Feature Mondays - Janel Jacobson in Profile archive

Monday 12 May 2014

Janel Jacobson takes inspiration from nature, pointing out the little things around us that we may not see, or take for granted. Briony Darnley finds out more


In 1972 Janel graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa with a BA Degree in Art. By then, she had been a student of pottery-making for two years and had been a student assistant in the ceramics department for one and a half years. Janel was committed to forging ahead in the world as a potter. The first summer after her graduation, she studied with Bauhaus Master Potter, Marguerite Wildenhain at Pond Farm in Guerneville, California, focusing on throwing, hand building and drawing. She attended classes at Pond Farm three times during the summers of 1972, 1974 and 1977. "The rest of what I know and have done, and am doing now, has been an ongoing journey of self-education, learning from each subsequent piece," Janel tells us.

In the beginning, Janel drew on pots with a paring knife, but those line-drawings were simply not enough for her: "I needed more from the lines and shapes, beyond filling in areas with colour or texture." What followed and continues to this day, is the exploration of form that grows out of simple lines with shading: from drawing to three-dimensional expression which the sketches engender.

Janel began carving wood on a small scale after a period of exploration that grew from shallow relief carving on porcelain, lidded boxes to small porcelain sculptures, which were of similarly sized subjects and that were three-dimensional. The problems and restrictions of porcelain carving in 3D drove Janel to begin carving wood.

The change to wood was a natural step that only needed new tools - from bamboo porcelain carving tools to steel tools. Janel feels that the wood taught her how to carve it, by listening to the tool's interaction with the wood and by how it felt as she carved.

Janel feels that wood as a material for carving offers more to the development of each piece than when she used clay: "Wood has warmth and depth; the ability to retain fine detail; it also can offer its own textures and grain patterns to design around. It is wonderful to hold." Other materials that Janel feels lend themselves to being carved, as individual pieces or as inlay, are: tusk, antler, bone and amber, although there are many materials that could be added to this list. They have also been part of her non--clay carving experience. "Whenever I return to the bench and the tools begin to cut the wood, I enjoy the sensation of holding the wood and the feeling of the sharp tools doing their work as I guide them, watching as thoughts are being realised."

From the beginning

Some of Janel's childhood memories include picking up June bugs and other insects to examine them more closely; she had a long-held fascination with tadpoles, frogs, toads and other small creatures, all part of a habit born of curiosity that persists even now.

A guiding concept for Janel has been to 'see' what she is looking at, to learn a form and its characteristics and then interpret the subject in the drawing or carving. From her earliest years of being a potter, drawing outdoors has been a source of inspiration. Some of these subjects were drawn onto pots and tiles with a paring knife as simple line drawings. Some were enhanced with coloured slips and glazes, and others were carved with her early exploration of shallow-relief carving.

Throughout her creative journey as a carver, Janel's goal has been to learn and to grow with each piece, a commitment that started in her earliest years as a student potter. Such a goal and the overall continuum of the pursuit of carving exploration has been present with each major change, from making pots to carving clay, to finer carving of porcelain and through the decades of carving wood.

There are significant pieces in Janel's work that illustrate the progression of carving throughout her career. Nearly every piece she carves is a favourite, though some endure as more significant to Janel for various reasons.

Janel has been nominated and won many awards, such as: the Enduring Vision Award - Bush Foundation 2008-2012; a five-year fellowship - with a substantial monetary award given to older artists who have worked 25 years or more as artists; a nomination for United States Artists Fellowship 2008; The Minnesota State Arts board artist initiative grant 2004; Individual Artist grant: East Central Arts council 2000 and The Minnesota State Arts board fellowship grant 1998; Individual Artist grant: East Central Arts council 1995; The Minnesota State Arts board fellowship grant 1991. For both her wood and porcelain work, Janel has received numerous awards from competitive shows and exhibitions.

Formative experiences

Janel attended drawing classes at Pond Farm with Marguerite Wildenhain. Every Wednesday afternoon the group would meet around a big, outdoor table for drawing. The exercises covered in the class have been important to Janel's later work as a carver. Marguerite put before the class a variety of items, each with its own challenges: pairs of objects such as a potato and a potato-shaped stone; a peach and a plum; a tangle of wire and another of binding cord. Some were individual items such as seashells; or wine bottles of different shapes to be drawn singly, to practise drawing with symmetry, or grouped in a line to capture one side of each bottle in silhouette in a row on the paper. The challenge was to 'see' what is characteristic of the object and to be able to express that in the drawing of it, and eventually for Janel, in the carving of it. One exercise from those classes, the drawing of an ageing and ailing chestnut (Castanea sativa) tree, is an often-used concept. Janel explores the contrast of vitality and decay in her sculptures. Leaves, whether fresh and smooth, showing insect damage or dried and curled; and bark, whether intact or having fallen off in places to expose the wood beneath, all convey a sense of the endurance through decades, or centuries, and the survival of the tree.

Working ethos

When approaching the subject of her work ethos, Janel tells us: "I pay great attention to detail. The work is done slowly, with intention rather than with the speed and inaccuracy of power tools," she says. "Each shape in a composition, to the smallest detail, is deliberately formed and judged against its neighbours for its contribution to light and shadow, textural balance or contrast, directionality and weight. A few among many considerations."

The most complex pieces might take as long as two months or more to carve, as the subjects and details emerge from the chosen wood. Its evolution from original wood to sculpture cannot be hurried or rushed. Janel tells us: "I sometimes think of the complexity of intertwined musical notes that create a mood or a feeling being analogous to the interconnected, visual components of the complex and detailed small sculptures." Part of becoming familiar with her small sculptures is handling them. She believes that to feel the shape and texture, while sensing the weight and warmth of the wood is, in a way, seeing the piece with one's fingers.

Janel has watched as people have discovered a quiet place within themselves while holding a carving: "If my work directs attention towards the hidden treasures under a leaf, or helps one to discover what is disguised in full sight, I am happy. To bring calm and quiet into an individual’s busy day brings me contentment." Janel prefers to create small sculptures from the more dense and fine-grained hardwoods.


In Janel's first years of carving porcelain, it was the early Chinese and Korean work in museums that fed her imagination with the beauty of celadon enhanced carved porcelain. Her own carving style and subjects grew from her drawings and sketches of branches and leaves, flowers and buds, insects, frogs and toads. Many of those sketches became shallow relief carvings in porcelain, enhanced with celadon and pale blue glazes. "I did not become a copyist of earlier porcelains: my ambitions then were to use my own designs in the beautiful porcelain and glazes of older pieces," Janel tells us.

Before carving became a significant exploration for Janel, she saw netsuke for the first time at an exhibition of the marvellous small sculptures at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Ten years later their concept became relevant to Janel's explorations when carving in porcelain, and then later in wood. Her work now focuses on small sculptural wood pieces, with a netsuke carved occasionally.

Since Janel began attending the International Netsuke Conventions in the early 1990s, observations and comments from Komada Ryushi - a prominent Japanese netsuke carver and teacher - have been shared with her. His daughter and Janel's friend, Komada Makiko, serves as translator for him. The drawing classes with Marguerite Wildenhain have been significant to Janel's work.

Approach to carving

Carving for Janel is a focused, intense, meditative and timeless activity. It is a conversation without words and structure between her mind, her hands, the tools and wood. Even away from the bench at any time of day or night, Janel tells us that her mind continues to reflect on what is happening with the piece on the bench.

Janel uses hand tools for the majority of her carving, from the diameter of a sewing needle to less than 10mm. They permit sensitivity to the direction of the grain of the wood. The slow speed of hand tools allows her mind to focus on the actions of the moment, as well as to think ahead to what needs to be done next and with which tools.

There are so many intersecting shapes that must be considered for depth or height, whether sharply defined, concave or convex areas, or the undercut whether slightly or a great deal, when to perform the eventual final detail such as edges of leaves, or how shadows play when light comes from various angles on the trunk of the 'tree' before the bark detail is executed. There is an almost infinite list of other relationships and steps that need to be considered, in a sequence from the first drawing of the forms on the wood and roughing out, to the coming alive moment when eyes are inlaid, to the final removal of excess oil with cotton swabs or tissue on pointed skewers when the finish treatment is completed.

The future

Janel is currently working on a 'big' piece of boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) that is 160mm in height. It is a commissioned, comparable piece to the one that she has just completed. "I am imagining working on even larger pieces of boxwood, and I am wondering if it might mean creating or purchasing larger carving tools and learning how to fix a carving to a support and using a mallet," Janel tells us. She plans on doing larger pieces, but also wants to go back to netsuke. In recent years Janel has made a few 'wearable wood' brooches and pendants, so her future work may include exploration in that direction as well.

Woodworkers Institute

Tagged In:

Feature Mondays , Janel Jacobson

"Error reading XSLT file: cwsTerminology.xsltcwsTerminology.xslt


Email: janel@janeljacobson.com