson, Maureen O’Hara Ure and John Erickson, inspired me to identify my own unique aesthetic while instilling a work ethic that has stayed with me and enabled me to remain focused and determined.” Jacobsen graduated with her BFA with an emphasis in painting and drawing in 2007 and upon graduation received the Ethel Armstrong Rolapp Award for her outstanding portfolio. Well aware that she has entered a field with rampant competition, Jacobsen maintains a sense of rational realism when it comes to her art. Fueled by an appetite and drive to create, she says, “Ultimately I create work for myself, I feel compelled to create, however, I’m incredibly flattered that people enjoy my work and realize it doesn’t speak to everyone.”

Kurt Vonnegut mused, “No art is possible without a dance with death.” At least for Jacobsen this rings true. Death is a subject that the artist has explored through her paintings, many of which include human skeletons and skulls in embrace. The symbolism of the finality of life is obvious yet the playfulness of the compositions and colors suggests a sense of humor and a connection to the subjects that seems to reveal an appreciation for the skeletal form, the remains of a human life. Jacobsen recalls a drawing class taught by Sam Wilson, who had arranged a variety of objects on a table and asked students to select one. Jacobsen was immediately drawn to a cavernous human skull replica, which she describes as “pirate-esque”—complete with missing teeth and protruding jaw. Thus began her fascination with skulls and skeletons. “The idea was to pick an object that we would continually draw from using different mediums. My exploration of the skull evolved to drawing on paper to charcoal to graphite to pastels, using different styles and mediums and it evolved organically and I never stopped.” This led Jacobsen to research the art historical importance of skulls, particularly in late medieval and early renaissance paintings such as Fra Angelico’s ‘Crucifixion.’ Jacobsen was intrigued by artists such as Fra Angelico and Andrea del Castagno’s positioning of the skull of Adam at the foot of the cross in their paintings. Tradition has it that Adam’s remains were buried at Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion. The rich symbolism may be interpreted as that of redemption and salvation of humanity. Although deeply inspired by these early masters and the embedded and often subtle symbolism that dominates their work, Jacobsen contends that, “My work has evolved naturally, I’ve kept a certain momentum and am drawn to and inspired by many types of art including modern art and folk-art.”

Reflecting on the beauty of the skeletal form,  Jacobsen says, “To me it was never morbid, I saw a certain loveliness that I aspired to display in a playful way.” Inspired by the colorfulness and festive nature of folk-art, particularly day-of-the-dead art, Jacobsen talks about embracing death as a true celebration of life. Her intention is not to make a joke of death but rather to express joy for a life lived.

There is a definite elegance in the craftwork of Jacobsen’s pieces, seen within the details of gold and bronze paint, textures of stitching and various layers that constitute the mixed media process. Process is essential for Jacobsen, a hands-on artist whose method often includes the use of jigsaw and scroll saws to precision cut shapes that offer added dimension to her pieces. Typically she will begin with un-stretched raw canvas onto which she draws. From there she may add pastels before applying actual paint. There is a layering that occurs that builds upon the original image and produces an effect that reveals subtle texture and pattern. The next step involves cutting the image and then sewing or using an adhesive to position it onto a stretched canvas. From here the application of paint continues and the works come to life. Typically Jacobsen stays away from the constraints of rectangular canvases, preferring to work with more obscure shapes that give her work a 3D feel. There is a sense of metaphor within this artistic choice, the idea of birds (mostly crows and ravens) taking flight, beyond the plane, in addition to the skulls and skeletons that dominate the work, suggesting the idea of movement from one plane of existence to another. “Breaking out of the picture plane is a definite conscious choice for me,” she says.

Jacobsen has an exhibit of work currently on display at Fice, in downtown Salt Lake City. The exhibit includes a collection of twenty-seven pieces, including nine new ones created over the summer — an amazing feat considering Jacobsen, along with her husband, is caring for her infant daughter. “I’m connecting more to my new paintings right now, I think that’s natural for an artist, your perception changes and evolves based on your lived experiences, where you were six years ago may be very different to where you are now.” Jacobsen’s new work is an eclectic mix of 3D pieces that include both symbolic and anatomical hearts, pistols and scrolls with written phrases that exemplify a particular emotion. The show will be up until mid September. “I’m really happy with the work that I’ve done, especially the sawing process. I love the process I’m engaged in and want my finished work to reflect the fun that I feel when creating.” When asked about the direction she hopes to take with her art, Jacobsen laments that though she is ready for a change within her process, medium or subject, she’s not sure yet what it will be. We can be sure, however, that whatever direction she choses to take, she will do so with the passion, commitment and determination that constitutes her authentic self.

Anne Cummings is co-owner of (a)perture — a Salt Lake based creative agency — a free-lance writer, curator and photographer who has always possessed a passion for narrative photography and has focused on social commentary that reflects the human condition.

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