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It’s All in the Details for a Weston Folk Artist

THE latest exhibition by the folk artist Kathy Jakobsen ”Innocence of Vision” had its opening reception at the Housatonic Museum of Art on Sunday, Sept. 9. Two days later, the World Trade Center came crashing down.

Since then there has been renewed interest in Ms. Jakobsen’s book, ”My New York,” which she wrote and illustrated while living in New York for eight years.

The inside cover, front and back, portrays a folksy map of New York City, dominated by Manhattan, picturing its leading sights, including Central Park and the World Trade Center. And there are two harbor views seen from the Staten Island Ferry, one of a sunset, the other a spectacular shower of fireworks raining down on the tall ships, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline so prominently dominated by the Twin Towers.

”It’s become a positive link to the tragedy,” Ms. Jakobsen said. ”It’s become a memory.”

At the request of Little, Brown & Company, she has been working on an updated expanded sequel, a 10th-year anniversary of her book, which came out in 1993. ”But now I face a sad dilemma — how to fill in the skyline,” Ms. Jakobsen said.

It’s a problem that she will contemplate in a decidedly nonurban setting, an enchanting cedar contemporary home set in a forest of trees in Weston. She describes it as ”a garden of Eden in the middle of paradise.”

”Until we came here almost 11 years ago we moved every six months — to L.A., Minnesota, Florida,” said Ms. Jakobsen who grew up in Michigan, married and has three children. ”We were free souls and basically went wherever our spirits pulled us.

”I grew up with the smell of oil paint,” she said. ”My mom, now 85, still paints portraits and landscapes.”

The exhibition at the Housatonic is a 25-year retrospective of work by Ms. Jakobsen, who is listed in the ”Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Art and Artists” as ”one of the best landscape folk painters of the century.”

The show, on view through Nov. 9, includes a context room with four generations’ work: her first painting of a stuffed doll when she was 5, the earliest painting circa 1916 done by her grandmother, a collaboration with her mother painting her cat — she did the background, and her 14-year-old-daughter Elizabeth’s paintings of stylized cats and penguins with alphabet and number borders.

Her development as an artist had its bumps along the way. ”I attempted to go to the University of Michigan’s School of Art, but they hated me,” she said. ”It was all abstract at that time and I didn’t fit in.”

But she did find encouragement in Michigan from Dr. Robert Bishop, a curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village.

”I was hand-lettering Ben Franklin quotes,” she said. ”I met Dr. Bishop who asked, ‘Can you do big ones?’ He was asking me can I do this, can I do that? He sold some, but I think he was just encouraging me. He became my mentor, director of the Museum of American Folk Art, and author of about 20 books.”

She also credits her longtime friend Jay Johnson who founded America’s Folk Heritage Gallery on Madison Avenue, where her work was shown for 10 years. After Mr. Johnson’s death in 1989, she moved to the Frank J. Miele Gallery in New York and Gallerie Je Reviens in Westport. Today her paintings are included in the Museum of American Folk Art, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and the Henry Ford Museum.

In the current exhibition, more than 100 detailed paintings record life aglow in well-peopled city and country landscapes.

”Kathy Jakobsen’s brilliantly colored images are clearly identified with the naïve style,” said Robbin Zella, director of the Housatonic Museum of Art. ”Through the use of pattern, repeating forms and rhythmic line she illustrates the idealistic vision of contemporary American life and creates a positive feeling about each place — urban, suburban or rural. A sunny cheerfulness infects every inch of her canvases, making hopefulness contagious.”

She has painted more than 600 oil paintings, many of them special commissions including ”Easter at the White House” and ”The National Christmas Tree Pageant of Peace.”

Since 1990, with her children as inspiration, she has completed oil paintings for four children’s books: ”Johnny Appleseed” with text by Reeve Lindbergh, ”My New York,” which she wrote and illustrated capturing a child’s-eye view of the city’s magic, both award-winning titles published by Little Brown & Company, ”Meet Me in the Magic Kingdom,” Disney Press, which she wrote using 50 illustrations originally created as oil paintings, many glittering with lights, and ”This Land is Your Land,” which she illustrated working closely with Woody Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. (On Sept. 29, Ms. Guthrie and Ms. Jakobsen did a fund-raiser together for trade center victims).

The Housatonic show includes the books and original paintings such as the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — at 50 inches long by 40 inches high, ”really big,” she said — Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building, even taller at 66 inches.

”I put all my friends and family in the paintings,” she said. ”I don’t think about it. It just happens.”

She puts a positive spin on everything. ”I paint life the way it should be — the way I would like it to be with a fairy tale ending.”

”Innocence of Vision,” through Nov. 9 at the Housatonic Museum of Art. The museum, at Housatonic Community College, 900 Lafayette Boulevard in Bridgeport, is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Thursday to 7 p.m., Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. There is no admission charge. Information: (203) 332-5052.

Photos: Kathy Jakobsen, left, of Weston has been called ”one of the best landscape folk painters of the century.” Above, ”Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” and below, ”Metropolitan Museum of Art.” (Joseph Kugielsky for The New York Times)

Kathy Jakobsen: An Artist of the People

By Dr. Ruth MacDonald

Any reader of Kathy Jakobsen’s books can see that the pictures are the most important part of her work; the words and stories are second, except when she is the illustrator of someone else’s words, as she is in the Johnny Appleseed andThis Land is Your Land volumes. She joins a distinguished crowd of successful children’s picture-book writers in starting with the illustrations: Maurice Sendak’s early career as a window dresser and illustrator of other people’s books is well documented. Chris van Allsburg [Jumanji and Polar Express] and David Macauley [Cathedral; Subway; Unbuilding] are both award-winning author-illustrators who began their careers with the illustrations, and were artists before they were authors.

What sets Jakobsen apart from these ‘grandfathers’ in children’s literature is the issue of training. Sendak is self-taught in the history of illustration, with little formal education in art, but with much study and grounding in other illustrators and artists. Macauley and van Allsburg are both professors at the Rhode Island School of Design, both having thoroughly immersed themselves in the technique and history of art; for both of them, writing and illustrating children’s books was a sideline that gradually became a major part of their professional lives.

For Jakobsen, the path to the art has been natural and tutored only by occasional study. Her style is called folk because that has been a major influence on her work—the ways of the American people, not the professional artist. If she has taken on similarities with other artists and writers of children’s books, the influence has been not because of studied flattery but rather because of natural affinity. When I first saw her books, starting with My New York, I was reminded of Dr. Seuss’s To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street[1937], as the book progresses each page becomes fuller and grander and noisier whereby at the conclusion of the story, the narrator’s imagination has filled a two-page spread with every character in a parade. In this same way, Jakobsen’s New York City is filled with people, buildings, and stars in the sky.

Listening to Jakobsen describe her illustrations, you realize that the work is highly personal, her family friends and acquaintances are included as are the legendary. For example, in View from the Pierre Hotel, 5th Avenue featured on the cover of My New York, celebrities such as Dr. Ruth Westheimer and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch make cameo appearances as do her own three children and strawberry blonde cat, Speedy. The people she knows and loves are always present in the pictures, illustrating the text. These are very personal books, drawn from personal experience and they depict only the kinder, gentler, sweeter side of life. References to the techniques of the greatest great masters such as Vermeer or DaVinci are not relevant.

This level of small detail, of people doing something that a child might recognize, is a technique also used in the Richard Scarry books for very young readers, such as his Busy World series. The comparison to theWhere’s Waldo books has already been made by Frank Rich in a New York Times review. Everyone who knows about the presence of Jakobsen’s family and cat will be on the lookout for them on every page. No ‘reading’ of her individual illustration will be complete without siting these personal details.

And it is this level of detail, of people, buildings, and landscape, that gives Jakobsen’s books a sense of stillness and peace in the midst of extreme activity. The hard outlines of all her drawings nail the figure to the page and freeze it for close inspection. The page may be filled with all the bustling in the world—there’s a reason that New York is called the City that Never Sleeps—but the overall effect of Jakobsen’s rendering is peacefulness, calmness, of each person and figure doing what it needs to without being disruptive. Even the noisiness of a Disney World is calmed by the detail and arrangement of all the figures. Each element of every building recalls Macauley’s books about architecture, especially Cathedral and Skyscraper. But Jakobsen draws the buildings not so much for their architecture as for the enormity of their mass and for remembrance of them, especially in her illustrations of buildings of earlier times.

What Jakobsen has done in her large page is to borrow a technique of small book illustrators, like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books. While each Jakobsen illustration is a whole, each part functions like a separate small page, drawing the reader in to observe it closely and carefully, as if each part were a small study in nature. This is a tactic that slows the reader down and draws the reader into the page, again reinforcing that peacefulness in the midst of bustle. The framing of the page with the tramp art borders of quilts, in Johnny Appleseed and This Land Is Your Land, further still the page and make the eye examine it in reflective tranquility.

Like Dr. Seuss, who was also not trained as an artist, Jakobsen has remarkable human forms, remarkable because of their lack of likeness to real people or other creatures seen in life. Imagine the Cat in the Hat with real joints, elbows and knees that have to work as they would in real life; this same untrained approach to drawing applies to Jakobsen, whose people walk and fill up the page, but who don’t seem to bend normally. Neither artist could do a real nude, though such illustrations are rarely called for in children’s books.

Unlike Dr. Seuss, Jakobsen can draw buildings and landscapes with remarkable precision and detail. In fact, it is these landscapes and cityscapes—and even seascapes– that are the most memorable features of her works for children. Mostly folk artists take on rural scenes, and Jakobsen is adept at that. In fact, her use of the page that is much wider than tall in Johnny Appleseed, and the rolling landscape of the upper midwest recall Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats. Gag pioneered this short, wide page in her own folktale, about the rolling hills of Minnesota; the same shape of hill is evident in Jakobsen’s Ohio hills in Johnny Appleseed, as well as in van Allsburg’s The Stranger, who is Jack Frost.

Where Jakobsen really challenges children’s illustration is in her book Meet Me In The Magic Kingdom. Of all the scenes in a child’ s life that have already been illustrated, photographed, and popularized, the view of the castle in the midst of Fantasy Land is surely one of the most widely known. It has been handled by Disney illustrators, animators, and imagineers for half a century that it has become an icon.

And yet Jakobsen takes it on, and makes it her own. The daily parade through Disney World becomes a tapestry not so much of Disney’s commercial tie-ins and incredible floats, but of American life and a combination of small town parade with kid fantasy. This is the small town Fourth of July parade of the nineteenth century detailed with elegance and dignity, rather than garish commerciality. Even Tomorrowland, that monument to the future and American inventiveness, has a quaint feeling to it because of the hard edges and unusual proportions. The illustrations look more like the Jettsons’ world, with 1950s quaintness, than the futuristic, well-groomed landscape that a real visitor sees. Jakobsen triumphs in capturing the fireworks display so frequent at Disney World. The display is captured with the static intricacy of needlework, rather than with pyrotechnic movement. Again, the result is pure Americana. Even the palette, emphasizing red, white, and blue, rather than Disney’s hot fantasy colors, underscores this message.

The sunny optimism of Jakobsen’s works for children contrasts directly with much of children’s literature in the late twentieth century. The realism of that genre of children’s literature that one wag called “my sister, the promiscuous drug-dealing anorexic” is nowhere present in Jakobsen. American accomplishment, the clean, crime-free world of a Disney World is as evident in that locale as in the streets of New York, at least according to Jakobsen’s rendition of them. This kind of cheery optimism has not been popular at the turn of this millennium, though it was much more in evidence at the turn of the 20th century, and in the children’s books of the 1950s.

World problems simply do not intrude themselves into her books, except at the end of This Land Is Your Land, where Woody Guthrie’s vision of a new world where there is enough for everyone, and no one is left behind is portrayed through community-based organizations to help the drug addict and the street person. While this kind of historicity is unusual in a Jakobsen book, it is absolutely true to Guthrie’s criticism of the culture of the 1930s. Being accurate in these details is part of the Jakobsen technique, and she could hardly have ignored Guthrie’s social criticism. In fact, the last few pages of this book are devoted to Guthrie’s biography, along with photographs to support the story. In this remarkable book, Jakobsen makes a transition from personal illustration to historian, committed to transmitting through her work the vision of another artist.

The labels of naive and primitive get attached to folk artists in a negative way. I’d prefer to think of Jakobsen as an artist of the people, from the people, for the people.

Dr. Ruth MacDonald
Academic Dean
July 6, 2001

Innocence of Vision

by Robbin Zella, HMA Director

Interest in American folk art emerged in the 1920s and, by the 1950s, culminated in the founding of museums devoted exclusively to collecting folk art. Three ground breaking exhibitions were mounted in succession by leading folk art scholar Holger Cahill: American Primitive, 1930-1931 and American Folk Sculpture, 1931-32 held at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, and American Folk Art: Art of the Common Man in America 1750-1900 held in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These shows were the first comprehensive exhibitions devoted entirely to painting, sculpture, crafts and the decorative arts, awakening a new appreciation for American hand-crafts and art created by untrained artists.

With the advancement of the industrial age and the production of mass-produced objects, nostalgia for simpler times emerged as did a passion for collecting folk art. Artists, like Charles Sheeler and William Zorach, admired American folk art for its simplicity and bold design which, in turn, underscored their own modernist aesthetic values captured neatly by the phrase “less is more.”

Today, contemporary folk art, that is, work produced after 1900, splinters into a variation of styles including Art Brut, Art Singulier, Visionary art, Intuitive Art, Outsider Art, and Naïve Art. All except Naïve Art are styles that refer to a wider practice of a much more personal or eccentric kind of art. What distinguishes the Naïve artist from the other practices mentioned above is that the Naïve artist is consciously trying to reach or create an audience for the work whereas the other artists generally eschew exhibiting work publicly. Naïve art is also characterized by the depiction of highly detailed and realistic scenes of animals, people, places and events.

Clearly identified with the Naïve style, Kathy Jakobsen’s paintings are abuzz with activity. Vibrant and brilliantly colored, her images radiate with the hustle and bustle of contemporary urban and suburban American life. In My New York, Jakobsen perfectly captures the frenzied motion and ceaseless activity that is Manhattan. She leads us on tour of all her favorite places: The Empire State Building, the famed toy storeFAO SchwarzChinatown, the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller CenterThe Plaza Hotel and Central Park and several of the city’s greatest museums. There’s plenty to do and see. And just as you begin to believe you’ve seen it all, out the window of the Market Diner you catch sight of elephants marching down 8th Avenue! Jakobsen shows us that anything is possible in New York.

Meet Me In The Magic Kingdom is Jakobsen’s homage to an altogether different kind of mega-entertainment center. The fireworks, costumes, parades, rides and attractions are all here. Again, she successfully conveys the wonder and excitement that every child (and adult) feels upon entering the Magic Kingdom. It is that sense of amazement that is at the very heart of the Disney experience and Jakobsen is a master at translating that message through paint.

Through the use of pattern, repeating forms, and rhythmic line she illustrates an idealistic vision of contemporary American life and creates a wonderful positive feeling about each place– urban, suburban or rural. A sunny cheerfulness infects every inch of her canvases making her hopefulness contagious. In fact, Kathy Jakobsen’s greatest gift just may be her marvelous optimism, her amazing ability to see the world with a humble heart and an innocence of vision.

Robbin Zella
July 11, 2001