Brenda Jacobsen is a painter and teacher from Connecticut. A fastidious worker, Brenda would forgo sleep for completing her work. Frequently rising with the sun and continuing long after it would set, she, in the three weeks that she was here, produced enough art for a year. You can find out more information about her and her work at http://brendajacobsen.com/artist.html.
How many works did you anticipate you would make at Byrdcliffe and how many did you produce?
I had hoped to create a lot of new art, but I didn’t have a number in mind. This was my first artist-in-residence experience and I tried to be open to the process of creating art over the past few weeks. The process of art is not a linear experience—more higgledy-piggledy! Generally I did about one painting a day. To me it’s not the number of paintings; it’s the quality of the work. My motivation was to express myself through acrylic paint, which was new to me. And to use the elements of art such as color, value, shape and rhythm, in my work. Exploring various textures was of interest to me—pumice, sand, marble dust.
Usually, art with me is an exploration. It’s usually a mystery. It’s like walking through the woods, trying to find my way out to the light. Some pieces come together rather quickly, others take time, some I abandon or cover over.
Do the paintings have distinct forms?
The first series of paintings I did were based on a small painting that I had done at home that was playing around with the idea of the “rolling landscape.”
They’re almost like lines of music. If you’re traveling fast in a car, you only see the blur of the landscape going by. I usually set myself up with a limited palette. I usually start with 3 or 4 colors. And then I choose one color, for the wash or the sea or the sky, to cover the canvas. My main thing is that I try to keep these colored shapes moving.
This one I was actually thinking Caribbean colors, like the tropics. And I use coarse pumice mixed in with the paint, so if you feel it, it feels like sand. So I was thinking of tropical birds and the Caribbean colors. I visited the Bahamas recently.
What I like about these paintings is that there are smaller abstract paintings within the larger painting. I ended up doing about 6 or 8 of these abstract landscapes.
I don’t want them to be static. When is art finished? I stand back and look at it and say, Are the shapes moving? Because I want the viewer’s eyes to move around the painting. So that’s the challenge I set up for myself. They have to be asymmetrical. It’s a challenge with art. In a sense the image is static now, it’s dry. But I like to think that the images have life for the viewer—they’re coming and going.
Good art is difficult to copy. Just like meaningful writing. Or even colors. If you can match my colors so easily, then I want it to be like, “Oh what color is that?” It’s yellow but what yellow is that? Or what shape?
It’s great when these paintings speak to someone. Yesterday at the Open Studio a man came in and he said that he’s been reading this WWII book. And he was really moved by my painting because he said he saw an armada of ships within the sea of blue. He said, “The greens aren’t doing it for me. But the blues!” The painting really spoke to him.
And then there was another woman who said that my painting reminded her of land jutting out on the sea out in Maine. And it’s interesting because I grew up in Nova Scotia.
There’s so much beauty in nature where the land meets the ocean, and when you have jagged cliffs and rocky shores. And I think that’s what I think about when I’m applying these base colors. I actually don’t use a paintbrush. These are all put on by a palette knife. So I’m carving out the land. If I’m thinking about the soft earth, then I’m being more gentle, but I’m still using a knife.
How has place influenced your work?
I’ve been absorbed with the trees. I was definitely inspired by nature and the setting here, and I wanted to express myself through nature outside the door as well. The birch trees caught my imagination. The way they are grouped and growing as if they are clusters of people conversing—trees and figures. So the series of tree paintings I created were inspired by the shapes and forms and colors of the trees and the surrounding natural environment.
I understand that you decided to become a painter when you were 28. Can you tell us how you came to painting at that age?
I probably had elementary school art, but that was it. Though I always doodled. And I used to make these books for my friends. I liked coloring and collaging as a child. But I didn’t have the opportunity to go to art school. I ended up studying music. So I studied piano for many years and was a piano and singing major in college.
I always loved art and writing and music, but music seemed to take. It was sort of my ticket into college. So I studied music and was a music teacher, but in my 20s I felt like a round peg in a square hole. I was teaching music in my 20s in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I became friends with the art teacher. I felt like the art was inside of me more naturally than the music.
So this teacher encouraged me to get some art books and to take an art class, so I signed up for a summer class at a nature center—drawing plants. Then I attended Silvermine School of Art for a few years and I did drawing and painting. I didn’t do it for credit; I was a part-time student. I still remember taking the same first painting class and there were 25 people in the class, and we had to put up our work on the wall, and I was so nervous. But the teacher was really encouraging.
When my three daughters were young I was focused on motherhood and that is an art in and of itself and I taught elementary school. So for a number of years my creative energy went towards my job and family. The last five years I have devoted my time and energy towards my painting and drawing, participating in juried shows and selling my artwork. My children and husband are really encouraging.
And the music definitely was a good background because there is a correlation between art and music—rhythm, invention, dissonance, color, triads etc. And I listen to a wide range of music on my iPod nano as I paint. The music definitely affects my work, motivates and influences my art. And now the music plays a role in my art—but more indirectly. And the joy of art and music are in much better balance in my life and work now. I love painting and playing with color.