“It feels kind of like I’m just out of graduate school and I can finally work in the studio,” says Ogden artist Jim Jacobs, who is enjoying his first year of retirement after three decades as professor of art at Weber State University. Down a one-way alley off Ogden’s 24th Street, in a salmon-colored building and behind a rust-colored door, Jacobs now spends his days layering photos, acrylics and epoxy for a group of paintings that explore memory (the source material harks back to a year spent in Spain almost a decade ago), or grafting segments of planed wood and found tree limbs for his elegant sculptural works, some of which are on exhibit this month at the Rio Gallery, others of which are slated for a show at Finch Lane in April.
Jacobs spent his first 18 years in Philadelphia, where he says his relationship to the outdoors was influenced by the job he got at 14 working for his neighbor, a gardener. They landscaped for a wealthy family—the model for Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story— with an estate of 33 acres. “We would start cutting the lawn on Monday,” he jokes, “and finish by the end of the week. I think that had an impact on me, with my relationships to plants, grass and trees,” he says, referencing the many limbs that dot his studio. It also helped his ability to think. “The job was just incredibly boring. Your mind could go lots of places.”
Jacobs also liked to surf, even if the Jersey shore he visited offered little in the way of waves — “You had to wait for a hurricane.” So when it came time to decide on college, he headed to Jacksonville University in Florida. “I probably misspent a lot of my undergraduate time,” he remarks wryly.
When he wasn’t surfing, an interest in the sciences that began at a young age directed his initial studies. It was only halfway through college that he took a painting class and then “slowly started switching away from chemistry and botany.” He finished with a BFA in 1978, after which he enrolled in an MFA program at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. Again, it wasn’t far from the beach, but he says, “there I became more serious, and I focused on painting.”
At East Carolina, abstraction took the place of his previous figurative work and Jacobs became more and more interested in exploring the painting as an object. He began deconstructing the physicality of the painting, creating a variety of shaped canvases that became more and more complicated—one had 23 different elements. These were still very much paintings, with a variety of color and brushstrokes applied to the surfaces, but the canvases themselves, hung on a wall, became meta-brushstrokes, communicating with the wall the way a splash of paint communicates with the canvas. “What interested me was the interaction with the environment,” he says. He would leave gaps in his constructed canvases or make works with screen wire, so you’d see through it to the wall behind; and he would investigate the hanging conditions for his paintings, matching the value and tone of the wall so that the painting would blend into the wall on one side, or so that a gap in the structure of the painting revealed the wall but would look like brushstrokes because they matched other portions that were just paint.
It was with this body of work that he applied for teaching positions, snagging the Weber State job after a couple of years as an adjunct. “I was offered the job here at Weber State, but also had a possibility in Buffalo. They wanted to fly me in. So I had to decide between a sure thing here, or some future possibility at Buffalo . . . Utah was beautiful so I just said sorry [to Buffalo] and decided to take the sure thing.” Plus, Utah had skiing, which Jacobs has found is a pleasurable substitute for surfing (he began as a downhill skier but Mark Biddle has since turned him on to Telemark).
When he arrived in Ogden, Jacobs found “an energetic group” at the art department —Susan Makov, Mark Biddle, Jim McBeth, Dick van Wagoner. Their principal challenge was the facility. The main portion of the department was located in the Collett Building, which was small and porous (a problem when you’re planing wood or sanding ceramics), while other classes were spread all over the campus. The department was already discussing a new facility when Jacobs arrived, but it would take them almost two decades to complete the fundraising and construction of the building. During that period Jacobs was chair of the department for a total of 10 years, on-and-off, including a tenure during the completion of the Ethel Wattis Kimball Art Center in 2002.
“It was nice to be able to help shape the department,” he says about his administrative duties. “It was a good group of people to be working with.” As professor and chair you have a certain amount of autonomy, he notes. “I looked on the chair position as a sort of creative position, changing programs, focusing on different things.”
During his three decades as a professor he always maintained a studio off campus. When he first came to Ogden he bounced around at a couple of studios in the downtown area. They kept getting bought or demolished, however, so he eventually bought the place off 24th street for $45,000. It’s actually on Harrison Boulevard, with a storefront property that helps pay the mortgage, while Jacobs uses the two rooms upstairs for his art (and to store part of his extensive radio collection). A woodshop is just behind the rust-colored door while the western half of the studio, a long space that terminates in windows that look onto Harrison Boulevard and the Ogden Eccles Conference Center, is used for painting and crafting his sculptures.
Since his arrival in Ogden, the woodshop portion of the studio has become increasingly important and anyone who has come across Jacobs in the past decade might not associate him with those early paintings.
“I would say the one thing that glues my work together is my interest in ‘intersections’ and boundaries, where things come together. I think that’s where interesting things happen,” he says. It’s the beach, that shifting locale where ocean becomes land, or the way, in places like Pennsylvania, the edge of a manicured lawn gives way to undominated woodland. And if you look at the timeline of his work, you see that the shift from painting to sculpture is very much an evolution: pieces of wood first became elements of those multifaceted canvases, then they became actual tree branches that break off the picture plane the way stretched canvas did in earlier works; eventually the wood came to stand on its own. Literally. For the Utah Department of Arts and Museum’s Utah ’05 Painting and Sculpture show he exhibited and won a prize for “Table for Darwin,” a simple wood table in which the twisting branches of an ash tree seem to reach in and break apart the individual slabs of the table. There’s a violence about the work, as if the natural branches are trying to reclaim their own from the manufactured product. In “Cocoon,” a related work, another branch forces a long rectangular wood structure to bulge at the center, giving the sense that the tensile strength of the structure might be exceeded at any moment.
Jacobs says these works, and others in the “Interlace” series, were inspired by the matapalo trees of Central and South America. The matapalo is a strangler fig that begins high up in the host tree, its roots eventually reaching the forest floor as it weaves itself around the host tree, which eventually dies, and what remains is a tightly woven mass of matapalo vines that has taken the form of the host tree.
“I like that in these works it goes both ways, that it’s the same material, one acting on the other and vice versa.”
Jacobs says there was a jigsaw in the basement when he was a kid, but he didn’t have any real experience with woodworking growing up. It was in between undergraduate and graduate school that he began his carpentry training. “I went on a work site and told them I was a carpenter,” he recounts. “After about four hours they realized I wasn’t. They said I could stay, though, but told me, ‘You’re going to start out as a laborer.’” He learned a lot in that time framing houses, and gained an appreciation for architecture that’s evident in his work. “A framed house that’s unsheathed is pretty interesting,” he says about the time, and you see it in the gaps in his paintings and in his sculptures.
Jacobs continues to create in wood, but in his current work the “intersection” of his materials is more subtle, and graceful. At Raw and Cooked, an exhibit at the Rio Gallery through March 11 that features fellow Weber professors Joshua Winegar and Paul Crow, Jacobs unveiled works from his Graft Series. As the title suggests, the milled lumber and natural tree limbs are woven together in the age-old method that blends two materials to make a stronger whole, creating a visual vocabulary that can be playful, elegant and foreboding. His “Dowsing Rods” float and dance across the gallery space, their splayed manufactured ends matched by natural limbs that branch into ever thinner and graceful tendrils. In “Slip,” a piece which begins (or maybe ends) on a pedestal and reaches to the floor, the milled wood forms a sloping, elegant curve that ends (or begins) in a far more aggressive, rectilinear tree limb; and in “Vigilance” a plain wood chair sails above the gallery space, attached to long stilt-like legs, that terminate in tree branches that look as if they might grow digits and scurry away.
A couple of weeks after the January opening, his studio was already filled with new works—most of them still in progress—suggesting new expressive directions, including touches of irony and dark humor. They will be part of an exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery in April and May.
He also has returned to painting. In his Eidolon series, Jacobs explores what he has described as “the imperfect nature of memory and its intersection with our desire to seek out meaningful patterns, even where none exist.” He begins with a series of photographs taken while he was on sabbatical in Spain with his wife and then 11-year-old daughter. He has enlarged and collaged the images before further disrupting them with a series of abstract marks and splotches, made with multiple layers of epoxy and acrylic, meant to suggest possible relationships to the images even when there are none. The images are luscious and inviting but constantly problematizing the desire to establish what is and what isn’t —not unlike those early formal works where it was difficult to tell where the painting ended and the wall began.
A year into retirement and Jim Jacobs seems to have found a good flow. When he misses the interaction with other professors and students, he says it’s not hard to get them to come down and visit. His daughter is now at the University of Utah (she wouldn’t go to Weber, “where everyone would have known her”) and his wife, whom he met in North Carolina and who has a BFA, is enrolled in ceramics at Weber so she can use the facilities (Jacobs himself has taken advantage of the educational benefits that come with his position to finish a bachelors in Spanish). This has been a stellar year for skiing, and you’ll find Jacobs on the slopes from time to time, but for the most part you’ll find him in the studio. He’s got plenty of ideas to keep himself busy and is creating the sort of work that makes one wish he had retired sooner.
Raw and Cooked,
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.