A Natural State of Mind

Artist, Jonah Jacobs is part of an exhibit entitled “Bottled Water”, which was held at Waterloo Arts Gallery this fall. Bottled Water is an experimental installation, which explores the human relationship to the natural world. “Artists draw inspiration from: the bottle- representing something man-made that is encapsulating, controlling and which commercializes an element; as well as water- representing the life giving quality or the eroding and violently destructive quality of water as an element of nature beyond human control; also, man's manipulation of material, both natural material into art and mundane manufacture materials back to a seemingly organic state.” I had the opportunity to stop by Waterloo Arts and talk to Johah about his work, how he got started in his career as an artist, and the processes that he uses.

How did you get started in your art career?

For me it was a slow process. I was doing a lot of writing for a few years, and I found editing to be extremely rigorous and a bit painful. I hated writing a sentence I loved only to have to discard it because it didn't fit the overall feel of a paragraph. So, in order to move on I began to cut and paste these sentences into a mishmash of what I called "ramblings". Instead of discarding these "ramblings" I began to use them in collage type pieces which I would stain, dye, and distress. Making a mess was cathartic and a nice break from the tediousness of writing. After a while I began to make new discoveries with my art and after eight long years of experiments I finally got to a place where I was comfortable with my creations. 

What drew you to wanting to be an artist?

I can’t say there was ever a point or a realization of me wanting to be an artist. If anyone had asked me ten years ago if I would ever be creating artwork I probably would have laughed at them. I have however, always been a creative person who has searched for meaning. I would have to say that my whole life has been a search for understanding, a search for truth, a search for the right questions. This search has lead me down a strange path at times, from being part of the 82nd Airborne Division while in the military, to getting a degree in philosophy, to working on a psyche ward, to writing, and now art. Out of all these different paths though, I finally feel at home with art. I can’t say the search has stopped, but at least now I have a safe harbor that allows me to explore, free from the more turbulent waves of the past.

Tell me a little about your processes, what materials you use, and how that translates into a finished piece.

The materials and the processes change depending on the type of artwork I am creating. Since this in itself would be a lengthy explication I will keep it short by talking about the basics. The materials I use tend to be cardboard, cardboard tubes, paint, dye, salt, oatmeal, sand, plaster, egg cartons, various yarns and fibers, cotton swabs, and a whole host of other materials in lesser degrees of use. My work is very textural and organic looking so some materials are used to maximize texture while at the same time also used to soak up dye. When I first started doing art I didn’t have much money so I experimented a lot with up-cycled materials and household items. Sometimes I find the limitations of the materials I use a fun challenge. Having limitations forces the imagination to delve deep into the possibilities of materials because it forces you to maximize what each material can be used for. There have been moments where I sat for a prolonged period of time staring at a tube pondering the many ways I may be able to use it in future works of art. I am also, a firm believer in experimentation, accidents, and failure as a driver for innovation. With a little imagination it’s amazing what you can do with oatmeal, dye, and some cardboard. I also like to let nature play a role in the process of creation. The most explicit example of this is when I sculpt with fire. It’s hard to get truly organic looking structures at times because the human brain skews towards order. The chaotic nature of fire, as it consumes my cardboard structures, is the perfect way to introduce an element of surprise and fluidity into the process. People also comment a lot on the vibrancy of the colors I use in my work. This is largely due to me using dye instead of paint. Dyes tend to have a more natural luminosity to them while paint tends to look more plastic and fake.

How would you describe your 3D sculptures to somebody seeing them for the first time?

I hope when people see my sculptural work they are inspired to explore the mysterious world of organic forms and shapes. The manmade world for far too long has created forms that are static looking, boxy, sharp edged, and without any natural flow. This is changing however, as bio-mimicry becomes more mainstream. I see a future in which habitats and art is grown. Like spores attaching to a tree trunk and spawning colonies or coral polyps budding into new corals, I like to think of my sculptural pieces as growing. Some of my recent work grows in rings like a tree except instead of growing outward in concentric rings they tend to grow upward.

4.) Where does your inspiration come from?

The main thrust of what inspires me is nature. I am obsessed with structure. Many artists have painted trees, plants, and bushes in various landscapes and even though such depictions may be beautiful and rendered realistically, the impression given in a painting is just that, an impression. It’s like seeing nature through a blurred lens that renders beauty but obscures how things are put together. Seeing a tree painted does little to convey the sinewy curves of its flowing form. A square inch of bark, with its crags and subtle coloration can be a masterpiece unto itself. Every inch a new masterpiece – this is too much to ask of a painting. No artist or art form can capture the sublime beauty inherent in nature. We artists dabble for sure and create a type of beauty which is precious in its own right, but only nature can terrify us while tickling the soul. There is so much to be inspired by though – I am at many moments overwhelmed by the shear enormity of beautiful forms. I love the way in nature simple shapes like cones, tubes, or spheres when repeated create complex structures. A tree in many ways is a series of tubes which branch out in many directions. Our own bodies consist of many simple shapes repeated over and over and in doing so create a complex web of life sustaining systems. Our circulatory system is a good example – it’s really nothing more than tubes of various sizes fanning out like a web throughout our bodies. A leaf has a similar structure, as do roots. There are so many structures which are endlessly amazing: the tops of acorns, pine cones, seed pods, fungus, bark, the curve of a branch, the outline of a leaf, termite structures, and beehives -- the list goes on and on. These things all inspire me and though I know I will never be able to truly capture the subtle yet complex nature of these structures, I hope at the very least I will be able to capture the essence of their forms, distilling token libations which toast the savage yet soothing beauty of nature.

Where do you see the Waterloo Arts District in 5 years. Do you think it's headed in the right direction?

It’s hard to say where the Waterloo Arts District will be in 5 years. There will probably be a few more restaurants and businesses. It has to become a destination which people will want to go to on more than just a first Friday though. I have done a lot of artwork in this community over the past few years and some days it feels like a ghost town. And though I am guilty of this myself, I hope it becomes more than just a place where people motor in for an evening on a weekend and forget about for the remainder of the week. There’s a community that grew up here and lives here 24/7, hopefully the entire community will become more engaged in the overall dynamics of the Waterloo Arts District. And yes I do think it’s headed in the right direction. I just hope it doesn’t lead to more gentrification in the long run.

Waterloo Arts is located at 15605 Waterloo Road in the Waterloo Arts District. Call 216-692-9500, or visit www.waterlooarts.org

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Volume 7, Issue 12, Posted 5:18 PM, 12.06.2015