Last Updated:Jun 30, 2022

Interview with Kathleen Jacobs: Abstract paintings born from the collaboration with the natural environment

Kathleen Jacobs is currently holding her first solo exhibition in Japan simultaneously at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo and Cadan Yurakucho. Born and raised in the United States, she traveled to Italy and China, absorbing the art and culture of each region. We spoke with the artist, who pursues the unique expression of "lines" through the tree frottage technique. (Translation: Alena Prusakova)

Kathleen Jacobs; Photo: Tokyo Art Beat

American artist Kathleen Jacobs gained recognition in the United States and Europe for her abstract paintings and ceramics, which are created by wrapping cloth around trees and transferring the bark lines onto them. Her first solo exhibition in Asia is held simultaneously at two galleries, Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo (Omotesando, until July 16) and CADAN Yurakucho (Yurakucho, until June 5). We asked the artist, who studied traditional painting and calligraphy in China and whose creative activities are deeply rooted in this experience, about the story behind developing this unique technique and her creative process.

"Kathleen Jacobs Exhibition" at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo

Influence of Chinese and Japanese art and culture

──This is the first time I have had the opportunity to see your works. Although these minimalist abstract paintings are composed of only a few colors and lines, they have landscape-like spatiality, and some look like the blue ocean or monotone snowy landscapes. The complex textures of paint and faded colors created by placing the canvas outdoors are also fascinating and reminded me of the pottery "landscape,” which appears when the piece is fired. This is your first solo exhibition in Japan and Asia; how do you feel about it?

It is an incredible honor and a lifelong dream. I am influenced by my time in China, but also by Japan, where you can see the preservation of the beautiful aesthetic. It is still alive everywhere today and has influenced my life and work. 

I was profoundly influenced by the famous Chinese painter and my former father-in-law Huang Yongyu (born in 1924).  I also learned woodblock printing from Japanese-American artist Hiroki Morinoue (born in 1947), which inspired my technique of transferring the patterns of the wood. Many potter friends encouraged me to work with clay and porcelain. One of them is Takashi Nakazato (born in 1937), an artist from the famous Nakazato family in Karatsu, who I’ve met in Colorado, United States. He travels around the world teaching pottery and has pieces in museums all around the world. But he is also a very lovely man. He made a big beautiful bowl and said to me, “Ok, now you will paint it and finish it!”. I was horrified and didn’t know what to do [laughs]! The embrace of the unintentional changes seen in pottery has definitely influenced my paintings. Moreover, the activities of the Japanese "Gutai Art Association," which pursues original techniques without imitation, overlap with my motto and resonate with me. I’ve been inspired by both traditional Asian art and contemporary artists, and I am deeply honored to be able to present my work here.

"Kathleen Jacobs Exhibition" at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo

──The exhibition at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo features nine large paintings, while Cadan Yurakucho focuses on smaller pieces. What is the theme and composition of this exhibition?

The plans to hold a solo exhibition in Tokyo began four years ago when Fergus came to my studio and chose these paintings with me. Since then pandemic interrupted everything, and with no clear timetable for the exhibition, the works were wrapped up and put in storage. But when Fergus chose the paintings, he had a very clear idea of the exhibition and how he wanted to install it.  He felt that these paintings would resonate very well in Japan, and because of the process and the relationship to the landscape, they would be a very successful presentation in this context. 

The works exhibited here are meant to be winter and early spring landscapes. And the exhibition at Cadan features smaller paintings and ceramics, allowing visitors to enjoy the creative process from different perspectives. 

“Kathleen Jacobs by Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo" at Cadan Yurakucho; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo
“Kathleen Jacobs by Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo" at Cadan Yurakucho; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo
“Kathleen Jacobs by Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo" at Cadan Yurakucho; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo

──Since the late 1980s, you have exhibited your works in New York and other cities in the United States and abroad as well. How are your works received?

People say that they would love to live with my works because they are very quiet and have a sense of infinite space. Some say it reminds them of Ming dynasty paintings, but I believe people share my appreciation for universal aesthetic and charm, not only finding Asian elements. I am humbled that many collectors in France and Austria, and the United States understand and collect my work.

──You were born and raised in the United States in Colorado, surrounded by nature, and later studied graphic design in Milan, Italy. You also lived in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1984 to 1988. What was the experience in China like? 

My former father-in-law, Huang Yongyu, who also painted with oil, was a master of traditional Chinese painting and taught me how to paint and write calligraphy when I lived with him in Beijing. Due to the shortage of supplies, paper and ink were hard to come by in China, and buying a canvas was almost impossible. Huang, however, took what few painting materials he had and quickly painted beautiful landscapes outdoors. I was fascinated and inspired by his amazing skills.

Initially, I wanted to go to art school. But my father, who was concerned for my future livelihood, insisted I study something else, so I majored in graphic design. But in the end, after meeting Huang, I was determined to follow the artist’s path. And after I moved back to the United States, my main focus was painting. 

Being in Huang’s presence and watching him work as a master and practice calligraphy was the most inspiring thing I’ve ever experienced. He has an amazing character and is very prolific, like Picasso. He not only paints but works with all kinds of mediums, including ceramics, textiles, stone, and bronze sculptures. He also taught woodcut at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He used to say “try everything” and “there are so many different ways and tools to express things,” and encouraged me to try all kinds of materials. He is an old-fashioned artist and painter, yet his mind was always open. Because of his influence, I studied woodcuts with Hiroki Morinoue. Huang is turning 98 this year, and I am still in contact with him.

──Did you learn calligraphy as well?

Yes. I wouldn’t say I’m very good at it, but I strengthened my body core and hand by practicing and using the entire body to move the brush. I think that calligraphy is an invaluable training method for all artists. I also studied Chinese and was taught how to read and write characters through classic poems. I still practice using “Shimen Song (Stone Gate Eulogy)”’s rubbings from the stone. The calligraphy practice helps me warm up before painting. 

──Could you tell us a little more about your experiences in China? What other works of art, philosophies, or literature influenced you?

I lived with beautiful paintings, and antiques Huang had collected and traded, and every week I would go to The Palace Museum. I was influenced by the sense of space in the Ming and Qing dynasty landscape paintings. The blank spaces, the sense of no horizon, and floating above the landscape have influenced the perspective I try to convey in my paintings. I think part of it is because I’m a pilot, and I fly a lot. Therefore, I feel comfortable with that perspective. 

Philosophically, I was inspired by the teachings of Daoism and its founder Lao Tzu. As for classics, I like "Water Margin," "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," and "Dream of the Red Chamber.” "Water Margin” is about comradery, "Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is about strategy, and "Dream of the Red Chamber” is about family. Every time I read them, they take me away. Among Huang’s relatives were Chinese opera lovers, and I often went to see it and got a better understanding of traditional culture and literature. I was very lucky because many writers, painters, musicians, and significant cultural figures were in his milieu.

Kathleen Jacobs KUMBA 2020 oil on canvas 76.2×76.2cm

Working in the forest

──You use the frottage technique in your paintings, in which you rub the surface of the tree with paint. How did you come up with the idea of working with live trees?

Rubbing and woodblock printing techniques I learned about in China are the origin of my ideas. In 1988, after returning to the United States, I started working in my hometown of Colorado, initially making drawings and woodblock prints. As I continued working, I developed the idea of using the tree's surface directly rather than copying it, leading to the current technique. At the back of my mind were Huang's words emphasizing the importance of "going to the source.” I remembered how he repeatedly told me that if I wanted to learn calligraphy, instead of copies, I should look at original stone inscriptions and try to feel and understand the shape of the inscribed characters.

The first tree frottage pieces I made were small, about 10 cm square. Over time, the size of the cloth became larger, and the duration for which it was attached to the tree became longer. For example, an installation I did in a forest park in Colorado in 1988 remained attached for ten years. In Massachusetts, where I live now, the air is not as dry as in Colorado, so the material deteriorates quicker, and three years is the limit. I use linen in my work. As used for the mummies in ancient Egypt, linen is a strong fabric capable of resisting age, wind, and snow. 

Kathleen Jacobs; Photo: Tokyo Art Beat

──Can you tell us a little more about your creative process?

Initially, I go to the site and look at the trees. I rub the surface of the selected tree with a small piece of linen to see what lines and patterns it is going to give me. Then I measure the tree’s perimeter, cut the linen, and pull the canvas around the tree. It takes a lot of strength to pull the canvas evenly, and you need two people with big pieces. I have bad arthritis in my thumbs now from years of doing that. Once the linen is up, I prime it with a thin layer of gesso and let it dry. Then I apply another coat of acrylic, and after a few days, it is finally ready to be painted. 

For the frottage, I cut the linen into the long, thin strips, then put color on it and pull the strips down the tree to bring out the patterns of the bark. I leave it as it is, expose it to the weather, and add color over time. Sometimes I apply oil paint to the entire painting again, and sometimes I rub the areas I want to bring out with an oil stick. The number of coats is always different. Sometimes I layer the colors to control the result intentionally, while other times, I make thinner layers and let the natural weathering process take care of it. The longer the painting is left outdoors, the more complex changes happen. It produces beatufiul patina which is also an essential element of the work.

──What kind of trees do you use? 

I use lots of different kinds. Black cherry, walnut, oak, poplar, maple, pine…I saw ginkgo trees near the gallery, and I would like to use them someday. For the first frottage piece, I used aspen (North American poplar) trees, which are common in Colorado. At that time, I didn’t know how to make a flat and smooth piece out of a deformed canvas, so I worked with ceramic and woodblock prints for a while. In 1999, I moved back to Massachusetts and was inspired by the surrounding trees to work on frottage again. After experimenting with various methods, I finally discovered the current way of soaking canvas in water and stretching it over a wooden frame.

"Kathleen Jacobs Exhibition" at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo

──You stopped but then tried again?

At first, I thought the tree was an excellent template for prints. However, as I continued my work, I became more interested in frottage. I realized that the lines and patterns of the bark were very similar to forms found in nature. Clouds in the sky, waves in the ocean, flowing rivers…Sometimes I create works with rocks, shells, and corals, and when rubbing the surface, I see similar patterns and am reminded that "nature repeats itself.” I believe this organic resemblance can be explained scientifically, but it is a beautiful thing to witness in person. For me, trees are a template for the law of nature.

I became interested in bark patterns because I have developed a keen eye for form and line through calligraphy. The different lines that appear on the surface of the wood are beautiful and spark our emotions and imagination.

──Your paintings have a conceptual aspect that captures the sense of time passing and place. How do you respond to "interventions" by weather, insects, and small animals? 

I find it fascinating to see various changes brought by nature, and that’s why I like to check the painting all the time. Sometimes things happen, for instance, with black cherry trees, some cherries would fall on the canvas and damage it. With big pieces, mice made a nest and started eating canvas one time. When Fergus saw them, he said, “Oh, you should patch these.” So I did, and they turned out quite beautiful. The degree to which deformation is acceptable varies from piece to piece. Is this acceptable or not, ruined or not? I’m always asking myself that. 

──and you rotate the canvas when you finish it as a painting.

The rotating brings out the abstruction in lines and gives it a landscape-like look. My work is born from the collaboration between the trees, the natural environment, and myself, but it’s not about trees; they are abstract paintings. The lines and patterns are important, nothing more, nothing less.

The title of my work, written in five capital letters, is an aviation code used by airplane pilots to locate their position in the sky. They are just codes and do not have a reference as words.

The reason I like abstrut works without reference is that it gives you something to think about, imagine, and reflect on your inner selves. Robert Ryman’s work, for example, is minimal but has so many layers and richness. I hope my work inspires people to let their imagination fly freely, following the canvas’s lines, colors, and textures as a guide.

ーYou lived in the United States, Italy, China, and then the United States again, and each time you experienced a change in language and culture. What lessons have you learned as an artist? 

Don’t be afraid to try different things. We think we have the parameters, but there is always room to move the boundaries.

"Kathleen Jacobs Exhibition" at Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Courtesy of Fergus McCaffrey Tokyo; Photo: Ryuichi Maruo







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Akiko Nagata

Akiko Nagata

Art writer and journalist. Joined Mainichi Newspapers in 1988, and after working in the Osaka Social Affairs Department and as deputy editor of the Lifestyle Department, worked as a senior staff writer of the Tokyo Art and Culture Department. After retirement in 2020, became a freelance writer. Writes for magazines, digital media, and newspapers.

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